As a step in the transition to democracy in Egypt, a panel was formed to draft a new constitution prior to the presidential elections (scheduled to be held in May). This constitution is set to determine major issues such as the role of religion, the balance between the President and the parliament’s authority and minority and women’s rights.
It was always expected that heated debates would emerge around the content of the constitution. However, according to recent developments, the first political crisis regarding the constitution revolves around the make up of the panel itself, and that debate makes it clear that for all their assertions about having reformed and their expressed desire to govern Egypt in a democratic and pluralistic manner, it appears that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is determined to use their political clout to Islamise Egypt.
The panel entrusted to draft the new constitution is to include a total of 100 members – 50 lawmakers and 50 prominent Egyptian figures – supposedly representing all sectors of society.
A major crisis has now erupted in Egypt over what is being decribed by opponents as an Islamist attempt to hijack the proceedings. Secular and liberal groups are claiming the Muslim Brotherhood’s ‘Freedom and Justice party’ is trying to fill the panel with its supporters in order to embed Islamic ideology in the new constitution.
The Muslim Brotherhood is reportedly expected to take 25 of the seats allocated to lawmakers, and the more extreme al-Nour Salafists are expected to take 11 seats, leaving only 14 seats to all other parties – thus leaving them with little power or influence over the content of the constitution. Furthermore, it was revealed that the Muslin Brotherhood also influenced the appointment of non-parliamentary members of the panel, meaning it will include an Islamist majority as well
The drama started on Saturday, when members of the liberal-left Egyptian bloc (which holds 9% of the seats in the Parliament) stormed out of the meeting in which the composition of the body was discussed, in protest against the Islamist take-over. They also plan on taking the matter to court, to appeal the way in which the body members were selected. If the court decides that the composition of the committee is not in accordance with the constitution and does not represents all sectors of the Egyptian society, additional elections to the panel will take place, further postponing the drafting of the constitution, and possibly delaying it till after the presidential election.
Liberals and leftists have also decided to boycott the panel. Mohammed Abou el Ghar, head of the Social Democratic Party said “We are going to boycott this committee, and we are going to withdraw and let them make an Islamic constitution. We are going to continue struggling for a secular Egypt in the streets… We agreed that this will be a balanced committee and it will represent all views of Egypt. But as you can see, there is no representation of secular Egypt.”
According to Ghar, women and the Christian-Coptic minority are hardly represented in the committee. Along with the Social Democratic Party, the Free Egyptians and the “Revolution Continues” youth party also withdrew from the panel and the constitution writing process on Sunday.
The Revolutionary Youth Union issued a statement accusing the Freedom and Justice Party of putting its interests “before those of the country… following the same methods of the dissolute National Democratic Party [Mubarak’s Party] in controlling all positions and all political matters in the country alone, purposefully eliminating everyone outside the Brotherhood.”
The Freedom and Justice Party responded to the accusations, stating that the panel “included all factions, directions and institutions,” adding that “The constituent assembly was not taken over by the Freedom and Justice Party as some have said.”
Yet the saga continues – Gen. Mohammed Tantawi, the head of the ruling military council, called a meeting on Tuesday with leaders of the political parties in an attempt to reach a compromise regarding appointments to the panel. However, the sides could not reach agreement.
In a follow-up meeting on March 29, 14 political parties including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party issued a conciliatory statement, leading some news outlets to declare the issue resolved. However, five parties, including the secularist Egyptian Freedom Party, objected – a sign that assumptions that the matter had bee satisfactorily resolved are premature.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to gain power in Egyptian politics are not limited to attempt to dominate the constitution panel, and the movement is now also considering putting forth a presidential candidate, according to the movement’s Secretary General Muhammad Hussain, something they previously had said they would not do. A potential reason for the Muslim Brotherhood’s change of heart is the rising popularity of Abd Al-Mun’im Abu al-Futuh, one of the presidential candidates and a former member of the movement. Al-Futuh left the Muslim Brotherhood (or, according to some versions, was expelled) after announcing his candidacy. It is believed that the Muslim Brotherhood may decide to put forth their own candidate for the race in order to undermine al-Futuh’s support.
The ongoing political power struggle between the Military Council and the Muslim Brotherhood may also push the Muslim Brotherhood to field a presidential candidate. Tensions between the two have increased over the Brotherhood’s demand that a new government elected by the parliament be installed immediately, as opposed to after the Presidential elections, as the military prefers. The Muslim Brotherhood also suggested that the Military Council is trying to persuade candidates to distance themselves from the Muslim Brotherhood.
The power struggle between the military and the Muslim brotherhood was also expressed in statements by some of the movement’s leaders criticising the military’s economic holdings and calling for parliamentary control and regulation over the various military industries. Control over the military industries is seen by many commentators and analysts as one of the military’s ‘red-lines’.
The stakes are high. A Muslim Brotherhood victory in the presidential elections would mean control of the Islamist movement over all of Egypt’s political institutions, as it is already the largest party in the parliament after winning almost 50% of the votes in the recent January elections.
The political clashes over the constitution are likely to determine the fate of the Egyptian revolution and the sort of regime which will be its outcome. However, the most likely scenario is probably a prolonged power struggle between Egypt’s newly elected representatives and the military.
It is too early to tell what will come out of this power struggle, but is seems that the Muslim Brotherhood has been able to leverage its influence using the parliament to push aside the secular liberals, and liberal democracy looks unlikely to be the outcome. As Shadi Hamid from the Brookings Institute noted, “There’s been a major shift in Egyptian politics. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is entering its lame-duck stage. At this point, no one can stop the Brotherhood.”