Egypt’s top general calls for constitution before shift to civilian rule


Egyptians walk past graffiti in Tahrir Square in Cairo depicting half the face of ousted president Hosni Mubarak,right, joined to half the face of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, left, the current head of Egypt's ruling military council. The Arabic writing underneath reads “Revolution continues.” (Mohammed Hossam/AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt’s top general urged Islamist and liberal political parties on Sunday to end a constitutional crisis and finish the new charter that will map out the country’s post-revolutionary future before the military council hands over power to civilian rule this summer.

The document will create a new political paradigm by delineating the powers of parliament and the president, as well as determining the status of minorities and the role of Islam in the Arab world’s most populous nation as it emerges from nearly three decades of autocratic rule.

But the effort has been stalled by a series of hurdles and the country’s political scene has become increasingly chaotic, just weeks before the first presidential election since Hosni Mubarak was overthrown last year.

Islamists who dominate the parliament placed Islamist supporters in a majority of seats on the 100-member panel charged with drafting the nation’s constitution, enraging liberals and leftists as well as the Coptic Church and Egypt’s highest institute of Islamic learning, Al-Azhar. The groups protested, and the country’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that the body was unconstitutional and should be disbanded.

Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which acts as Egypt’s de facto presidency, met with a group of diverse political leaders Sunday to try to expedite the process. He encouraged the parties to finish the document before June 30, the day the military rulers are supposed to hand over power to an elected president, political leaders with knowledge of the meeting said.

The race is also heating up after three of the top contenders for president — two Islamists and a Mubarak-era spy chief — were disqualified Saturday, rocking the political establishment. Egypt’s presidential commission excludes 10 of the 23 candidates from presidential race, including Muslim Brotherhood candidate Khairat el-Shater, left, Salafist presidential candidate Hazem Abu Ismail, right, and former Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, center. (AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

Critics of the military rulers worry that their new urgency is aimed at guaranteeing their continued influence and protecting their vast economic interests when a civilian leader takes over.

The race is also heating up after three of the top contenders for president — two Islamists and a Mubarak-era spy chief — were disqualified Saturday, rocking the political establishment.

The battle over the constitution pits liberals and leftists against the Islamists. Liberals and leftists want a slightly weaker president, but not an overly strong parliament — and no larger role for Islam in the state. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing wants a strong parliament, but has not advocated for a much stronger role for Islam. And the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party would like to see an expanded role for Islamic law in the document.

Now, liberal and secular political groups plan to meet separately before presenting their demands to the powerful Islamist parties, which control about two-thirds of the 508-member parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing controls almost half of the parliament alone and the once-repressed Islamist group is proving to be the most powerful political force in Egypt.

The two main demands of the liberals and leftists are specific guidelines for how members of the assembly are chosen and a requirement that everything must be approved by a 75 percent majority rather than more than 50 percent. Their goal is to stop Islamists from dominating the decision-making process, said Mahmoud Abou el Ghar, the head of the Social Democratic Party.

“We’ll take one united stance for when we go and negotiate with the Brothers so we can have concrete things to discuss,” he said.

For now negotiations will continue, but the meeting ended with a tentative agreement that all members would come from outside the parliament, a key demand of liberal and secular political leaders, according to officials with knowledge of the meeting.

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