By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 6:48 AM
CAIRO - Egypt's transition to democracy entered a critical phase Wednesday as a panel of legal experts began drafting constitutional amendments that could create the political system protesters have demanded - or simply lead to a disappointing remake of the old regime.
The country's interim military rulers have given a review committee 10 days to redraft six constitutional articles in an effort to ensure that national elections, expected in the fall, are fair.
The proposed changes will be submitted to voters through a referendum within three months - a daunting task in a country that for decades has held elections that were heavily rigged in favor of now-deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
The process will test the military leaders' commitment to steer the country toward true democracy. It also will show whether the plethora of activists who worked together online and on the streets to topple Mubarak can collaborate in the more arcane work of establishing a new political infrastructure for Egypt.
"They are at an absolutely critical stage," said Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University who has studied and written extensively about Egypt and its laws. "The old regime is still in place. Regime change hasn't happened yet."
The committee is expected to propose establishing term limits for the presidency, which Mubarak held for nearly 30 years. Other anticipated changes include curbing presidential powers, giving the judiciary a meaningful electoral oversight role and easing rules that made it impossible for opposition parties to field viable presidential candidates.
The panel was also asked to review Egypt's controversial emergency law, which the state has used for decades to trample political opponents and to detain people indefinitely without judicial review.
A more sweeping overhaul of the constitution would come only after a new civilian government is elected, committee member Sobhi Saleh said.
"The job of the committee right now is to constitutionally deal with the demands of the revolutionaries," said Saleh, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was the best organized opposition group under Mubarak. "As for changing the whole constitution, it is up to the incoming civilian authority."
While the United States was heavily involved in constitution-writing in Iraq and Afghanistan after military invasions of those countries, there has been no suggestion of involvement here. The Obama administration has kept its distance from the Egyptian constitutional committee, and several Washington-based organizations involved in electoral reform and democracy-promotion efforts said they are not directly involved in the process.
"This really is not the constitutional-amendment phase at the moment. When they get to the point of actually revising election systems, that may be a different story and may require more outside help," said Leslie Campbell, the National Democratic Institute's regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, who is in Cairo.
Campbell said Washington-based NDI, which has had an office in Cairo since 2005, is stepping up its long-standing efforts to train political parties and domestic election monitors in Egypt ahead of the transitional campaign and elections.
Most activists who pressed for Mubarak's ouster have welcomed the steps Egypt's military chiefs have taken since they assumed power Friday. Those included dissolving parliament, suspending the constitution and pushing for select constitutional reforms.
But some have expressed skepticism about the military's ability to act as an earnest guarantor of a democratic transition.
"We don't want this done just like that," in haste, said Khaled Kandil, a senior member of the Democratic Front Party, referring to the constitutional review process. "People need to stay on the street, and demand for change needs to continue."
Constitutional experts said a successful transition to a democratic system in Egypt would work only with broad participation. If many Egyptians feel a new constitution was imposed on them, the enterprise risks failure, said Jason Gluck, a rule-of-law expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
"You have diverse components of society nervously waiting to see how their aspirations are going to be realized in the new state. That conversation about the fundamental nature of Egypt has to be inclusive," Gluck said.
The Iraqi constitution, which was drafted quickly in the summer of 2005, is a good cautionary example, he said.
"It was handed to people and did not come from them," Gluck said. "Because it was drafted under a compressed timeline and without broad participation, there was no national dialogue."
As the constitutional revision process got underway Wednesday, Egyptian Health Minister Sameh Farid said that at least 365 people had been killed and more than 5,500 injured in the demonstrations that led to Mubarak's ouster.
Farid said the toll could rise as authorities collect more information from hospitals, morgues and families that buried their loved ones soon after their deaths. The numbers represent the first official toll after one of the deadliest periods in Egypt's recent history.
Violence has ebbed since Mubarak stepped down, but workers demanding higher wages and an end to corruption have continued to stage daily protests across Egypt. The recent demonstrations have defied a ban by military leaders, who have called for an end to strikes, urging Egyptians to get back to work.
Egypt remains nearly paralyzed. Banks and the stock market remained closed this week. And authorities have decided to keep public schools closed next week.
Staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington and special correspondents Muhammad Mansour and Samuel Sockol in Cairo contributed to this report.