Egypt’s liberals shun constitutional assembly

With Islamists dominating the process, they see no reason to remain an outvoted minority.

Egypt lower parliament, Majlis As-Shaab_370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Egypt lower parliament, Majlis As-Shaab_370
(photo credit: Reuters)
The task of writing Egypt’s new constitution will be in the sole hands of the Islamists after liberals and leftists said they are opting out of a process they say is destined to be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists.
The 100-member body selected by parliament over the weekend to draft the country’s new constitution has some 60 Islamist members as well as a handful of allies. Among the 100 are just six women and five Christians – although one Christian has already left to join a boycott. That has left liberals and leftists worried that the constitution that emerges will create san Islamic state.
Since the 18-day revolution overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak in the name of freedom and democracy 13 months ago, Islamists have come to the fore, trouncing liberals in parliamentary elections. But the liberals say the constitutional assembly should write a document that stands the test of time and operate on principles unrelated election results.
“This isn’t about popularity or even popular vote, this is about putting together a group of people, men and women, to write a document that can stand up no matter who is in power in parliament,” Ossama Ghazali Harb, the president of the liberal Democratic Front Party, told The Media Line.
The Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP),  disagrees, saying they were elected by the people and have a mandate for what they are doing, and how they are dealing with government.
“We have a majority in Parliament and we will continue to act like the majority,” Speaker of Parliament Saad al-Katatni told The Media Line, promising not to abuse its power.  “But at the same time, we understand the revolution and what those goals are and will make sure there are human rights, justice and a future for this country.”
The future of Egypt is at stake. The constitution will define the balance of power between parliament and president, the role of Islamic sharia law and the place of the all-powerful military, which has been ruling the country on an interim basis since Mubarak was ousted. As the Arab world’s most populous and influential country, Egypt may well influence how other countries will manage their transition from dictatorship.
Members of the Islamist-dominated parliament voted to chose the panel’s member on Saturday. At that point, several liberal lawmakers walked out to protest against the Brotherhood’s domination of the selection process during the voting. More followed after the final assembly was chosen. The constituent assembly’s first meeting will be held on Wednesday.
“Since the beginning we have announced that our path is democracy, transparency and consultation before taking any decision,” Parliament speaker Saad al-Katatni said after the members of the assembly were announced.
But women’s activists are already expecting the worst in the new constitution, saying that with only a handful of female members, it is unlikely that they will have much of a voice in what is written.
Sara Naguib, a Cairo University student and women’s issues activist, said she is already preparing to looking abroad for work. “I don’t expect this constitution to be very female-friendly. We have lost so much already, how can 60% Islamist get us back our rights?”
Many in the Christian community, reeling from the loss of its long-standing leader, Pope Shenouda III last week, fear their religious freedom and rights will be curtailed as well.
For them, a major sticking point in recent years on their struggle for greater rights in Egypt has been the ability to freely build churches in the country. The current constitution has been a major impediment because it entitles the government to reject or approve any new construction, a restriction not imposed on mosques. Now, Christians are afraid that the Islamists will put more restrictions on what they can and can’t do on a daily basis.
“Certainly we are worried at this development, but I pray and hope that it will not be as bad as people are currently fearing,” said Marqos, a Coptic priest in Cairo.
The role of the military and its future of Egypt will also be determined by the new constitution, but most observers doubt major changes will arise, largely because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) still controls the country. Mamdouh Shahin of the ruling military council was chosen as a member of the panel.
Even before SCAF took over Egypt, the military dominated politics and presided over a vast business empire that gives it a fiscal independence no other branch of the government enjoys. Mubarak and Egypt’s two previous rulers, Gamal Abdul Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat, all were military men.
Liberals fear the Islamists and the army are working hand in hand to share power. While the Brotherhood in the months after Mubarak’s overthrow broadcast a message of moderation, it has become more outspoken since its victory in parliamentary elections. It has demanded that the military-backed prime minister and cabinet quit and said last week it was weighing a bid for the presidency in elections in May. It had previous said it would not field a candidate for the office in order not to concentrate too much power in a single movement.
“We are the youth who made Mubarak leave and created a new Egypt, so why is it that we are not being heard and those who sat at home and watched us die are now to determine our future?” asked Mona Radwan, a 29-year-old housewife, who said she has protested every major event since the revolution began in January 2011.
“I want a free Egypt,” she said. “I hope the Brotherhood and the Islamists know we will not let Egypt become Saudi Arabia.”