Egypt's top Islamic authority hosts talks on constitution

The country's most prestigious religious institution, Al-Azhar, holds conference; Amr Mousa, ElBaradei attend alongside Brotherhood, Wafd.

Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo 311 (photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo 311
(photo credit: Amr Dalsh / Reuters)
CAIRO - Egypt's prestigious centre of Islamic learning, Al-Azhar, hosted Islamists and liberals on Wednesday at talks aimed at agreeing the principles of a new constitution ahead of November elections, but failed to end the differences, analysts said.
Liberals have been calling for 'constitutional principles' to be laid down before the elections to ensure that Islamists would not be able to create an Islamic state if they win a majority in parliament, a fear shared by many Egyptians.
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Islamists insist that the constitution must be drafted by the parliament.
Al-Azhar, seeking to broaden its influence after years of control by the regime of ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, has drawn up an 11-point document as a proposed basis for the new constitution.
The document, drafted by intellectuals and public figures, illustrates Al-Azhar's vision of Egypt's political future following the overthrow of Mubarak in a popular uprising in February.
It proposes that the Arab World's most populous country be "a civil state governed by law and the constitution". The document also calls for respect of freedom of opinion, faith and human rights to be guaranteed.
In a statement, the head of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb, proposed that the draft become a "code of honor that everyone would commit to voluntarily".
But political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah, of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said the meeting did not end the dispute between Islamists and liberals over the constitution.
"The Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood have not agreed to have 'constitutional principles' before the elections because they believe that the coming vote will produce a parliament controlled by them, hence they would be able to impose their religious views," Abdel Fattah said.
Egypt's well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, seen as the best prepared for the November vote, has said it plans to contest 50 percent of parliament's 504 seats. The group, which won 20 percent of the seats in the 2005 election, said it wants a constitution that respects Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
"There is nothing new today. The brotherhood still disagrees with any 'constitutional principles' before elections," Mohamed Saed Elkatatny, secretary-general of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party told Reuters.
The meeting was attended by presidential candidates Amr Mousa, former head of the Arab League, and Mohamed El Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), along with the heads of the Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal Wafd and Democratic Front parties, among others.
For centuries, Al-Azhar, long seen as the home of moderate Islam, had played an important role in galvanizing Egyptians to protest against foreign occupiers. But the institution lost its influence after it came under state authority by orders of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s.
Outside its headquarters in Cairo, dozens of Muslim clerics protested against the Al-Azhar document.
"The document asks that Egypt become a secular state, while it should be a religious state," said Sheikh El-Hadi Ahmed El-Hadi, one of the protesters. "We refuse it."