CAIRO: Islamists that dominate Egypt's new parliament looked Saturday to solidify their power over the country's political direction as lawmakers chose a 100-member panel to draw up the country's new constitution.
The selection process has sparked a fierce debate in Egypt. With so much at stake, a bloc of secular and liberal lawmakers boycotted Saturday's voting by both houses of parliament, accusing the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood - the country's most powerful political force - of trying to pack the panel with its supporters and ignoring minority concerns.
Fears among liberals have spiked over the past week after parliament decided to allocate half of the 100 seats on the panel to its own members, and when a leading Islamist deputy said that the country's most prominent democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, would likely not be included.
In a sign of the Brotherhood's intentions, the group posted on its website a list of its nominees for the 50 seats to be allocated to lawmakers. It contained 37 Islamists and 13 lawmakers from other parties. With the Brotherhood holding nearly half the seats in parliament, the movement will likely be able to push its choices through.
Egypt's ruling military council last year issued an interim constitution that gives elected members of the parliament's two houses the right to select those who will draft the new constitution. The old 1971 constitution was suspended after the uprising that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
After the panel writes the constitution, the document will be put to a vote in a national referendum. However, the ruling military council left the guidelines for the process vague enough to spark a sharp debate between liberals and Islamists on who should be included.
Egypt's Islamist groups, including both the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, make up nearly three-quarters of parliament after sweeping the vote in the first post-revolution elections that began in November.
They passed a vote last week to appoint 50 of the panel members from among lawmakers in parliament, while the rest will be drawn from broader society.
Liberals, among whom are youth groups and secular parties that led the uprising but performed poorly in elections, say that a permanent constitution should not be written solely by the victors of a single election.
They argue that the constitutional process should include a wide range of members from the country's different ideological currents, professional syndicates and unions, women, and members of the Christian minority. They say that parliament's decision to have its members dominate the process violates earlier Brotherhood pledges to draft the charter by "consensus" and fear it represents a capitulation to the hardline Salafis.
"The Islamic political forces want an all-out dominance on the constitutional writing," wrote Emad Gad, a liberal lawmaker, in the private-owned Al-Tahrir daily. He added that even before the panel has been seated, Islamists have prepared their own drafts of the constitution.
The Brotherhood has long assured liberals that it doesn't intend to rule Egypt alone, but many secular Egyptians accuse the Islamist group of maneuvering to do just that.
Before parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood said it would only field candidates for 30 percent of the seats in parliament, only to eventually contest more than 80 percent. The group also previously said it would not field a presidential candidate from within its ranks or the broader Islamist fold, but the group recently backtracked and says it is now considering putting forward a candidate for the presidential ballot.
The new constitution is expected to curb presidential powers and give parliament more authority, a drastic change to Egypt's political system. Although the changes are intended to prevent the abuses of power associated with Mubarak, liberals fear that empowering the legislature will also empower the Islamists who have a majority there.
Another key concern is the role of Islamic Shariah law, which is subject to a wide variety of interpretation.
The old 1971 constitution says Shariah is the "main source of legislation," but many in the hardline Salafi bloc that makes up nearly a quarter of parliament's members want specific mention of statutes based on strict interpretations of Shariah: mandating segregation of the sexes, banning banks from charging interest and punishing theft by cutting off thieves' hands.
Another divisive issue is the role of the military and the future of the country's military rulers. The ruling generals want assurances they won't lose their political clout and that parliament will have no say over the military's budget.
Antimilitary youth activists fear the Islamists will give the military what they want, in exchange for the generals allowing them carte blanche in writing the constitution.
"We are before a historic mission," said parliamentary speaker Saad el-Katatni, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. "There will be no exclusions for anybody," he said, adding that the constitution should not be written by "the majority," but instead by "consensus and partnership."
That pledge however has been called into question by the exclusion of ElBaradei, whom Brotherhood parliamentarian Mohammed el-Beltagi said on his Facebook page Friday would normally be included "only if he didn't oppose the current road map" for drafting the document.
ElBaradei had criticized the parliament - the product of the first open elections after decades of dictatorship - as not fully representative, and the process of drafting the constitution as rushed. He posted in a message on Twitter that the charter "is not a fast food meal."
Parliamentarians also dropped an earlier proposal to give a quota of 25 seats to representatives of prominent Egyptian institutions, which prompted a young liberal-leaning lawmaker Mustafa al-Nagar to boycott the voting process.
He posted on his Twitter account that he would not take part in the panel's selection because it is "an exclusion to all Egyptians."
Liberal judges and activists have filed legal challenges to the 50/50 panel makeup.
With drums and chants, youth activists rallied outside parliament against Islamists and the military for what they see as sabotaging the revolution.
"No Salafis, no Brotherhood. The constitution is for all Egyptians," they chanted. "We said the military hijacked the revolution ... They (Islamists) said no, the military is sweet like sugar."