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New uncertainty for Egypt's troubled constitutional panel

October 23, 2012 |  8:10 am

Egypt-assembly
This post has been updated. See the note below for details.

CAIRO -- The fate of the assembly writing Egypt’s new constitution became more uncertain Tuesday when the case to disband the Islamist-dominated body was referred to the nation’s highest court.

The decision by an administrative panel to send the matter to the Supreme Constitutional Court indicates the sensitivity around a document that has become a volatile battle between secularists and Islamists over the nation’s character. The ruling means it is possible the assembly may finish the constitution before the case is decided.

The referral to the supreme court also leads of questions of impartiality. Members of the court recently admonished the assembly over the draft; one judge called certain articles disastrous. Others said the document weakens the court’s purview on constitutional matters and allows a provision that grants the president the power to appoint its judges.

The constitutional assembly has had a brief, if turbulent, history. The first 100-member body was dissolved by a court in April amid questions over its selection and concerns that it did not reflect the will of all Egyptians. The new assembly, whose legitimacy has been challenged by various political groups, is expected to complete the constitution by December and put it to a public referendum.

Liberals and human rights organizations have criticized the draft document as too rooted in sharia, or Islamic law, especially regarding women’s rights. This has highlighted the battle not only between secularists and Islamists but also among moderate and ultraconservative Islamists over the extent religion will influence public life.

The constitutional court, made up of secular-minded judges appointed by deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, has not been shy about its disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that now hold political power. President Mohamed Morsi is a former Brotherhood leader and the constitution is a test of his ability to navigate the passions of moderate and ultraconservative Islamists while not isolating liberals.

Egyptian law dictates the “assembly must represent all factions of Egyptian society. It is a very vague law and the administrative court likely wanted the Supreme Constitutional Court to decide this issue,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a legal analyst for the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “The constituent assembly now does not represent Egyptian society. It only represents the political Islam front that includes the Brotherhood, Salafi groups and jihadis.”

[Updated Oct. 23, 12:55 p.m.: The reaction to Tuesday’s decision was mixed across the political spectrum. Liberals saw an opening for the supreme court to upend the assembly, giving them a chance to curtail sharia influence in a new body. Many Islamists were relieved that the ruling kept the current assembly intact while they attempt to negotiate with disparate factions on a final document.]

The struggle over the constitution mirrors the nation’s uncertainty and political divides. New elections for the parliament, which was controlled by Islamists and dissolved by the supreme court in June, are not likely until after the constitution is approved. This has given Morsi control over the executive and legislative branches of government, a prospect that has drawn fierce criticism from activists.

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 -- Jeffrey Fleishman. Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.

Photo: Islamists who support the constituent assembly chant “God is great” after the decision on whether to disband the panel writing the new constitution was referred to the country’s highest court. Credit: Nasser Nasser / Associated Press.

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