Egypt breaks deadlock on constitution panel

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Egypt’s fractious political parties have reached an agreement over the selection of a panel to draft the country’s new constitution, ending weeks of deadlock.

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has invited both chambers of parliament to convene in a joint session on Tuesday to pick the 100 members of the panel.

Under the deal, the drafting body will be split evenly between Islamists and non-Islamists – a compromise reached after many hours of bargaining to ensure that neither side gets to dominate the drafting process.

The panel will include parliamentarians, members of the judiciary, youth, women, public figures, Muslim clerics and church representatives.

The announcement of the agreement came after a meeting on Thursday between the army chiefs and representatives of Islamist, liberal and leftwing parties in parliament.

The constitution has emerged as a point of conflict between the country’s Islamists and their more secular-minded political rivals since the start of the country’s transition towards democracy after last year’s popular uprising.

The new charter will deal with crucial questions such as the powers of the president, the relationship between Islam and politics, and the level of civilian oversight of the army.

Liberal segments of society have been worried that the Islamists would impose a constitution which assigns religion a more central role in public life or restrict personal freedoms.

The Egyptian parliament is dominated by Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and from ultraconservative Salafi groups and some of their deputies have argued that they are entitled to a bigger say in the drafting process.

An earlier attempt to select the panel foundered after liberals and leftwing groups pulled out complaining it was dominated by Islamists. A court later ordered the dissolution of the body.

Emad Gad, a member of parliament representing the Egyptian Social Democratic party, a secular group, told the Financial Times, that the new rules should make for a more balanced constitution-writing body.

“Last time we [the non-Islamist parties] had only had 22 of the members and they [the Islamists] chose them for us,” he said. “This time we have 50 and we will pick them so I think this is a big achievement. We have laid the basis for a more balanced panel, but we will still have to be on our guard.”

The ruling military council had threatened earlier this week that if no agreement had been reached by Thursday, it would unilaterally impose criteria for the selection of the 100 members.

Egyptians will elect a new president on |June 16 and 17, but his powers are undefined because the constitution has been delayed.

The ruling military council is expecting to issue a declaration setting out the temporary powers of the president until the charter has been written and approved – a process which could take many months.

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