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Row over Egypt's new constitution reflects wider tensions

By Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
April 12, 2012 -- Updated 0052 GMT (0852 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A court has suspended the panel tasked with drafting a new constitution for Egypt
  • Row reflects tensions between Islamist and secular groups, and ruling military council
  • A presidential election is due to take place next month
  • Many Egyptians are concerned by the lack of progress since the Mubarak regime was ousted

(CNN) -- Egypt's administrative court has suspended the country's 100-member constitutional assembly, tasked with drafting a new national constitution. But what does that say about the country's progress toward political reform?

More than a year since President Hosni Mubarak was forced to stand down, the outcome of Egypt's "revolution" remains unclear.

The suspension of the constitutional assembly is significant, says Khaled Elgindy, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, because the document it draws up is supposed to be the "fundamental institution of the new Egypt" -- and this throws up questions over its legitimacy.

The row also highlights growing tensions between secular and Islamist groups and the ruling military council, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which has not yet handed power to a civilian government.

It had been hoped the new constitution would be ready before presidential elections due in late May, with a run-off vote in June.

Read more about the disbanding of the constitutional group

But that time frame now seems unlikely, analysts say, opening up the prospect that a new president is elected without a clear constitutional framework by which to govern, or checks on his powers.

That said, whether the assembly as it stood could have produced a consensus draft that would have convincingly won the nation's backing in a referendum is a moot point.

The move by the administrative court in Cairo followed weeks of street protests and objections from many political and civic society groups.

They argued the assembly was dominated by the Islamists -- the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafist Nour party, who hold a majority in parliament -- and that as a result it would not draft a constitution that was representative of the country's diverse society, and that Islamic rules would have too much sway.

Several liberal and secular members of the assembly had already withdrawn because of the criticism, as well as the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church and Al-Azhar Institution, one of the most influential Islamic entities.

Among the individuals to pull out was Mustapha Gamel Al Sayyid, Professor of Political Science at Cairo University and the American University in Cairo.

He told CNN it was clear from the outset there were no proper criteria for the selection of members.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party had appointed its own lawmakers to the assembly and had decided who would speak on behalf of other groups, he said.

Christians and women were under-represented, he said, while at the same time too few of those appointed had the necessary knowledge of constitutional law.

The suspension of the assembly by the administrative court has been welcomed by some Egyptians but not by others, chiefly the Muslim Brotherhood -- for whom it represents their first real setback, said Al Sayyid.

Long repressed in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been making gains ever since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, he said, but the court ruling means its Freedom and Justice Party may now have to give up some control over who draws up the new constitution.

The speed of the court's decision likely reflects unwelcome political intervention in the judicial system, said Dr. Omar Ashour, director of Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter and a visiting scholar at the Brookings Institution in Doha.

At the same time, it is not yet clear how a more representative, meritocratic constitutional assembly will be appointed or how long that might take, he said.

There could still be an appeal against the administrative court's ruling, although the Freedom and Justice Party has said it accepts the decision, Ashour said.

Once the panel is reconstituted, its members will not be starting from scratch in drawing up a draft, since Egypt has had three previous constitutions and various political and civic society groups have drawn up models, Ashour said.

But a number of divisive issues will have to be addressed before a new constitution can be put to a public referendum.

Among them is the question of the role that sharia, or Islamic law, will play.

Part of the problem is that the Islamist groups have not been clear about what they mean when they say they want to implement sharia law, said Elgindy. This has made many secular groups and even some Islamists apprehensive, he said.

Other challenges include ensuring the draft's wording protects individual freedoms, women's rights and the rights of religious minorities and disenfranchised groups, he said.

"All of these issues will be contentious and because they are contentious, there's a tendency to veer towards the vague -- and vagueness will have bad outcomes, because that opens it up to political interpretation and manipulation," Elgindy said.

The uncertainty over the constitution does not breed confidence ahead of a presidential election that is also proving fraught, with legal challenges to the legitimacy of several candidates, including the Muslim Brotherhood's first choice.

Voters still do not know who will be on the final list and are concerned by the increasing politicization of the courts, as they get drawn into deciding who can or cannot run, said Elgindy.

He fears the situation is sidelining weaker factions who don't have the resources to challenge the decisions and allows the SCAF to play one side against the other to its own benefit. "This has really very negative implications for the rule of law, for the independence of the judiciary," he said.

And while it's natural to see discord between the different elements after the kind of revolution Egypt has experienced, Elgindy said, he sees danger in the growing cycle of division.

"At the end of the day, most Egyptians want to see progress, whether it's a parliament that functions and passes their laws and promotes the new policies that fix the economy or bring security, or whether it's a president that can bring these things," Elgindy said.

"But what they are seeing is an almost circus-like atmosphere, and I think it's very off-putting for a lot of Egyptians who just want to move on and start addressing these major problems that have been building up over the past 15 months."

Ashour believes the recently announced candidacy of Omar Suleiman, Egypt's former vice president and head of Egyptian intelligence, may galvanize the nation's revolutionary and Islamist factions to work together to prevent a return to power of the man who is seen as the essence of the old regime.

"If this man became president, the revolution would probably be defeated," Ashour said.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other revolutionary groups have said they will return to Tahrir Square, the heart of Egypt's protest movement, on Friday in what seems to be a show of anger at Suleiman's move.

Many Egyptians cannot see how the new constitution will affect them in the very near future, said Ashour, since "their more immediate concern is about their daily survival and security issues."

But, he said, "Everyone is very concerned about the election because the situation is quite unstable and there are serious risks that if this escalation keeps on getting worse, we may see another intervention by the military."

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