Egypt Court Rules Against Constitution Panel Composition

An Egyptian court ordered a suspension in the work of the panel charged with drafting the country’s new constitution, in a setback to the Islamists who critics say dominate the body.

The court in Cairo decided “to halt the parliament speaker’s decision to form the constituent assembly,” Judge Ali Fikri said. The court referred the case to a panel of judges to issue recommendations about the 100-member body’s fate.

The move today calls into question the operation of the panel that was chosen by parliament to write the constitution after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak last year. At least 20 percent of the committee’s members have said they are withdrawing from it, with many saying it is dominated by Islamists, while secularists and others are under-represented.

The ruling “will completely confuse matters,” Mahmud Ghozlan, a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, said by phone. “Work on the constitution was supposed to start, and now this puts things on hold.”

The group’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, controls nearly half of the seats in parliament’s lower house and is among those criticized for its strong presence on the panel.

Another panel of judges within the administrative court said it would rule tomorrow on two cases relating to the nominations of Salafi cleric Hazem Abu Ismail and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Khairat el-Shater for the presidency.

‘Fuel Tensions’

The ruling concerning the constitutional panel appeared to address complaints about the decision to evenly split the committee between lawmakers and non-lawmakers. Critics argued that with that division, the Freedom and Justice Party, the Salafi al-Nour Party and Islamist sympathizers held about 60 percent of the seats.

The court’s decision may “fuel tensions and polarization,” Ghozlan said.

What is needed now is for a national dialogue to end the deadlock surrounding the panel, el-Shater said in a statement posted on the Brotherhood’s website. Egypt “needs to write constitution that will help establish a modern democracy and pave the way for the desired renaissance,” he said.

Lack of Consensus

The ruling represents a win for “civic forces in the country,” said Hafez Abuseada, president of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, and one of those who filed a lawsuit against the constituent assembly. “The Muslim Brotherhood has been dealing in an arrogant way, reminiscent of the former ruling party,” he said by phone.

The Islamists “must realize that the people revolted against the former ruling party because it monopolized power, and excluded the opposition,” he said.

Emad Gad, a political analyst and lawmaker, said “the ruling proves that the criteria for the panel’s selection lack consensus. Now the panel can be formed again based on objective and agreed-upon criteria.”

Egypt has been struggling with an economy whose growth rate dropped to 0.4 percent in the last quarter of 2011, while net international reserves are down more than 50 percent in the span of 15 months. In addition, a request for a $3.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan in January has yet to be completed.

Showdown

Such challenges and the ensuing unrest have only heightened worries that have been amplified by the showdown between the Islamists and Egypt’s military rulers -- a fight evidenced in the entry of former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who was named vice president in the regime’s final days, into the race for the presidency.

Islamists, who have entered several candidates in the race, including el-Shater and Abu Ismail, saw Suleiman’s candidacy as one backed by the military, a claim both he and the ruling council have denied.

Abu Ismail has been under pressure after reports first surfaced, and were later confirmed by the country’s election commission, that his mother held U.S. citizenship, which could render him ineligible to run for office. He has repeatedly denied it and filed suit to compel the interior and foreign ministries to provide evidence to back the claim about his mother’s citizenship.

A lawyer representing the Egyptian government said the Interior Ministry hadn’t submitted evidence that Abu Ismail’s mother traveled on a U.S. passport, but that she had traveled on an American travel document. The government representative, who wasn’t identified in court, said Abu Ismail’s “dispute was with the American government, and the Egyptian government was not part of it.”

Missing Name

El-Shater also faced a legal challenge stemming from the reported absence of his name from voter registration lists because of earlier convictions during Mubarak’s regime. He recently had the convictions dropped, according to the Brotherhood’s lawyer, Abdel Monem Abdel Maqsoud.

Suleiman, who denied in an interview published yesterday that he was seeking to recreate the ousted regime, could also see his candidacy threatened by motions both in the court and in a draft law that would either bar or restrict those linked to the former government from holding office.

The hearing on his case was adjourned until April 24, Saber Shalaby, the lawyer who filed the case against Suleiman, said in a phone interview.

To contact the reporters on this story: Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at teltablawy@bloomberg.net; Abdel Latif Wahba in Cairo at alatifwahba@bloomberg.net; Mariam Fam in Cairo at mfam1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net

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