March 28 (Bloomberg) -- The committee formed to write a new constitution for Egypt elected the speaker of parliament’s lower house to head it, in an inaugural meeting that followed the withdrawal of several secular members.
“We fully realize that the constitution-drafting process must be done wisely and responsibly, away from the narrow calculations of partisan gains,” Mohammed Saad el-Katatni said in a televised session of the committee, known as the Constituent Assembly, after he was chosen to lead it. “There must be a consensus among all national forces over the visions that will govern our work in the coming period.”
The makeup of the panel has been the focus of political wrangling, with critics arguing that the process of selecting its members favored Islamists and has resulted in the underrepresentation of groups such as women and legal experts. The disagreements add to the turmoil surrounding the transition to democracy in the Arab world’s most populous nation following last year’s uprising that led to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
The new charter is expected to determine issues such as the role of Islam in Egypt, the powers of the president and parliament, and the position of the armed forces.
About a quarter of the 100-member Constituent Assembly didn’t attend today’s session. El-Katatni said only one formally notified the body of his withdrawal from the panel.
During the meeting, some of the assembly’s members made proposals to deal with the concerns of those who have said they were withdrawing, while others criticized their positions.
“I must express my severe sadness about all the struggles and the confrontations among the elite -- there are 85 million citizens awaiting a solution to their problems and awaiting a future fit for this great country,” assembly member Farouk Gweida told the meeting. “We cannot think in a political or partisan manner at this historic moment. This is a national position that God and history will ask us about.”
The Free Egyptians party, co-founded by billionaire Naguib Sawiris, and a number of lawmakers such as Amr Hamzawy have announced their withdrawal from the committee.
El-Katatni said just one of the 100 members formally notified the panel of his withdrawal from the panel, while someone on a list of backup members also pulled out.
El-Katatni tried to assuage concerns about the constitution-drafting process.
“The era when constitutional articles and important laws were drafted behind closed doors and imposed on the people has gone,” he said. He called on groups and individuals to present the assembly with their proposals for the constitution.
The Islamist-dominated parliament voted this month for half of the constitution-drafting assembly to come from within it and the rest from outside.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party makes up the largest bloc in parliament. A more conservative Salafi bloc comes next. Salafis are followers of an austere interpretation of Islam.
In addition to the debates over the degree of influence Islamists will have over the constitution, critics of the ruling military council have said they don’t want the charter drawn up while the generals are still at the helm, concerned they may try to enshrine privileges for the military in the document.
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