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Egypt's parliament convenes to select constitutional panel amid disputes over its legality

Vehicles pass giant billboards showing Egyptian presidential candidates Mohammed Morsi, left, and Ahmed Shafiq, center, on a highway in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, June 11, 2012. Shafiq, the last prime minister of deposed President Hosni Mubarak, will face the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate, Mohammed Morsi, in a runoff on June 16-17. Arabic sign, left, partially shown, reads, " our strength is in our unity, Mohammed Morsi, president for Egypt 2012." Arabic sign, center, reads, "Ahmed Shafiq, president for Egypt actions and not words." (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO - Egypt's parliament met on Tuesday to select a 100-member panel that will draft a new constitution, but the process got off to a bumpy start when liberal lawmakers boycotted the session.

The joint meeting of the body's lower and upper chambers, which are both dominated by Islamists, was called by military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi after negotiations between political factions to agree on the makeup of the panel reached a deadlock.

A court ruling has disbanded a previous panel that was packed with Islamists. Liberal lawmakers say the Islamists were again seeking to dominate the new panel, and have filed a court case to declare the body illegal.

The powers of Egypt's key state institutions have been the subject of intense dispute since a military council suspended the old constitution and took power when Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 in the face of a popular uprising.

The different factions are as much at odds over the process of drawing up a new constitution as they are over how the country should be governed in the interim.

"It's Egypt's constitution we are talking about here," said Ahmed Said, leader of the secularist Free Egyptians party. "The math of majority and minority should not apply."

Other non-Islamist lawmakers said the constitution drafting process may have been unconstitutional because parliament hurriedly adopted legislation late on Monday night to govern the selection and work of the panel. They saw the move as an attempt by the Islamists, led by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, to head off a possible court ruling disbanding the new panel. The Monday night legislation had not been published in the government's official gazette or ratified by the military council.

"I see that what has been done carries a hint of unconstitutionality," said independent lawmaker Youssef el-Badry. "We have pulled out rather than take part in an illegal process."

Brotherhood lawmakers say they are abiding by an agreement reached with non-Islamist groups that they equally share the 100 seats. But the liberals say the Brotherhood and other Islamists have violated the agreement by giving their lawmakers more seats than agreed and devising a selection process that would give supporters or sympathizers some of the seats assigned to other groups.

Liberals, leftists, women and minority Christians say the Islamists want to dominate the process of writing a new constitution so that the new document would have an Islamist slant. The move, they claim, is part of a grand design by the Brotherhood and its allies to take over the main state institutions, including the executive and the legislative.

The delay in drafting a new constitution is one of several legal disputes that have plagued the transitional period overseen by the generals who took over from Mubarak, any one of which could throw the transition into disarray.

On Thursday, Egypt's highest court — the Supreme constitutional Court — rules on whether legislation banning Mubarak regime figures from running for office is constitutional. If it is found to be constitutional, presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, would be booted out of the race, the runoff vote scheduled for June 16-17 would be cancelled and the first round of voting would be repeated.

The court could also uphold a lower court ruling that the law governing parliamentary elections held over three months starting in November was unconstitutional. That decision could lead to the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated parliament or a partial repeat of the election.

Shafiq is running against Mohammed Morsi, a U.S.-trained engineer from the Brotherhood, which already controls just under half of all seats in parliament.

News from © The Associated Press, 2012
The Associated Press

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