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Is Egypt repeating the same mistakes that led to its political impasse?

A body appointed by Egypt’s interim government to rewrite the country’s constitution met for the first time today. Critics are warning it looks set to repeat the mistakes of the past few years.

The assembly tasked with revising Egypt‘s constitution held its first meeting today amid warnings that Egypt is repeating some of the mistakes made when drafting a highly controversial charter last year.

The 50-member body elected Amr Moussa, the longtime foreign minister and Arab League chief under former president Hosni Mubarak, as their chairman. The assembly, which will consider proposals submitted by a panel of legal experts, was appointed by the military-backed interim government. Egypt’s interim leaders are pressing ahead with a plan to revise the constitution and hold elections, despite a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters and increasing political violence.

The military ousted elected President Mohamed Morsi July 3 after mass protests against his rule.

“I feel optimism as we pave the road for a new era where the constitution will be its base,” Moussa said in the televised session.

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Yet while the committee includes a painter, a poet, and several younger Egyptians who led protests against Morsi, it only includes two Islamists. With little representation, Islamists are likely to reject the process and the final document, much as their opponents did last year, when Islamists dominated the process and led most non-Islamists to withdraw from the constitution-writing committee and reject the final product. And, as in 2012, the committee appears unlikely to break out of the framework of the 1971 constitution and address difficult subjects that could have long-term effects on Egypt.

“With this constitution, I think it’s written in a way that’s equally going to make it a little bit suspect in the eyes of the people who feel excluded. It’s not going to be a consensual product,” saysNathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “The fundamental questions that I think probably should be debated — like the role of the military, or the mechanisms for protecting the rights that are in the constitution, local government — those are issues that were not part of the debate in 2012, and are not going to be part of the debate now.”

The government says it invited the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in the committee, which the group denies. But with Morsi, a former Brotherhood leader, deposed and held incommunicado, hundreds of Islamists killed by security forces last month, and most Brotherhood leaders arrested along with thousands of members and supporters, few expected the group would respond to an invitation to participate in a military-backed process.

The conservative Islamist Nour Party, which supported the coup, agreed to sit on the committee, and has one member. The other Islamist on the committee is a former Brotherhood member.

Winners rules

When mass protests pushed Mubarak from power in 2011, the military assumed power and drafted a short temporary constitution, which passed in a referendum. In 2012, attempts to form a committee to rewrite Egypt’s constitution were fraught with conflict when Islamists dominated the process. The first committee was dissolved by a court, and most non-Islamists withdrew from the second when they said it again turned into a process that was not inclusive. Islamists said they should make up the majority of the committee since they won elections and accused liberals and leftists of sabotaging the process.

Amid the controversy and court challenges against the assembly, Morsi issued a “constitutional declaration” that placed himself above judicial review and the constitution-writing body immune from judicial challenge. He used the temporary powers to push the constitution to a quick vote, to the outrage of the opposition. It passed with 64 percent of the vote in a national referendum with a turnout of just 33 percent.

The Islamist-dominated assembly had put its stamp on the document, including articles that gave religious figures the right to review legislation for compliance with sharia (Islamic law) including a tighter definition of the “principles of sharia” that the previous constitution and the 2012 one declared were the source of legislation. The new charter also criminalized blasphemy and reduced the promise of freedom of religious practice to believers in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism only.

Many non-Islamists repeatedly brought up their rejection of the constitution as opposition to Morsi increased this year. When the military deposed the president on July 3, it suspended the constitution and the interim government called for a revised document.

The assembly that met today will start with a revised constitution drawn up by a 10-member panel of legal experts appointed by the interim president. Their document removes the controversial Islamist additions of 2012, but is in many other ways similar to last year’s document and the previous constitution, drafted in 1971.

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Religion and Egyptians

A Brotherhood-led alliance of mostly Islamist parties against the military coup said in a statement that the draft supports “the resurrection of the Mubarak regime” and is “an attempt to turn the clock backwards … terminating the role of the state in protecting the values and characteristics of Egyptian society, which the coup wants to turn into a chaotic society with no principles or morals.” The statement adds that the draft “a direct challenge to the religious nature of the Egyptian people.”

The draft contains much of the same restrictive language on basic rights, taken from the 1971 documents, that had advocates for a more open Egypt crying foul last year. It also maintains the autonomy and privileges given to the military in the previous constitution, and is also deferential to the judiciary. It continues Egypt’s centralization of power, with governors appointed rather than elected. In one change, it would remove Egypt’s upper house of parliament.

“The key bargains, the key institutions – the way the military is handled, the way judiciary is handled, the way presidency is described – those are basically the same,” says Brown. “There are some tweaks in all of them …but it’s basically the same kind of framework.”

Zaid Ali, a senior advisor on constitution-building at International IDEA, a democracy promotion group, says the draft stays solidly within a failing constitutional framework and roundly rejects real – and needed – reform. “They’re still working within the framework of the 1971 constitution for reasons that I can’t understand,” he says. “It’s fairly clear that it’s not working very well. State and society are essentially breaking down. There’s a desperate need for new ideas, fresh ideas, for how the state should be organized and how the state should better serve society but those ideas aren’t forthcoming.” 

But many who will participate in the process see the draft as a starting point and dismiss worries about its content. Mohamed Aboulghar, the head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and a member of the committee, says the draft from the technical committee will be “totally changed” by the time the 50-member committee is done.

“I don’t think this is the final or even semi-final” draft, he says. But the chief problem he sees with the draft is an article changing the way the coming parliamentary elections are held. It would end list-based voting and return to voting on individual candidates, which he says would empower Mubarak-era figures and wealthy families.