Egypt liberals quit assembly drafting constitution

Cairo, Egypt - A number of liberal politicians withdrew on Sunday from the Islamist-dominated assembly drafting Egypt's new constitution, saying they were not given the opportunity to discuss articles and their suggestions were being ignored.

The departure of at least 12 liberals from the 100 member assembly follows the resignation of five Christian delegates - as well eight out of 10 members of a advisory committee providing technical assistance - over similar complaints.

The constitution is a cornerstone in Egypt's democratic transition after the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year. Without it, the country cannot hold elections to replace a parliament that a court declared void in June.

But bickering between Islamists and liberals over subjects such as the role of Islam in politics, civic freedoms and women's rights has delayed voting on articles in the charter.

And analysts have expressed worries that if the constitution does not enjoy broad consensus it will be a short-lived one, especially as it will have to be put to a referendum.

Pressure is mounting on the assembly to finish before a December 12 deadline but members say they will continue on schedule.

"Passing the constitution in its current form is a loss to everyone, we can't be part of this constitution," former Arab League secretary general and assembly member Amr Moussa told reporters, adding that differences were on "basic" articles.

"We were deprived of discussing articles which is the main task of the assembly," the former presidential candidate added, criticizing the assembly's "rush" to finish.

Liberals, who include people behind the uprising that toppled Mubarak as well as figures who worked alongside him, have threatened to quit the assembly several times before.

They say they will work on drafting an alternative constitution.


The assembly speaker, Hossam El Gheriany, said in a session on Sunday they were welcome to return to the assembly within two days, after which the assembly will continue without them, drawing from a reserve list to make the 83 remaining back up to 100. Moussa said their withdrawal was final.

The withdrawing members say the current document has failed to ensure economic and social rights for citizens and freedoms.

"There is an insistence to give society an authority that allows any group or individuals to assault people in the street under the excuse of protecting morals or religion," a statement by the members said.

Drafts of the constitution drawn up by the assembly so far indicate it will have more Islamic references than the previous one, worrying more liberal-minded Egyptians and Christians, who make up about a 10 percent of the nation of 83 million. They fear the imposition of social restrictions.

An article stating that "the principles of sharia", Islamic law, are the main source of legislation has until now remained unchanged from the old constitution. But a new article seeks to spell out what those principles are in Islamic terms.

In the old constitution, the head of state had wide powers and could rule for an unlimited number of terms. Mubarak had been in power for 30 years when he was deposed. The new document will preserve a change introduced last year that caps the number of terms any president can serve at two.

Future prime ministers would need to win a vote of confidence in parliament - implying the head of state must pick someone acceptable to the parliamentary majority.