CAIRO (AP) — Calls are growing in Egypt for a delay of September's parliamentary elections to give parties formed in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak's ouster more time to organize.
The push, which now has the prime minister's backing, is aimed at keeping the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood from dominating the next legislature and exerting disproportionate Islamist influence over the drafting of a new constitution.
The debate over the timing of the elections and the new constitution is a political novelty in a country where elections under the 29-year rule of former President Mubarak were routinely marred by widespread fraud and their results known before the first ballot was cast.
The election debate is just one of a host of challenges Egypt is grappling with in the chaotic transition period to what many hope will be a freer, more democratic Egypt. There are also disagreements over the extent to which police powers should be curtailed, how best to halt economic deterioration and how to divvy up the nation's wealth among some 85 million people.
The debate itself seems remarkable, given the authoritarian system that was in place until just a few months ago. It is another sign that post-Mubarak Egyptians have cast off decades of political apathy and have new faith in the political process.
However, it also could be a trigger for renewed unrest if the question is not resolved in a way that satisfies everyone or at least many of the players.
Interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, in an interview posted Sunday on Egyptian news website Masrawy.com, said he preferred a delay in the vote to allow the nation's "political landscape" to take shape. He also hinted that drafting a new constitution before the elections would not be a bad idea either.
Sharaf, however, made clear that a delay is his personal preference, and that his Cabinet would do everything it can to ensure a fair and secure vote if the election went ahead as scheduled.
The Islamic fundamentalist Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best organized political group, reacted angrily to Sharaf's comments, with a top figure in the group saying the prime minister should resign before expressing personal views.
"The people want to transfer power to a civilian administration. This is in the interest of the country," said Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood leader who helped draft amendments to Egypt's current constitution that were voted on in March. "The Muslim Brotherhood are against postponement and against drafting the constitution before elections."
Some fear that elections will leave the doors wide open for Islamist ministers to govern, a council of clerics to decide which laws to pass or drop depending on how they fit according to Islamic Sharia law and where liberal and secular voices will be labeled "infidels."
Those worries have been prompted by the fact that the 90-year-old Brotherhood has revved up the social services campaign that has long helped it build its following. Just after the collapse of Mubarak's rule, it formed for the first time a political party and launched a strong nationwide campaign.
The military, which took over the reins of power when Mubarak stepped down in February, has yet to say where it stands on the elections issue but it has been adamant that no new constitution would be drafted before legislative elections are held.
The military's main argument is that the constitutional amendments adopted by more than 70 percent of voters in the March referendum reflected the will of the people.
The nine amendments effectively give the next parliament a mandate to draft a new constitution. They also limit the presidency to two four-year terms, ease requirements for running in presidential elections — especially for independent candidates — and provide judicial supervision of elections.
But critics maintain that, at the time of the March vote, Egyptians felt insecure because of the paralyzed economy and a persistent security vacuum. A "yes" vote was marketed to them by Islamists and others as key to the return of stability.
The military's perceived intransigence over the issue, meanwhile, is deepening a rift between the ruling generals and many of the youth organizations behind the uprising that toppled Mubarak. The youth groups have been openly critical of the generals' handling of the country's affairs and the military's poor human rights record.
Additionally, a military-sponsored draft of an election law has added to the criticism leveled against the generals. The draft allocates a third of parliament's seats to be contested through slates of candidates while the rest are decided by a system under which individual candidates run.
While the first allows the election to be decided on where groups stand on key issues, the second allows candidates with wealth or connections to prevail.
The "constitution first" campaign, backed mainly by secular groups who are worried about the Brotherhood hijacking the process, wants a document that lays the foundations for a secularist state with ironclad guarantees of human and civil rights, freedom of expression and the equality of all citizens before the law. They also want the new constitution to guard against an unlawful Islamic takeover.
However, some in the camp fear that insisting on a delay of the election and drafting the constitution before the vote could tempt the generals not to hand power back to an elected government as promised and instead stay in power indefinitely.
At the heart of the debate is the Muslim Brotherhood and the growing likelihood that it might join forces with other Islamists, like the ultraconservative Salafis, to contest the vote.
A joint statement by seven rights groups issued this month said the military has abandoned transparency and that its current timetable for a transfer of power "threatens to lead the country into a longer period of instability."
Also Sunday, the interim government named a new foreign minister to succeed Nabil Elaraby, who is leaving the post to become head of the Arab League.
Mohammed el-Urabi, a former ambassador to Germany, will become Egypt's top diplomat, the state news agency said.