Egypt's Islamists tighten their grip on power

March 25, 2012 - 4:36 PM
Mideast Egypt

Members of Egypt's Parliament attend a session in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, March 24, 2012. Egyptian parliamentarians on Saturday cast ballots to select a 100-member panel that will draft the country's new constitution, amid deep polarization between liberals and Islamists over the process. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's newly empowered Islamists have tightened their grip, giving themselves a majority on a 100-member panel tasked with drafting a constitution that will define the shape of the government in the post-Hosni Mubarak era.

Led by the Muslim Brotherhood to victory in parliamentary elections, fundamentalists now have their eyes set on the next prize: the presidency.

The new constitution will decide whether Islam will gain even more strength in Egypt, abandoning decades of secular traditions that made the nation a top U.S. ally and a bulwark against extremism.

The charter also will determine whether the decades-old system of a powerful president will be maintained, or instead, an empowered parliament under Islamist domination will set the tone.

"We don't want another pharaoh," said Yasser Burhami, a leader of the ultraconservative Salafi movement whose followers have won 25 percent of parliament's seats. "We want a political system that is half parliamentary and half presidential."

A list of names published Sunday by the country's official news agency showed that the panel will have nearly 60 Islamists, including 37 legislators selected the day before by parliament's two chambers. The second half of the panel comprises public figures, also selected by members of parliament.

The strong Islamist showing follows their victory in parliamentary elections — a seismic shift for groups that were heavily repressed under Mubarak but have used the vast organizational skills gained over years of working underground to rise to the upper political echelons.

It also reinforced fears by secular and liberal Egyptians that the dominant parliamentary faction would pack the panel with supporters and ignore concerns of other groups, including the youth activists who spearheaded last year's uprising against Mubarak's authoritarian regime.

"The Brotherhood's monopoly on setting the criteria for selecting the constitutional assembly leaves us skeptical of whatever promises they make," prominent rights activist Hafez Abu Saedah wrote on his Twitter account.

Just a handful of Christians and women were selected for the panel, reflecting the disproportionately low representation in parliament of both groups. There also were only a few names from the revolutionary movement that ousted the leader.

One significant exception, however, was Ahmed Hararah, a young dentist who lost sight in one eye during the uprising and later lost his second eye in clashes that broke out between security forces and protesters calling for a faster transition to civilian rule in Cairo. He has become a symbol of the revolutionaries.

With the parliament and the constitutional assembly firmly in hand, Islamists are turning their attention to presidential elections, which are to be held on May 23-24, with a runoff between the two candidates with the most votes in early June if nobody wins an outright majority. The winner is expected to be announced June 21.

Neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor the Salafis — which are sometimes at odds over policy — have publicly backed a candidate, but both groups say they will only support one with an Islamist background.

The importance of the presidency to Islamists became clear Sunday with the eruption of a public dispute between the Brotherhood and the generals who took power following Mubarak's ouster.

The Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, accused the military council of trying to "hinder" the transition to democratic rule. In a statement posted on its website, it also raised concern that presidential elections could be rigged to benefit a "certain candidate" it did not identify.

The party, it added, is studying proposals to field its own candidate, reversing an earlier decision not to do so.

The military and the Brotherhood have emerged as Egypt's two most powerful forces, and an enduring quarrel between the two could put in serious jeopardy the transfer of power promised by the military for before the end of June.

The Islamist party charges that the military-backed government has failed to resolve any of the crises facing the nation, including an acute fuel shortage, rampant crime and a worsening economy.

"The (ruling) military council bears full responsibility for attempts to hinder the process of democratic transition and ... exporting crises to future governments," said the party's statement, suggesting that the military and the Cabinet were manufacturing the problems to discredit a future government likely to be led by the Brotherhood.

The generals responded quickly with a statement carried by the official news agency. They called attempts to cast doubt on the integrity of the forthcoming presidential elections "baseless" and pointed out they were the ones who planned and carried out recent parliamentary elections. The vote was widely viewed as the freest in the nation's modern history.

Liberal lawmakers, meanwhile, say a permanent constitution should not be written only by those who won a majority in a single election, but rather by representatives of Egyptians from all walks of life and ideological persuasions.

Some Islamists previously indicated that they would seek to write the constitution by "consensus," but the parliament's two chambers jointly decided last week to allocate half of the panel's seats to its own members, three-quarters of whom are Islamists.

About half of those are from the Brotherhood, which until now has been vague about what it wants the constitution to include. But they also include ultraconservatives known as Salafis, many of whom have called for the constitution to reflect hard-line interpretations of Islamic Sharia law. Such a move could lead to the revocation of relatively liberal family laws on divorce and other issues, and lower the minimum age for marriage for both sexes.

The country's most prominent democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, was not included on the panel, though his public opposition to Mubarak's regime in the year leading up to its overthrow injected energy into the youth groups that engineered last year's uprising.