Muslim Brotherhood Representative Helping to ‘Cleanse’ Egypt’s Constitution

By Lee Keath and Hamza Hendawi | February 15, 2011 | 6:30 AM EST

Senior Muslim Brotherhood figures Essam el-Erian, center right, and Saad el-Katatni, center left, take part in a protest in Cairo on Sunday, Jan. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Mohammed Abu Zaid)

Cairo (AP) - An amended constitution will serve as Egypt's interim charter until democratic rule is established, a member of a committee appointed by the military leadership to change the document said Tuesday.

Sobhi Saleh, a legal expert and a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, said the panel's intention was to "cleanse" the current constitution to remove all restrictions on freedoms, including the right to form political parties, so that a democratic government can be formed and a "full constitution" can be drawn up afterward.

Saleh's appointment to the committee suggests that the military may be willing to legitimize the Brotherhood, nearly six decades after it was banned. He said the panel was convening for the first time with the military on Tuesday.

The military has been in power since Friday when longtime President Hosni Mubarak stepped down in the face of mass protests. The Armed Forces Supreme Council, grouping the defense minister and top generals, says it will hand over power to an elected government after elections are held. It told protest organizers in a meeting Sunday that constitutional changes would be drawn up within 10 days and then put to a referendum.

A growing wave of labor unrest has followed the toppling of Mubarak, with thousands of state employees protesting for higher pay and better working conditions. The military leaders have called for an end to the protests, saying calm was needed to implement what it promises will be an eventual handover to civilian rule under a new, more democratic system.

Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the uprising, has been cleared of protesters camping there by the military after the activists' coalition ended its demonstrations as a gesture to the interim leadership. But protesters are planning a new mass demonstration on Friday, seeking to bring 1 million to the square to call for the release of political detainees and the cancellation of emergency laws.

The military leadership has set a swift timetable, aims to have constitutional amendments drawn up within 10 days and a referendum to approve them within two months ahead of elections for a new parliament and ultimately a new civilian government, according to youth activists who met two of the top generals.

The coalition of activists who organized the unprecedented protest movement pressured the military for new steps to ensure that the autocratic system of the past 30 years is dismantled. Protesters welcomed the military's takeover after Mubarak's resignation, but many remain wary of its ultimate intentions.

In a list of demands Monday, they called for the dissolving of Mubarak's National Democratic Party and for the creation of a Cabinet of technocrats within 30 days. They want it to replace the current caretaker government, appointed by Mubarak after the protests began Jan. 25.

"It is unacceptable that the same government which caused this revolution with its corrupt ways oversees the transitional period," said Ziad al-Oleimi, a member of the coalition.

A number of youth organizers met Sunday with two generals from the Armed Forces Supreme Council, now the country's official ruler. They called the meeting positive and were further encouraged by the military's dissolving of parliament and suspending of the constitution, two of their top demands.

The military's patience with the strikes, which are independent of the activists, may be running out as it struggles to restore stability and get Egypt's economy functioning again, after being hit heavily by three weeks of turmoil.

Employees of the National Bank of Egypt, the largest government-owned bank, went on strike Monday, forcing the Central Bank to order banks closed. They remained closed on Tuesday, a religious holiday.

Egypt's stock exchange has delayed its reopening until next week at the earliest -- it had been due to resume operations Wednesday after a nearly three-week halt.

Demonstrations also occurred in Aswan, Egypt's southernmost city, and its northernmost, Alexandria on the Mediterranean. In Minya province, south of Cairo, police and soldiers foiled an attempted prison break, killing four inmates and wounding 11, according to Egypt's official news agency.

The military's statement Monday was gently worded but reflected its exasperation. It said the country needed quiet so the military can run the nation's affairs at this "critical stage" and eventually hand power to an elected and civilian administration.

It warned that strikes and protests hurt security and the economy and give an opportunity for "irresponsible parties" to commit "illegal acts."

The strikes worsen the blow Egypt's economy has already taken from 18 days of mass protests. During the crisis, hundreds of thousands of tourists fled, wrecking a main foreign currency source. Analysts and economists expect a drop in foreign investment as well.

The stock market had lost almost 17 percent in two consecutive sessions before it closed early on in the crisis. Egypt's currency, the pound, took a pummeling last week before the Central Bank stepped in to prop it up.

EgyptAir is flying only about 30 percent of its scheduled domestic and international flights, in part because demand for seats was sharply down amid the crisis.

The finance minister lowered the country's economic growth forecast by over 2 percentage points, to under 4 percent for the year.

Momentum was building to move against international assets of Mubarak, his family and regime officials.

The United States is examining requests from Egypt's new government to freeze the assets of top Mubarak aides, but not the president himself, a senior U.S. official said. The European Union will also discussed the request, said British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Luxembourg's prime minister said the EU should follow Switzerland's lead in moving to identify and freeze the deposed president's assets.

Protest organizers warned that the strikes likely would not end without a reassuring signal from the military that change will be real -- specifically, replacement of the Mubarak-picked government.

Hague also said he had been told by Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq that the current government would be reshuffled by next week to bring in opposition figures.

Al-Oleimi, also of the protest coalition, said this did not go far enough.

Coalition members who attended the Sunday meeting with the military said another sit-down with leaders of the armed forces is slated for later this week.

But the activists are still looking to see whether the generals "are planning to listen to us or just sit with us," said Shady Ghazali, a coalition member.

The group's ranks came from the Muslim Brotherhood, supporters of Nobel Laureate and democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, members of the activists group of April 6, and the liberal Democratic Front. Among those attending was Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who has become a poster child of the revolution.

Sunday's session was "reassuring from one side and worrying from another," said Abdul-Rahman Samir, one of the activists who attended.

"It was clear that the army men were determined to purge the old symbols of corruption. But I was worried because I can see they have limits on who they will get rid of," he said. "We felt that there were wings in the army had sensitivies about total reform."

He said he sensed the generals realize the youth are a force to be reckoned with because of their street strength and that they sincerely wanted help from them.

But the generals were eager to stress their own weight, pointing out the achievements of the military as an institution owned by all Egyptians, Samir said. The meeting took place in the Military Intelligence headquarters, which the generals noted to the activists was where the officers who carried out Egypt's 1952 coup that removed the monarchy used to meet.