Egypt Islamist parliament elects panel for new constitution

Constitutionalisation of Sharia law?

Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament and senate began meeting on Saturday to elect a panel to draft a new constitution amid calls by liberal groups for protests against Islamist influence over the charter.
The constitution drafted by the 100-member assembly -- half of it legislators and the rest public figures and trade unions -- will replace the one annulled by the ruling military after an uprising ousted president Hosni Mubarak last year.
However, several of the groups that spearheaded the revolt against Mubarak now fear that the Islamists, who swept to victory in parliamentary and senate elections after Mubarak's downfall, want to exert control over the process.
They have called for marches to the Cairo convention centre where the legislators are gathered.
According to a schedule established by the military, the panel is meant to finish its work before presidential elections, which now seems unlikely ahead of the vote due to be held in May.
Some presidential candidates fear that could leave the new president without constitutionally defined powers, while the dominant Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) angles to give more powers to a prime minister in the new charter.
The Muslim Brotherhood's party has been pressuring the military to sack the cabinet and appoint a FJP-led government.
At Saturday's joint session, which began at noon local time (1000 GMT), the lawmakers were each to list 100 members they want appointed to the panel and then cast their ballots in 14 boxes, parliamentary speaker Saad al-Katatni said.
Thirteen of the lawmakers on the panel are senators, and the rest parliamentarians, while the 50 others are split between public figures and representatives of labour syndicates, in which Islamists are heavily involved.
Liberals fear that the Islamists will try to beef up references to Islam in the new constitution.
The old charter said that the principles of Islamic law were the source of legislation, a vague formulation that hardliners in the ultra-conservative Salafi Nur party want clarified in the new constitution.
But the FJP, the political arm of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, has sought to allay fears that it wants a stricter adherence to Islamic law in the new constitution.
In a comment on his Twitter account, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear watchdog chief turned Egyptian dissident, questioned parliament's right to form the panel.
"A parliament whose legitimacy is in doubt will elect a panel, half of it from parliament, that is not partial to forming a constitution for Egypt rather than for the (parliamentary) majority," he wrote.
The independent Al-Shorouk daily reported that the Cairo administrative court was considering a petition by a legal expert and 17 activists and media personalities against the election of the panel by parliament.
The petitioners argue that drafting the constitution, which defines the powers of parliament, should not be left to the legislature.