Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A Promising Step in Egypt

In Egypt, a Panel of Jurists Is Given the Task of Revising the Country’s Constitution

By David D. Kirkpatrick and Kareem Fahim
The New York Times
February 15, 2011

CAIRO — The military officers governing Egypt on Tuesday convened a panel of jurists, including an outspoken Muslim Brotherhood politician, to revise the country’s Constitution in the first tangible evidence of a commitment to move the country toward democracy after President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.

In an incongruous scene — unimaginable just one month ago — Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister acting as chief of state, appointed a panel of eight experts led by a retired judge known as a leading critic of the Mubarak government.

Though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which seized power with Mr. Mubarak’s exit, has repeatedly pledged to uphold the goals of the Egyptian revolution, many in the opposition have questioned the army’s willingness to submit for the first time to a civilian democracy after six decades of military-backed strongmen.

On Tuesday, however, several opposition figures said they felt heartened.

“The move to appoint the panel is the first concrete thing the army has done since taking over,” said Hossam Bahgat, a prominent civil rights lawyer and Mubarak critic. “We have only had communiqués. We have been analyzing the rhetoric. But now is the first concrete move, and there is nothing about it that concerns us.”

The biggest surprise was the inclusion of Sobhi Saleh, an Alexandria appeals lawyer and former member of Parliament who is a prominent figure of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Mubarak government repeatedly portrayed Mr. Saleh as extremist. Mr. Saleh has espoused some views many here might consider excessive, like advocating a ban on public kissing in most places, and he was released from an Egyptian intelligence prison recently.

“I am very happy because Tantawi told us to try to finish as soon as we can,” Mr. Saleh said in an interview. “He said, ‘We want to hand over the power because we are military people and we have no political aspirations.’ ” His colleagues on the panel called Mr. Saleh an impartial jurist. “Sobhi Saleh is a real legal expert,” said Hassan el-Badrawi, a judge on the panel. “This is proof we are not excluding anybody.”

The chief of the panel is Tareq el-Bishri, a retired senior judge, prominent intellectual and author of a book-length critique of the Mubarak government titled “Egypt: Between Disobedience and Decay.” Mr. Bishri leaned left in his youth and later gravitated toward a moderate brand of Islamism, making him a bridge figure between the two wings of the Egyptian opposition. And he later became a legal adviser to a major opposition movement, Kefaya, or Enough.

As a jurist, Mr. Bishri is specifically known for his opposition to prosecutions outside civilian courts as well as for his arguments of a balance of power between government institutions — ideas alien to Mubarak government. In revising the Constitution, “he has a list of things he already wants to do,” said Prof. Ellis Goldberg of the University of Washington, a political scientist who is studying Mr. Bishri’s work.

At least one other member of the panel, Maher Samy Youssef, another judge, is a Coptic Christian, a group that makes up about 10 percent of the population and is Egypt’s principal minority. The other panel members are considered independents without known political affiliations, including another judge, Hatem Bagatou, and three law professors, Mohamed Hassanein Abdel-Al, Mahmoud Atef el-Banna and Mohamed Bahey Abou Younis. “The committee is technical and very balanced,” Mr. Saleh said. “It has no political color, except me because I was a member of Parliament.”

Members of the coalition of youth groups who led the revolution also expressed satisfaction. Walid Rachid, a member of the secular April 6 Youth Movement, said some members were initially concerned about the panel chief’s Islamist leanings but were ultimately satisfied by his reputation for independence. “We think he is fair, and he will do something better for our country,” Mr. Rachid said, noting that the military planned to submit the amendments to an up-or-down referendum in any case.

Islam Lotfi, a lawyer and member of the Muslim Brotherhood Youth who was also among the organizers of the revolution, said the coalition of young leaders had encouraged the military leaders to quickly pass a package of essential amendments to the Egyptian Constitution so that the country could hold credible elections. Then a new Parliament might reopen the question of a broader overhaul.

“When we have a good Parliament, they should revisit the Constitution but it is wise not to let a new Constitution come out during a military period,” Mr. Lotfi said. “It would be somehow fascist.”

While encouraged by the military’s action, Mr. Bahgat also spoke of larger battles looming. “There are people calling for an immediate shift from a presidential system to a parliamentary democracy, to make sure any new president doesn’t become an autocrat,” he said. He added that there were still reasons for concern about the army’s intentions, saying there was a “lack of clarity” about the number of detainees the military might be holding and the conditions under which they are being held.

The military has urged the panel to complete its work in just 10 days, a timetable many considered implausible for a complete overhaul. But members of the panel said they were already quickly moving toward a package of smaller changes that might facilitate fair elections and make it easier for a future Parliament to further amend the text.

“Hopefully you are going to hear good news in three to four days,” said Mr. Badrawi. “Our impression is that they have a real desire to transfer power at the nearest possible time to a civil authority.”

The amendments under discussion would also eliminate the president’s authority over constitutional amendments, open up eligibility to form parties or run for office, limit the maximum term that elected officials can serve, establish independent judicial oversight of elections and abolish the emergency law enabling arrest and detention without charges.

As the country struggles to get back on its feet, the central bank said banks would remain closed for the rest of the week here, Wednesday and Thursday.

As Egyptians celebrated the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on Tuesday, many of the protests that have clogged the streets in recent days abated. A banner still hanging from a lamppost on Tahrir Square carried a grievance from the past, or a warning for the future. “The corrupt regime will not fix what it ruined,” it said.

Nearby, in front of the state television building, young people continued their unrelenting beautification campaign, collecting garbage in bags and painting fences.

In the face of the country’s mounting economic woes, not many people expressed much concern about the constitutional panel. “I don’t care about the Constitution,” said Ibrahim Mounir, an army veteran, mentioning housing woes and the problem of marrying off his son.

Mona El-Naggar and Dawlat Magdy contributed reporting.

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