Constitutional battle on hold

Both the military and the Brotherhood appear keen to defer any showdown over the writing of a new constitution
The explosive issue of inviolable constitutional principles proposed by Deputy Prime Minister Ali El-Silmi earlier this month is close to being defused. The principles contained in the so-called “El-Silmi document” provoked angry reactions from across the political spectrum: articles effectively placing the military outside the supervision of an elected, civilian administration attracted particular opprobrium, as did the fact that the document would be binding.
The proposals contradicted an earlier constitutional declaration promulgated by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) mandating the newly elected parliament to select the assembly that will draft the constitution. Several political groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, flatly rejected the new “undemocratic” plan. They threatened a mass demonstration on Friday 18 November if El-Silmi did not retract the document, and gave the cabinet and military council until Wednesday 16 November to comply.
On Tuesday El-Silmi, accompanied by two other members of cabinet, met with representatives from parties opposed to the document to discuss possible changes, particularly to articles 9 and 10 which place the military beyond civilian control. El-Silmi’s interlocutors also insisted on removing detailed criteria governing the selection of the constitutional assembly and demanded that the document be non-binding. According to Mustafa El-Naggar, the Adl (Justice) Party representative at the meeting, the ministers seemed to accept the changes.
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press on Wednesday a cabinet meeting was in progress which, according to Wahid Abdel-Meguid, spokesman of the committee of parties opposed to the document, would issue a decision on the final draft of the communiqué, including the changes demanded.
The committee, which includes the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, the centrist Adl, Hadara (Civilisation) and Wasat (Centre) parties, the liberal Ghad (Tomorrow) and Nasserist Karama (Dignity) Party, held a meeting on Sunday following which they announced their rejection of El-Silmi’s document. The meeting was also attended by several presidential candidates including Abdel-Meneim Abul-Fotouh, Ayman Nour and Hisham Youssef representing Amr Moussa.
The Wafd Party, which had not opposed the document, said on Tuesday it accepted the proposed changes. A majority of left-wing and liberal parties have kept silent throughout the developments while hardline Islamist parties insisted they would accept nothing short of the document’s full withdrawal, even if it is non-binding.
The question now is whether the Muslim Brotherhood will go ahead with its threat to take to the streets tomorrow. Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian told the Weekly on Tuesday that if the controversial articles are removed from the document and the principles are no longer supraconstitutional, his organisation has “no reason to demonstrate on Friday”.
Tomorrow’s demonstration was originally planned by activists and revolutionary groups to press the SCAF into handing over power and returning the army to barracks by April 2012.
Days after assuming power following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February the SCAF announced it would transfer power to an elected government within six months and issued a communiqué stating that presidential elections would be held before the end of 2011. Later it abandoned these commitments without offering any explanation, announcing a timeline for parliamentary elections beginning on 28 November and ending in January 2012. They will be followed by Shura Council elections which are now scheduled to end in March. Once the new parliament assembles it will elect an assembly of 100 members to draft a new constitution. The assembly then has up to a year to finalise the draft before it is put to a referendum for public approval.
Presidential elections, says SCAF, will be held only after the constitution is ratified by the referendum. What that means, in ptactice, is that SCAF will remain in control until 2013, two years after Mubarak was removed.
Those who first called for a demonstration on 18 November had intended to force the SCAF’s hand over keeping to its earlier promises. But because the political forces opposed to the El-Silmi document chose the same day to protest against the binding nature of the proposals — which meant a majority of demonstrators would be Islamists — many left wing, secular and liberal parties and groups said they would stay away.
Now, with the prospect of a breakthrough between El-Silmi and those opposed to his proposals, the turnout for tomorrow’s demonstration could be small.
The Brotherhood, says El-Erian, “want the military to go back to the barracks, but we consider the elections the first step in transferring power to civilians”.
“We don’t want unnecessary mayhem now. We’ll address the military’s stay in power later.”
Prime Minister Essam Sharaf broke his silence about the issue on Monday, posting a message on his Facebook page that seemed critical of El-Silmi’s document. The premier described any “constraints” on the people’s freedom to write the constitution or hinder the transfer of power to civilians as “unacceptable”.
El-Silmi’s apparent readiness on Tuesday to compromise on the document might indicate that the military wants to avoid not only a confrontation with the political forces ranged against the document, but also the prospect of a mass rally 10 days before elections begin. The Muslim Brotherhood may also be calculating that a massive demonstration could force a delay in the election timetable, which it does not want. It is this confluence of interests, suggests Diaa Rashwan, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, that makes a breakthrough regarding the document likely. It will not be a solution, he told the 
Weekly, “but postpones the problem” till after the elections
   , writesAmira Howeidy

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