Egypt outlines plans for new constitution

CAIRO Wed Dec 7, 2011 9:57pm GMT

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's army detailed on Wednesday plans to ensure those who draft the constitution represent all society not just groups in parliament, views set to rile Islamists seeking a commanding role in the process after early success in a parliamentary poll.

But the army's remarks may reassure the United States, which gives billions of dollars in military and other aid to Egypt, and other Western nations wary of the rise of Islamists after Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February.

Earlier army-backed proposals on the make-up of the assembly to draft the constitution, and its suggestions for articles in the new constitution that would shield the army from civilian rulers, sparked protests in November that turned violent.

The army backtracked and insisted the principles it had outlined were non-binding ideas, but it raised suspicions among politicians and activists that the army wanted to cling to power after formally handing control to civilians next year.

Army General Mokhtar al-Mullah, a member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said the new parliament would be responsible for choosing the 100-strong assembly to draw up the constitution, in line with the interim constitution.

But he added that "parameters" for choosing the kinds of people in the constituent assembly should be agreed before parliament made its appointments.

"There will be an agreement beforehand on the form of this constituent assembly between the cabinet, the advisory committee for the military council, and the parliament," he told a group of reporters. The army would not impose names or intervene, he said.

Reuters obtained an audio recording of the briefing.

Mullah said the new constitution was meant to last "for many years to come," so its writers should be broader-based than those represented by the majority in parliament and should include workers, professionals, parties, labour unions and others.

ISLAMIST CRITICISM

The army's proposal in November also outlined a cross-section of society for the constituent assembly. Protesters were angry because they saw it as an army bid to take away powers of appointment from the parliament.

A senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, whose party list secured 37 percent of the vote in the first round of the parliamentary poll, putting it in the lead, insisted parliament would pick the assembly.

"This is likely to be another attempt to control the formation of the constituent assembly. At any rate, the cabinet or the new consultative council can only offer suggestions that parliament has a right to dismiss and is not bound by," the FJP's Mohamed el-Beltagy told Reuters.

Although the army plan may be opposed by Islamists who could form a majority in the new parliament if early voting trends continue, it may find support from some liberals who, aware of Islamist strength at the polls, have said the constitution cannot simply reflect the view of Egypt's majority.

About a tenth of Egypt's 80 million people are Christians.

Mullah said a new constitution, which must be approved by referendum, could be in place by mid-2012, when under a new, shorter timeline the army will hand power to a new president.

That would set a very tight deadline for the new parliament as the upper and lower house polls only end in March.

Mullah repeated that the army was committed to handing over to civilian rulers and did not want to retain power for itself. But he again raised the prospect of keeping the army's budget away from any significant civilian scrutiny.

"There is no state in the world where the armed forces' budget is discussed in parliament. But there are special groups in parliament ... that discuss some articles of the armed forces' budget, this is not just in Egypt," he said.

He said the army, which has broad business interests, was transparent in its financial affairs and project work was under supervision of the national audit office. The army builds roads, runs factories and owns swathes of real estate.

(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Tim Pearce)

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