Egypt's Islamists give secular parties equal role in constitution writing

Egypt’s political forces have reached an 11th-hour agreement on who will write a new constitution, ending a months-long deadlock and barely averting unilateral action by the ruling military council. The deal is a boost for secularists as the military prepares to hand over power to a civilian government by July.

Writing a new constitution is a key step in Egypt’s transition because it will not only define the powers of the new president and the parliament, but it will also lay out the relationship between Islam and the state and define the military’s role in politics.

The military has indicated that it will attempt to retain its political influence and privileges even after handing power to an elected president, and this week threatened to unilaterally impose a constitutional declaration if political parties had not reached a consensus by Thursday.

Under this ultimatum, the two sides resolved a bitter deadlock over how much sway Islamists and secularists would each have over the constituent assembly, tasked with writing the new constitution.

Secular parties wanted enough influence to be able to block attempts to make the constitution more Islamic, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party (FJP) wanted the body to reflect the makeup of the parliament. Egyptians voted overwhelmingly for Islamist parties in December elections, giving such parties nearly three-fourths of the seats in parliament, though in the first round of presidential elections more than 50 percent of the vote went to non-Islamic candidates.

After nearly six hours of negotiation Thursday, the parties agreed that the 100-member body will be divided evenly between secular and Islamist forces. The 50-50 split is a victory for secular and liberal parties, who make up only about a quarter of the parliament. They had boycotted the first assembly that was formed after Islamist parties dominated it, and a court later dissolved the body.

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