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Egypt's top court criticizes draft constitution

Associated Press Modified: October 16, 2012 at 4:04 pm •  Published: October 16, 2012

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's highest court lashed out Tuesday at an Islamist-led panel tasked with writing the country's new constitution, saying that some provisions proposed for the text undercut the court's mandate and keep it under the president's power.

The work — and the composition — of the 100-member constitutional assembly has been the subject of a fierce debate in Egypt, and the country is still haggling over disputed articles in the charter, some of which will determine the role of religion in the nation's affairs and the independence of the judiciary.

Supporters of the panel drafting the constitution say it was set up by an elected parliament and broadly represents Egypt's political factions. Critics say the process is dominated by a majority made up of Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood from which Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, hails, and more radical groups, when it should be more consensual.

With the nation increasingly polarized, and mistrust between Islamists and other groups growing, the country's judiciary has emerged as a lifeline and final arbiter for settling most disputes. More than 40 legal challenges have been presented to the country's top administrative court demanding the dissolution of the current panel.

Egypt's High Administrative Court put off a widely expected decision on the challenges Tuesday for next week, prolonging the suspense over the fate of the second panel to write the country's new charter. An earlier panel, also dominated by Islamists, was dissolved in April through the same court, which ruled its make-up didn't adhere to a constitutional declaration designed by the country's former military rulers.

The rising influence of the Islamists was solidified through early parliamentary elections in Egypt, giving them nearly 75 percent of seats in parliament, and subsequently, control over the making of the constitutional assembly, which was drawn up by the parliament.

"Instead of a consensus building from the outset, we got this extreme polarization and these elections," said Nasser Amin, a judicial affairs expert. "The judiciary has become the safety valve, the only place that everyone resorts to for settling disputes. Otherwise, it will be a blood bath."

The current panel released a partial first draft of the charter last week in which most of the provisions related to the Supreme Constitutional Court are identical to the outgoing constitution — the president has the right to appoint the head of the court and the rest of its 15 members after receiving nominations from lower courts.

On Tuesday, judges from the SCC held a rare news conference during which they sharply criticized the constitutional panel.

Tahani el-Gibaly, a member of the SCC, said that provisions that touch on the court, which rules on the constitutionality of laws, are "disastrous."

El-Gibaly said the constitutional assembly has turned down suggestions to free the court from the president's grip and "ensure its independence" from the country's executive and legislative powers. She said the panel ignored proposals to allow other courts, rather than the president, to select the members of the SCC as well as its chief judge.

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