Egypt Military Rulers Name Panel to Reform Constitution


Egypt's military regime warned on Tuesday that a wave of strikes sweeping the country was "disastrous", as it gave a panel of civilian experts 10 days to revise the constitution.

Against a backdrop of persistent nationwide walk-outs and street protests, the junta promised to rapidly restore constitutional rule following the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's regime.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces instructed an eight-strong panel of jurists and scholars to "amend all articles as it sees fit to guarantee democracy and the integrity of presidential and parliamentary elections."

The panel "must finish its work in a period of no longer than 10 days after the date of this decision" and must strike down the articles giving presidents unlimited terms in office and the right to refer cases to military courts.

The military took power on Friday when Mubarak's 30-year rule was brought to an end by an 18-day street revolt. Since then, Egyptian workers have begun testing the bounds of their new freedom with strike action.

On Sunday, the military suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament, but it has promised to oversee a six-month transition to democratic rule. It urged strikers to return to work but stopped short of ordering them to do so.

"The Supreme Council is aware of the economic and social circumstances society is undergoing, but these issues cannot be resolved before the strikes and sit-ins end," the state news agency MENA quoted the military as saying.

"The result of that will be disastrous," it added.

The constitutional panel got straight down to work.

"The armed forces want to hand over power as soon as possible. They want amendments to the constitution," said panel member Sobhi Saleh, a lawyer and former lawmaker from the Islamist opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.

"We met with the field marshal and the chief of staff," Saleh told Agence France Presse, referring to the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and Egypt's de facto head of state, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

"We are revising the constitution to remove all restrictions and obstacles, and to meet the aspirations of the revolution's and the people's demands."

The committee is headed by Tareq al-Bishri, a respected former head of Egypt's administrative court, and includes jurists and constitutional experts from a broad cross-section of communities.

One group representing Coptic Christians objected to the line-up, however, complaining that their representative was simply a judicial figure whereas the Muslim Brotherhood was represented by a politician.

The strikes and protests abated on Tuesday as Egyptians marked the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed, but threaten to flare again as Egyptians use their newfound freedom to press long suppressed grievances.

The uprising against Mubarak has splintered into protests by workers in the transport, health care, oil, tourism and textile sectors and state-owned media and government bodies. Banks and the stock exchange are closed.

The Muslim Brotherhood -- which was banned but broadly tolerated under Mubarak's rule -- confirmed that it plans to form an official political party to take part in promised parliamentary elections.

Egypt's best organized opposition group fielded candidates as independents under the slogan "Islam is the solution" in 2005 elections, winning around 20 percent of the seats.

But it boycotted the second round of elections last year after failing to win a single seat in the first amid widespread reports of violence and vote-rigging on behalf of the ruling party.

The Brotherhood belatedly joined the massive nationwide protests that led to the fall of Mubarak but has said it will not put up a candidate in the election to replace him and has called for democratic reforms.

The group has triggered concerns in the West and among some of its secular rivals, who fear it may come to power through free elections only to then implement Islamic law in the most populous Arab country.

Brotherhood leaders adamantly reject such a scenario, insisting it supports the broader demands of the pro-democracy protesters who brought Mubarak down and are seeking a more open multi-party system.

Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit said the economy was "severely affected by the political crisis that has shaken the country" and called for international aid after speaking with his U.S., British and Saudi counterparts.

At the height of the revolt Egypt was hemorrhaging more than $300 million a day, according to the Egyptian unit of French bank Credit Agricole, which lowered a growth forecast for 2011 from 5.3 percent to 3.7 percent.

Abul Gheit's remarks came as EU finance ministers met to discuss requests from Cairo to freeze the assets of members of Mubarak's toppled regime following widespread allegations of corruption.

Egypt's protest movement, which was inspired by the ouster of Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has in turn triggered anti-government demonstrations around the Middle East, from Algeria to Bahrain, Iran and Yemen.

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