Egyptian lawmakers clashed Saturday over who should have the right to draft the country's constitution, in a heated debate focusing on the influence of Islamists on the crucial document and how religiously conservative Egypt will be in the future.
The first meeting of Egypt's newly-elected 678-member parliament is supposed to decide how to choose the 100 people who will be responsible for writing the country's first constitution after the overthrow of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
The debate centers on how much role conservative Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood will have in writing the document and essentially how Islamic the country will be.
The new constitution is expected to curb presidential powers while giving more authority to the parliament, which would be a drastic change of Egypt's political system. Part of the debate over the constitution is also about the future political role the military, which took power after Mubarak's fall and pledged to transfer power to an elected president by the end of June.
The political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood along with the ultraconservative Salafis, both of whom fared well in the parliament elections and dominate its two chambers, are arguing that elected parliamentarians must form between 40 and 60 percent of the panel. That would essentially translate into a constitution written by a panel dominated by conservative Islamists.
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, who's affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, tried to reassure liberals and others that they would not be shut out of the decision-making process.
"There will be no exclusions for anybody," said Saad el-Katatni, who chaired the meeting. He added that the constitution should not be written by "the majority," but instead by "consensus and partnership ... to create harmony and stability."
But opponents say the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and most powerful political organization, often speak of consensus and working with others while actually trying to amass power for themselves. Members of its political wing hold just under half of all seats in the 508-seat lower house and 106 of the Shura Council's 180 elected seats, giving them a powerful voice in the country's political process.
Ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis also made strong showings in elections for both chambers, finishing second behind the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing and giving parliament a distinct Islamic character.
The Salafi Nour party representative Mustafa Khalifa warned the gathering that the parliament majority should not bow to pressures of the minority.
"We should not come under pressure and waste the right of the majority by falling in the trap of giving the minority the right to write the constitution," said Khalifa, whose comments were met by widespread clapping. He said only 40 members of the panel should come from outside the parliament.
Liberal and secular activists, who spearheaded the mass demonstrations that toppled Mubarak last February, fared poorly in voting for the two parliament chambers.
They have pushed for the panel that writes the constitution to be made up of no more than 20 percent of parliament lawmakers, something that would likely give liberals and seculars a greater voice in creating the document.
Leftist Abu el-Ezz al-Hariri of the Popular Socialist Alliance criticized the whole process and said that the constitution should have come first before elections.
"The constitution should have been the first step to democracy," he said.
Zeid Bahaa Eldeen, of the Egyptian Social Democratic party, said during the meeting that only a quarter of the panel should be allotted to parliamentarians while the rest should be open to "rich and diverse society."