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Egypt's crisis deepens as non-Islamists boycott writing a constitution

CAIRO — A standoff between Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and the country's military rulers deepened Tuesday as dozens of non-Islamist politicians said they would boycott the writing of a new constitution because Islamists dominate the panel selected to draft the document.

Some politicians called for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's ruling authority, to dissolve the panel, a move that would be certain to exacerbate tension between the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the country's new Parliament, and the military, which already has rejected Brotherhood efforts to dissolve the military-appointed Cabinet.

The Brotherhood and its conservative allies in Parliament last week selected a largely Islamist bloc to write the constitution.

"We do not want to partake in deceiving the Egyptian people," Ahmed Said, head of the Free Egyptians Party, the largest liberal bloc in Parliament, said in explaining his party's decision to boycott the drafting of the constitution.

He accused the Parliament's Islamist faction of giving "itself the right to monopolize writing the constitution and excluding the rest of the Egyptian community."

Sameh Ashour, a prominent lawyer and head of the Lawyers Syndicate, called on the military to act.

"As rulers of the state, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has to interfere and protect the country," he said. Ashour said the crisis comes from having selected a Parliament before a constitution had been written.

"The question is: Do we want a constitution that satisfies the public or one monopolized by the Parliament's majority?" he asked.

The selection over the weekend of a mostly Islamist panel to draft the new constitution brought to a head what has been the dominant concern of liberals and other political groups in Egypt since the toppling last year of President Hosni Mubarak: What role the Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative Islamist factions would have in setting the pace for Egypt's political developments.

The Brotherhood, which was effectively banned during Mubarak's 30-year reign, had been careful to walk a moderate path, offering only muted criticism of the country's military government and pledging not to nominate its own candidate in the upcoming presidential elections, now scheduled for May 23.

But two weeks ago, the Brotherhood, which controls 47 percent of the seats in the Parliament elected earlier this year, said it might in fact name a candidate for president. Then came the selection of the constitution commission.

On Saturday, Parliament named the panel's 50 members, handing 25 seats to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, 11 seats to the Nour Party, which draws its membership from the puritanical Salafist strain of Islam, and 14 seats to the remaining political parties and independent parliamentarians. That division gave Islamist members of Parliament control of 72 percent of the commission's seats.

There's was no clear outcome to the political crisis. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling military council, met with the heads of the 19 political parties represented in the Parliament. Egyptian Chief of Staff Gen. Sami Anan also attended the meeting. There was no word on what was said at the meeting.

Already, groups opposed to the Islamist dominance of the constitutional commission have asked a court to dissolve the panel. Judge Ali al Fikri, head of Egypt's Administrative Courts, on Tuesday postponed a verdict until April 10.

Emad Gad, a Coptic Christian member of Parliament and a member of its foreign affairs committee, slammed the Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice political wing. He warned Egypt's foreign partners to beware of an Islamist takeover of Egypt's government, which he said "imposes a direct threat to our foreign policy and relations with the international community."

"The West shouldn't wait for the constitution to understand the future," Gad said.

(Sabry is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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