CAIRO—Egypt’s military rulers will consider demands from secular parties that a constitution be drafted before elections are held, an official said, a move that could delay the country’s first postrevolutionary polls and bolster non-Islamist political parties.
Military leaders would alter the timeline for Egypt’s democratic transition if “political forces agreed on it,” said Maj. Gen. Mohammed Assar, a member of the ruling military council, in a closed meeting with the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, according to the Chamber.
The debate over how and when to write a new constitution has emerged as the center of a widening ideological fissure between powerful Islamists and non-Islamist political groups. Egyptians hope drafting a new constitution will separate the country’s postrevolutionary political future from its authoritarian past.
While activists of both ideologies helped to oust former President Hosni Mubarak in February, the new and relatively unorganized secular-minded politicians have grown increasingly anxious that well-established religious parties will dominate parliament after elections scheduled for September, and seize the upper hand in drafting the constitution.
The current timeline, established by a referendum in March, charges the incoming parliament with nominating a 100-person constitutional congress to draft the new document, which would then be submitted to another referendum.
Because Islamist political groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, are expected to hold the largest single bloc in the next legislature, they could hold considerable influence in the constitution-drafting process, secularists fear.
“Why should they just be the lucky ones…to form the constitution?” said Shadi Al Ghazali Harb, a senior member in the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, which took shape during the nearly three-week uprising this year.
Mr. Al Ghazali Harb said he fears Islamists would place a permanent mark on Egypt’s political future by drafting a constitution that limits personal freedoms and human rights.
The Islamists want to stick with the current plan, and accuse those who wish to change it of opposing the democratic process. “They have the right to say what they want but the decision is to the people, not to them,” said Essam El Erian, deputy head of Freedom and Justice.
The so-called Constitution First movement has been embraced by several secular-minded political parties, youth protest groups and prominent presidential candidates such as Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei. Proponents of the plan have petitioned the military council and have threatened to bring their numbers into Tahrir Square next month for protests.
While the Constitution First proposals differ, all of them demand that an appointed assembly—representing various ideological factions, political parties, workers unions and professional syndicates—draft the document and submit it to a popular referendum. That route would almost certainly delay September’s parliamentary elections. There is also no consensus as to who would be charged with determining which groups can participate in the assembly.
With little political experience and without an established support base, some secular political forces may have realized that stalling for time is their best bet, said Nathan Brown, an Egypt expert and political science professor at George Washington University.
“If what these people are trying to do is basically stave off elections until after the constitution is written, then you’re writing an undemocratic constitution with the express purpose of excluding one of the most popular groups in the country,” he said, referring to Islamists. “That’s a recipe for political disaster.”
None of the proposals from the Constitution First camp contain a cogent plan for how to form a constituent assembly before parliamentary elections while avoiding the inevitable political bickering, said Mr. Brown.