An Egyptian court on Tuesday suspended a 100-member panel selected by lawmakers from the Islamist-dominated parliament and tasked with drafting the country's new constitution.
The ruling was a blow to the Islamists, who have catapulted into the center of Egypt's political stage since the ouster 14 months ago of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. It followed complaints by political groups, secular politicians and constitutional experts over parliament's decision to give lawmakers half the seats on the panel.
Islamist lawmakers, combined with like-minded individuals selected from outside parliament, ended up with more than 60 seats on the panel. But some two dozen members of the committee — many of them hailing from liberal groups that engineered the popular, anti-Mubarak uprising — have quit the committee, protesting the selection process and alleging that it was not inclusive enough. More have threatened to walk out, saying the dispute will cast a shadow on the constitution's legitimacy.
In its verdict Tuesday, the Cairo Administrative Court said the way the committee was selected violated a constitutional declaration adopted in a referendum last year. The declaration does not have a clause that allows members of parliament — those who selected the panel — to sit on the panel, the court said. It also referred the case to a panel of judges to look into the legality of the panel.
Parliament can appeal the ruling. But for now the committee's meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, has been postponed.
Islamist lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud rejected Tuesday's court decision, calling it a "serious precedent" that violates the legislature's independence.
"The declaration did not specify who to select for the panel," he said, adding that it was up to the parliament to decide. "This is the heart of the dispute."
Critics welcomed the decision but said they hoped the parliament would heed their complaints to avoid a protracted legal battle.
"It would be wise if the parliament were to restructure the panel of its own devices," said Ahmed el-Sayed el-Naggar, one of the panel members who walked out. "This is not how constitutions are written."
The Islamists' insistence that lawmakers get half the panel's seats prompted charges that they wanted to monopolize the process and give the new constitution an Islamist slant. Critics claimed that even those picked from outside parliament were largely of an Islamist bent.
Ensuring their majority on the panel was one of a series of actions taken by the Islamists in their bid to solidify their pre-eminent position on Egypt's new political scene and play the primary role in defining the nation's future direction.
It is one front of a larger political crisis gripping Egypt nearly two months before the expected end a rocky transition period. The dispute pits the country's two most powerful political forces — the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling generals who took over after Mubarak's ouster — against each other.
The brotherhood is demanding that the military-backed government be sacked and hand power over to a Cabinet led by the parliamentary majority. The generals have refused.
The brotherhood's response has been twofold. It has refused to approve a badly needed loan from the International Monetary Fund to help boost Egypt's ailing economy, saying it cannot sign off on it without a clear government plan for how to use the money.
It also decided to field a candidate for Egypt's May 23-24 presidential elections, reneging on an earlier promise not to do so. In a surprise move, the group put forward businessman Khairat el-Shater, the brotherhood's deputy leader, as their choice for the presidency.
The brotherhood's actions have led many to believe that the group, emerging from some 60 years on the sidelines as an outlawed organization under Mubarak, was more interested in dominating the country than in an inclusive transition that lays the foundation for a democratic and free Egypt.
In an apparent response, Omar Suleiman, Mubark's former spy chief and vice president, decided to make a bid for the presidency, rattling the brotherhood and others who see in his pitch an offense to the uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Parliament has responded by pushing for new legislation that would bar officials who worked in the last five years of Mubarak's rule from running for office. The move is seen as an attempt to block Suleiman, and former prime minister under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafik, who is also running for president.