Egypt Supreme Court to decide on constitutional panel

Members of the constituent assembly meet in the Shura Council chamber (September 2012) President Mursi would have the power to appoint a new constituent assembly

A court in Egypt that was due to rule on the fate of the panel rewriting the constitution has decided to refer the case to the country's highest court.

The Cairo Administrative Court passed to the Supreme Constitutional Court dozens of lawsuits questioning the make-up of the constituent assembly.

The plaintiffs argue the panel was formed illegally and does not reflect the diversity of Egyptian society.

Its 100 members are meant to finish drafting the constitution by December.

The document should then be put to a referendum. If it is approved, legislative elections will be held two months later.

Experts say the dissolution of the assembly would delay the process and hinder the introduction of badly needed economic and political reforms.

Draft charter criticised

The process of drafting a new constitution - to replace the one suspended after President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown - had already been slowed by a court ruling in April suspending the first constituent assembly, amid accusations that it was dominated by Islamists.

In June, political parties agreed on the make-up of a new panel, which included a range of politicians, members of the armed forces, police, judiciary and trade unions, as well as Muslim and Christian leaders.

A man protests against the make-up of the constituent assembly (19 October 2012) Liberals and secularists have protested against the make-up of the constituent assembly

However, liberals continued to complain about the distribution of seats and have not withdrawn their 43 legal challenges to the assembly's constitutional legitimacy.

The Cairo Administrative Court had been due to rule earlier this year, but previous hearings were adjourned because the Muslim Brotherhood, to which President Mohammed Mursi belongs, requested more information.

The chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court, which will now rule on case, has publicly criticised provisions contained in a partial draft of the new constitution which seek to remove the court's right to rule on laws passed by parliament and reinstate the president's power to appoint its judges.

"The proposed text gives the president the right to appoint the chairman and members of the court," Maher al-Beheiri said last week.

"Last year, we finally got an amendment that does not allow the president to name the chairman and members of the court without the approval of its General Assembly," he added, referring to the 2011 Constitutional Declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf).

In June, the Islamist-dominated lower house of parliament was dissolved by the Scaf after the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the law governing Egypt's first democratic elections in more than six decades was unconstitutional. The court also rejected President Mursi's attempt to reconvene the People's Assembly the following month.

Human rights groups also said the draft provided for some basic political and economic rights but fell far short of international law on women's and children's rights, freedom of religion and expression, as well as on torture and trafficking of women and children.

If the constituent assembly is dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court, President Mursi would have the power to appoint a new one.

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