Soon after its constitution on February 15, 2011 by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Defence Minister and Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the eight-member Constitutional Revision Panel headed by Tareq el-Bishri, former head of Egypt's Administrative Court, has already started its work and is expected to finalise the revision by February 25, 2011.
Other seven members included the three former judges i. Hassan el-Badrawi, ii. Hatem Bagatou, and iii. Maher Samy Youssef; and four lawyers i. Sobhi Saleh, ii. Mohamed Hassanein Abdel-Al, iii. Mahmoud Atef el-Banna, and iv. Mohamed Bahey Abou Younis.
Constitutional Revision Panel chief Tareq el-Bishri is a retired senior judge, prominent intellectual and author of a book-length critique of the Mubarak Government titled “Egypt: Between Disobedience and Decay.” Bishri leaned left in his youth and later gravitated towards Islamism, making him a bridge figure between the two wings of the Egyptian Opposition. Later, he also became a legal adviser to a major Opposition movement, Kefaya (Enough).
Sobhi Saleh is an Alexandria appeals lawyer, former Member of Parliament and a prominent figure of Ikhwanul Muslemeen;
Maher Samy Youssef is retired judge belonging to the Coptic Christian community, Egypt’s principal minority making up about 10 percent of the population.
The military took power on February 11 when Mubarak's three-decade rule was ended by an 18-day street revolt. The military has now suspended the Constitution and dissolved Parliament. However, it has pledged to oversee a six-month transition to democratic rule. Following persistent nationwide walkouts and street protests, the military junta promised to rapidly restore constitutional rule after the overthrow of Mubarak's regime.
Field Marshal Tantawi instructed the eight-member Constitutional Revision Panel of jurists and scholars to begin amending all articles as it sees fit to guarantee democracy and integrity of presidential and parliamentary elections. It is said to be the first tangible evidence of a commitment to move the country toward democracy after President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
The Constitutional Revision Panel has been given ten days after the date of this decision, and has to amend the articles to prevent giving Presidents unlimited terms in office and the right to refer cases to military courts.
According to Ikhwan lawyer Sobhi Saleh, the armed forces wants to hand over power as soon as possible, adding that there is a panel revising the Constitution to remove all restrictions and obstacles, and to meet the aspirations of the revolution's and the people's demands.
Though the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which seized power with Mubarak’s exit, has repeatedly pledged to uphold the goals of the Egyptian revolution, many in the opposition have questioned the army’s willingness to submit for the first time to a civilian democracy after six decades of military-backed strongmen.
However, on February 15 several Opposition figures said they felt heartened. “The move to appoint the panel is the first concrete thing the army has done since taking over,” said Hossam Bahgat, a prominent civil rights lawyer and Mubarak critic. “We have only had communiqués. We have been analyzing the rhetoric. But now is the first concrete move, and there is nothing about it that concerns us.”
Panel Member Sobhi Saleh
The most significant inclusion in the Constitutional Revision Panel was the inclusion of former Ikhwan MP Sobhi Saleh. The Mubarak Government repeatedly portrayed him as an extremist. He is known for advocating a ban on public kissing. He was released from an Egyptian intelligence prison recently.
“I am very happy because Tantawi told us to try to finish as soon as we can,” Saleh said in an interview. He said: “We want to hand over the power because we are military people and we have no political aspirations.” “The committee is technical and very balanced,” Mr. Saleh said. “It has no political color, except me because I was a member of Parliament.”
His colleagues on the panel called him an impartial jurist. “Sobhi Saleh is a real legal expert,” said Hassan el-Badrawi, a judge on the panel. “This is proof we are not excluding anybody.”
As a jurist, Tareq el-Bishri is specifically known for his opposition to prosecutions outside civilian courts as well as for his arguments of a balance of power between government institutions — ideas alien to Mubarak government. In revising the Constitution, “he has a list of things he already wants to do,” said Prof Ellis Goldberg of the University of Washington, a political scientist who is studying Bishri’s work.
Members of the coalition of youth groups who led the revolution also expressed satisfaction. Walid Rachid, a member of the secular April 6 Youth Movement, said some members were initially concerned about the panel chief’s Islamist leanings but were ultimately satisfied by his reputation for independence. “We think he is fair, and he will do something better for our country,” Rachid said, noting that the military planned to submit the amendments to an up-or-down referendum in any case.
Islam Lotfi, a lawyer and member of the youth wing of the Ikhwanul Muslemeen, who was also among the organizers of the revolution, said the coalition of young leaders had encouraged the military leaders to quickly pass a package of essential amendments to the Egyptian Constitution so that the country could hold credible elections. Then a new Parliament might reopen the question of a broader overhaul.
“When we have a good Parliament, they should revisit the Constitution but it is wise not to let a new Constitution come out during a military period, as it would be somehow fascist,” Lotfi said.
While encouraged by the military’s action, Bahgat also spoke of larger battles looming. “There are people calling for an immediate shift from a presidential system to a parliamentary democracy, to make sure any new president doesn’t become an autocrat,” he said.
Civil rights lawyer Hossam Bahgat added that there were still reasons for concern about the army’s intentions, saying there was a “lack of clarity” about the number of detainees the military might be holding and the conditions under which they are being held.
The military has urged the panel to complete its work in just 10 days, a timetable many considered implausible for a complete overhaul. But members of the panel said they were already quickly moving toward a package of smaller changes that might facilitate fair elections and make it easier for a future Parliament to further amend the text.
“Hopefully you are going to hear good news in three to four days,” said Badrawi. “Our impression is that they have a real desire to transfer power at the nearest possible time to a civil authority.”
The amendments under discussion would also eliminate the President’s authority over Constitutional amendments, open up eligibility to form parties or run for office, limit the maximum term that elected officials can serve, establish independent judicial oversight of elections and abolish the Emergency law enabling arrest and detention without charges.
(Based on inputs from reports appearing on the websites of New York Times and Ikhwanul Muslemeen)