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CAIRO - Egypt's ruling military council pushed ahead Sunday with plans to begin drafting a new constitution before transferring power to civilian rule, announcing that parliament will meet this week to select the panel tasked with writing it.
The announcement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that both houses of parliament will begin choosing the 100-member panel March 3 deals a fresh blow to largely secular and urban activist groups who want an immediate end to military rule. They have called on the army to return to its barracks before a constitution is written, even if it means electing a president with an undefined mandate.
The tussle is also part of a broader struggle over the religious identity of the new constitution.
The committee of 100 legal experts, academics, politicians and professionals that will be selected to draft the document will be at the center of the debate about Article 2 in the constitution, which says that the state religion is Islam and the principle of Islamic Sharia law is the main source of legislation.
Some ultraconservative Muslims have called for the article to read that Islamic law is the only source of legislation — a proposal opposed by liberals and moderate Islamists.
The timing of when to draft the constitution has also become one of the country's most intense debates, with the country's liberals even divided on the issue.
Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who pulled out of the presidential race, has said he supports drafting a constitution before holding presidential elections in order to set the rules and outline the duties of the executive office. But he has also been a leading figure among those calling on the military to leave power immediately.
According to a plan put forward by the council of ruling generals in November, a new constitution should be drafted before presidential elections are held. Election officials said the announcement of the winner the presidential vote would be declared by the end of June, which would suggest the vote could be held no later than early June.
The next step would be to put the draft to a vote in a nationwide referendum.
But cramming those steps into such a tight timetable, critics says, would make it almost impossible for an extensive public debate to be held on the constitution.
Many Egyptians and political observers believe an understanding has been reached between the ruling generals and the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist group that dominated recent parliamentary elections, that would give the military a future say in politics in exchange for ensuring the Brotherhood's hold on authority and influence in the writing of a new constitution.
The ruling generals, who took power after longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year, have enjoyed far-reaching powers for decades. Egypt's military establishment has produced the nation's four presidents since a 1952 coup, while building a massive economic empire that has long remained above civilian oversight.
To protect these interests after they hand over power, the generals will need to ensure that language in the new constitution gives the military the final say in major foreign and defense policies while also protecting their budget from civilian scrutiny.
Also on Sunday, the military-appointed prime minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, told parliament that the country's public debt had mushroomed to more than $133 billion, up from $24 billion in 1999. The country's population boom, coupled with poor management and widespread corruption under Mubarak, have largely been blamed for the country's economic woes.
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