CAIRO -- The embattled Egyptian government
on Tuesday named panels of jurists to reform the constitution of this
one-party state, its latest effort to regain the initiative in shaping
Egypt's future from the tens of thousands of chanting protesters in
Cairo's main square.
Anti-government protesters, who appeared to come out in record numbers
Tuesday, quickly rejected the committees and stuck to their refusal to
negotiate until U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak steps down. Many of
them called for suspending the constitution. If Mubarak didn't respect
the rule of law, they reasoned, they shouldn't have to adhere to a
constitution that was altered to keep him in power.
The tug of war underscores the central question before this nation of
80 million people, the touchstone for the Arab world: Will it evolve
into a constitutional democracy through a prolonged reform process or
does it first require a dramatic shakeup by ousting Mubarak as head of
Newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman announced in a televised
address that committees of legal experts would hammer out amendments to
Egypt's constitution, which now sets no presidential term limits,
restricts political candidacy almost exclusively to the ruling party
and leaves little room for judicial oversight in elections.
Political analysts, including those who are sympathetic to the popular
rebellion, warn that drafting a constitution from scratch runs the risk
of open-ended debates on minutiae when a more efficient approach might
be for the opposition to work with the committees to strip away
executive powers and then prepare a candidate for presidential
elections this fall. That way, they said, if the protest movement loses
steam, there's at least a greatly weakened presidency.
"The regime can wait them out - unless the crowds keep coming," said
Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of
Government who closely monitors Egyptian politics.
The crowds came by the tens of thousands Tuesday, and for the first
time many left Tahrir Square to set up a parallel camp in front of
parliament. Emboldened by the high turnout two weeks into their
uprising, protesters chanted against merely amending the constitution
and, in slogans and on posters, deemed unacceptable any concession
short of Mubarak's ouster.
Agreeing to work with the reform committees would involve a huge leap
of faith by the opposition. The proposed amendments would have to be
pushed through Mubarak's rubber-stamp parliament and then put to a
national referendum overseen by his election officials. Mubarak would
remain in office throughout the process, robbing the protesters of the
symbolic victory of seeing him overthrown.
"At this point, the hard reality is that we may not get the cathartic
moment of Mubarak's plane departing to the cheers of millions of
Egyptians celebrating a new era," the Middle East scholar Marc Lynch
wrote on his blog for Foreign Policy magazine. "The struggle is now
shifting to the much messier terrain of negotiations over the terms of
The ruling National Democratic Party, whose leadership has changed in
the past week as part of government concessions, says Mubarak is
committed to the reforms and that parliament will follow his edicts to
approve the constitutional amendments, which are expected in March.
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