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Second chance for an inclusive Egyptian charter

By scrapping Egypt's constitutional assembly, a court has given the country a new chance to write a basic law that can increase Egyptians' unity.

A court has intensified Egypt's power struggle by dismissing the Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly. This development will add more uncertainty to an already complex and tense situation, but it also offers Egyptians another chance to get their basic law right.

After decades of dictatorship, Egypt's courts have shown some signs that they fall short of the impartiality that is the ideal in any legal system. But Tuesday's decision, if it survives the appeal process, may well serve the higher interest of the whole country by freeing the vital constitution-writing process from the grip of the Islamist parties.

After winning a comfortable majority in parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) made common cause with Salafist MPs to take control of the 100-member constitution assembly. As a result, the smattering of assembly members speaking for other elements in Egyptian society - Coptic Christians, women, civil-society groups, secularists and veterans of Tahrir Square activist groups among them - chose to boycott the assembly. So, significantly, did scholars from Al Azhar, the influential Islamic centre.

A constitution is never the property of any one party, but of the entire nation. Around the world, constitutions safeguard the rights of individuals and minorities, setting limits on state power and dividing it among branches of government. The best of them are the result of broad compromises among major elements of society.

In a way, this court ruling may have saved Islamist parties from themselves. Inexperienced in electoral politics, and with their own notions of legitimacy, they chose to use their electoral success to seize full control of the constitution. The result would likely have been a document that suited their goals for Egyptian society, but lacked political legitimacy and possibly long-term staying power.

A new assembly with a fair cross-section of Egyptians and politics would still have a sizeable Islamist presence, but could write a more widely accepted basic law. This is essential, not least because the enormous tension between civil and military leadership will be worked out in the years to come under the new constitution.

The issue has now been referred to a panel of judges to rule on the legality of the selection process. Their decision, too, will be scrutinised for its fairness and adherence to judicial principles. Egypt's constitutional debate is far from over.

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