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Egypt's military sets ultimatum for parties to form constitution panel

Political parties in Egypt have until the end of today to finalise the formation of a 100-member panel to write a constitution, or the ruling military council it will draw up its own blueprint.

CAIRO // Political parties in Egypt have until the end of today to finalise the formation of a 100-member panel to write a constitution, or the ruling military council it will draw up its own blueprint.

That ultimatum from the country's military rulers was outlined by Mustafa Bakri, a member of parliament, after representatives of 18 parties and independent lawmakers met the head of the council, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, on Tuesday. The council gave the parties 48 hours to form the panel.

The process has been deadlocked since the Islamist-dominated parliament tried to stack the body with its own people, leading to a walkout by secular and liberal members and the disbanding of the panel by a court order.

The dispute mirrors the splits in Egypt, two weeks before a presidential election run-off between a Muslim Brotherhood member and the last prime minister to serve under Hosni Mubarak - the two most polarising candidates.

It also highlighted the contentious role of the ruling military in post-Mubarak Egypt. The military rulers have drawn stiff criticism for their handling of the transition. They pledged to turn power back to a civilian government once a new president is in place, but there are some hints that they might try to hold back at the last moment if the outcome of the election is not in their favour, possibly using lack of a new constitution as a reason.

Several parties boycotted the Tuesday meeting, including the Brotherhood, the country's most influential political group. Saad El Katatni of the Brotherhood, who is the speaker of the parliament, lashed out at the military council. "No one can strip the parliament of its authority to issue legislation or laws."

Mr Bakri said that if parties failed to name an assembly, the military council would issue "a supplementary constitutional declaration" to lay the blueprints for the panel.

Yasser Ali, a spokesman for Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi, said if the military council went ahead with its declaration, "it will be hijacking legislative authority from parliament".

"We won't recognise whatever comes from the military council. This is our position," he said.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Constitutional Court announced yesterday it would sit just two days before the run-off to review the legality of a law that threatened to bar Ahmed Shafiq, the former prime minister.

"The court has scheduled June 14 as the date for its hearing on the appeal lodged by the electoral commission concerning the law," the court spokesman Maher Sami said yesterday.

Mr Shafiq is set to compete in the run-off on June 16-17 against Mr Morsi, the front-runner from the first round.

The former premier was initially disqualified from standing in the election in accordance with a law passed by the Islamist-dominated parliament in April barring top Mubarak-era officials from running for public office.

But in late April the electoral commission accepted an appeal from Mr Shafiq against his disqualification and the case was referred to the court.

Three of the losing candidates from the first round joined forces with youth groups on Monday to demand the suspension of the run-off until the implementation of the so-called political isolation law.

There has not been a statement on what would happen if Mr Shafiq was disqualified, but the many think the whole election might have to be redone.

Leftist Hamdeen Sabbahi and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, who came third and fourth respectively, inked the statement along with fellow candidate Khaled Ali.

The two developments add tension to an already charged political scene, coming three days after Mubarak was given a life sentence for failing to stop the killing of protesters during last year's uprising. Many uprising stalwarts demanded a death sentence.

Since the sentencing on Saturday, angry Egyptians have swept into the streets, demanding justice and denouncing the whole election process.

On Tuesday, thousands of protesters converged from several mosques around Cairo on Tahrir Square, the focal point of the uprising. A long banner read: "In the name of the martyrs' blood, there will be a new revolution."

Protesters demanded enforcement of isolation law.

Others demanded formation of "civilian presidential council" to take over from the military.

Mr Morsi is labelling himself as "the candidate of the revolution" and is trying to rally voters from among revolutionary and liberal groups to confront Mr Shafiq. Mr Morsi tried to capitalise on the fear by many Egyptians that Mr Shafiq would recreate Mubarak's repressive regime.

However, the Brotherhood has been also postponing talks over formation of the constitutional panel, hoping to finalise it only after presidential elections.

Analysts believe if an Islamist is elected, the Brotherhood will not press to change Egypt's political system from presidential to parliamentary - a change that would give the Islamist-led parliament greater powers. If its candidate is defeated, then the Brotherhood would push to change the system to favour the parliament.

Many liberals blame the ruling council for not initially setting out clear standards for the panel in the country's interim constitution, passed last year after the military council froze the old constitution.

"This is the trap the ruling council has put us in. Now it has to correct its mistakes," said Ahmed Khairi, spokesman of Free Egyptians party.


* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse