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 the document.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces' statement that parliament will begin choosing the 100-member panel March 3 marked a setback for activist groups who have demanded the military relinquish power before a constitution is written. They fear that if the army is in power when the document is drawn up, the ruling generals will manipulate the process to ensure the military keeps its pre-eminent position and remains above civilian oversight.
The tussle is also tied to the 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 the role of Islam in the constitution. The current constitution says that the state religion is Islam and the principle of Islamic Sharia law is the main source of legislation.
However, some ultraconservative Muslims have called for the article to be changed to read that Islamic law is the only source of legislation _ a proposal opposed by liberals and moderate Islamists.
The makeup of the panel has also been a contentious point, with secular-leaning groups and Christians fearing the Islamist-dominated parliament may pack the board with conservative thinkers.
But the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, which controls nearly half the seats in the lower house of parliament, sought to ease those fears Saturday, saying 60 members of the panel should include women, Christian scholars, experts from the country's premier Islamic institution and civil society leaders.
Mohammed Morsi, in a statement on the party's website, said the remaining 40 panel members should be lawmakers.
The timing of when to draft the constitution has also become one of the country's most intense debates.
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 of 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 draft of the constitution would also need to be put to a nationwide referendum.
But cramming the numerous steps into 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.
For the military to protect its interests after it hands over power, the generals will need to ensure that language in the new constitution gives the army the final say in major foreign and defense policies while also protecting their budget from civilian scrutiny.
Ziad el-Oleimi, a newly-elected lawmaker who has spoken out against writing the constitution under military rule, was referred Sunday to Parliament's Ethics Committee for remarks made about the country's top commander, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
He faces a possible suspension from upcoming parliamentary sessions or an unlikely expulsion. El-Oleimi, who was beaten by military police during a protest after he was elected last year, referred to Tantawi as a donkey during a rally earlier this month. El-Oleimi used the word as part of Egyptian proverb.