A panel tasked with drawing up Egypt's new constitution held its first meeting Wednesday, despite a boycott by liberal members who accuse the Islamists that dominate the committee of trying to hijack the charter-writing process.
The bitter dispute over the makeup of the panel erupted over the weekend after parliament, where the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafis hold an overwhelming majority, named nearly 60 of their supporters to the committee and only six women and six Christians. That triggered an outcry from liberals and secular-minded Egyptians, who say the constitution should be written by a broad swath of Egyptian society and not by a parliamentary majority.
At the constitutional committee's first session Wednesday, a quarter of its members were absent. Nearly 20 people already have pulled out from the committee to protest what they describe as the Islamists' attempt to monopolize the charter-writing process. Among those to withdraw their support are major liberal and leftist political groups _ including the Egyptian Bloc, the Wafd party, and the Socialist Alliance.
Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court withdrew its representative from the panel Wednesday.
At Wednesday's session, two panel members walked out in protest after the committee elected parliamentary speaker and Brotherhood member Saad el-Katatni as its chief _ despite demands that the session be postponed until the crisis is resolved.
Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a liberal lawmaker from the Brotherhood-led alliance, said he left the session along with another lawmaker because holding the panel's first session without a quarter of its members "sends a negative message ... and complicates the crisis."
Based on Egypt's interim constitution, the parliament was tasked with selecting the 100-member panel which would write the charter, effectively giving Islamists the upper hand in choosing the panel.
Liberals and leftists say the selection process was murky and dominated by parliament's Islamist majority.
But the critics are divided on how to proceed: Some are still hoping to change the panel's composition, while others have challenged its makeup before the courts. Some have even said they will launch a separate constitution writing process to ensure it is more representative.
Deepening the disagreement, which has pitted Islamists against the country's secular forces, some liberal politicians have called on the ruling military to intervene to settle the dispute.
Abdel-Meguid said talks are under way to try to diffuse the crisis before the panel convenes again next week.
Military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi met Tuesday with lawmakers in an attempt to mediate. Afterward, he said that "the constitution must be in the hands of all Egyptians, because it will for a long time chart the road Egypt takes internally and externally."
Tantawi is expected to meet with lawmakers again Thursday.
The Brotherhood rejected allegations that it is trying to hijack the constitution, and said the percentage of Islamists on the committee corresponds to their election victory.
Ahmed al-Banna, the son of the Brotherhood's founder and a member of its senior decision-making body, said the Islamist group _ not liberals _ is the victim of a "grave injustice."
"Democracy gives the majority the right to rule, but we can't rule because the minority wants to force its will on us," he said. "Is this rational?"
The standoff over the constitution comes against the backdrop of an increasingly public power struggle between the military rulers and the powerful Brotherhood. The Islamist group is pressing the generals to sack the current military-backed government in favor of a Brotherhood-led Cabinet, and has declared it is considering nominating a candidate for the presidential elections scheduled in May.
If the Brotherhood does indeed field a candidate, it would reverse an earlier pledge not to contest the office _ a move many believe would undo a tacit power-sharing agreement between the Islamists and the generals.
The generals are believed to be aiming to back a consensus candidate for president _ one that would have Brotherhood backing but would also protect the military's interests. Such a candidate has not emerged.
On Wednesday, Tantawi pardoned Ayman Nour, a prominent opposition politician who appeals to the liberals and who has also worked closely with the Islamists. The pardon clears an obstacle that would have prevented Nour, who has said he would run for president, from holding public office.
Nour served four years of a five-year prison sentence for allegedly forging signatures on petitions to register his political party in 2005 when he ran against Mubarak in elections. At the time, Nour called the sentence a political punishment for his decision to challenge Mubarak.
Tantawi's pardon restores Nour's full political rights, clearing the way for a potential presidential run.