Egypt's high court to take up case on the constitutional assembly

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CAIRO -- The fate of the assembly writing Egypt's new constitution became more uncertain Tuesday, when the case to disband the Islamist-dominated body was referred to the nation's highest court.

The decision by an administrative panel to send the matter to the Supreme Constitutional Court indicates the sensitivity around a document that has become a volatile battle between secularists and Islamists over the nation's character. The ruling means it is possible the assembly may finish the constitution before the case is decided.

The referral to the supreme court also leads to questions of impartiality. Members of the court recently admonished the assembly over the draft; one judge called certain articles disastrous. Others said the document weakens the court's purview on constitutional matters and allows a provision that grants the president the power to appoint its judges.

The constitutional assembly has had a brief, if turbulent, history. The first 100-member body was dissolved by a court in April, amid questions over its selection and concerns that it did not reflect the will of all Egyptians. The new assembly, whose legitimacy has been challenged by various political groups, is expected to complete the constitution by December and put it to a public referendum.

Liberals and human rights organizations have criticized the draft document as too rooted in Shariah, or Islamic law, especially regarding women's rights. This has highlighted the battle not only between secularists and Islamists but also among moderate and ultraconservative Islamists over the extent religion will influence public life.

The constitutional court, made up of secular-minded judges appointed by deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, has not been shy about its disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups that now hold political power. President Mohammed Morsi is a former Brotherhood leader, and the constitution is a test of his ability to navigate the passions of moderate and ultraconservative Islamists while not isolating liberals.

Egyptian law dictates that the "assembly must represent all factions of Egyptian society. It is a very vague law, and the administrative court likely wanted the Supreme Constitutional Court to decide this issue," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, a legal analyst for the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "The constituent assembly now does not represent Egyptian society. It only represents the political Islam front that includes the Brotherhood, Salafi groups and jihadis."

The struggle over the constitution mirrors the nation's uncertainty. New elections for the parliament, which was controlled by Islamists and dissolved by the supreme court in June, are not likely until after the constitution is approved. This has given Mr. Morsi control over the government's executive and legislative branches, a prospect that has drawn fierce criticism from activists.

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