CAIRO — Egypt’s government set legislative priorities for parliament on Wednesday as it convened for the first time since a new constitution was passed, asking lawmakers to focus on setting rules for upcoming elections, regulating the media and fighting corruption.
The official confirmation Tuesday that the Islamist-drafted constitution passed in a referendum ushered in a new chapter in Egypt’s two-year transition from authoritarian rule, likely to be characterized more by legal battles and less by street protests.
The dispute over the constitution deeply polarized the country, reigniting mass street protests that turned deadly at times.
“We have now moved from conflict in the streets between political forces and the regime to a new phase of legal disputes over legislation and control of state institutions,” said Nasser Amin, the head of the Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession. “This is the most critical phase…and the battle won’t be very clear to regular people.”
The constitution’s supporters, including Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his government, had argued it would pave the way for more stability in Egypt and the building up of state institutions.
The largely secular and liberal opposition who opposed the constitution fear it enshrines a prominent role for Islamic law, or Shariah, in governing the country’s affairs and reinforces Islamists’ hold on power. They say it constitution restricts freedoms and ignores the rights of women and minorities.
The main opposition group has questioned the legitimacy of the charter itself, saying it was rushed through without national consensus.
“Egypt constitution (is) void as it conflicts (with) certain peremptory norms of international law,” such as freedom of belief and expression, opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei said on his Twitter account Wednesday.
Under the new constitution, the Islamist-dominated Shura Council, the traditionally toothless upper house, was granted temporary legislative powers and began its work a day after the official results of the referendum said the charter passed with nearly 64 percent. It will legislate until elections for a new lower house are held within two months.
“I congratulate the Egyptian people on behalf of the government for the passing of the constitution of the second republic, which establishes a modern democratic state where the people’s voices are heard and where injustice, dictatorship, repression, nepotism and corruption take a back seat,” Cabinet Minister Mohammed Mahsoub, who hails from the Islamist Wasat Party, told the session.
But the 270-member council is boycotted by the largely liberal and secular opposition groups —which has also rejected the presidential appointments to the upper house.
Morsi appointed 90 members to the council on the last day of the referendum on the constitution, in a bid to make it more representative. The other two-thirds of the members were elected last year with no more than seven percent of eligible voters.
But the new appointments maintained the hold of Islamists on the house.
Morsi has had legislative powers for months since a court dissolved the law-making lower house of parliament. He will address the nation later Wednesday to formally hand over legislative powers to the Shura Council.
In its first act, the Shura Council convened to swear in the 90 new members appointed by Morsi.
The government used the session to set its priorities for the coming period.
Speaking to the council, Mahsoub, the minister in charge of parliamentary affairs, said the government will prepare new legislation for parliament to discuss, including a law to regulate the upcoming parliamentary elections, anti-corruption laws, and laws to organize Egypt’s efforts to recover money from corrupt officials from the era of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Mahsoub said such bills can be ready as early as next week, when the council convenes again for its regular working session.
He said the government also wants to draft laws to revise maximum and minimum wages, expand social insurance coverage and regulate the media, as well as institute Egypt’s first freedom of information act.
“At this critical time for the nation, this respected council is required to pass a set of laws for the state to complete building its institutions,” he said.
Amin, the judicial expert, said the constitution will also reduce the number of judges sitting on the country’s top court, the Supreme Constitutional Court, from 19 to 11. This was seen by some as a way to get rid of some of the most critical judges of Islamists.
Some of them were appointed during the Mubarak era, and Morsi viewed them as holdovers who tried to undermine his authorities.
“The court now will constitute little danger to the legislation to be passed in the coming period,” Nasser said. “After the end of the street battle, and after the constitution and new legislature, (the government) will make all the amendments it wants through the law.”
The opposition also refused to attend a national dialogue hosted by Morsi’s vice president, saying the agenda for the talks are not clear and the disputed constitution was already rushed through. Instead, it says it will contest the upcoming parliamentary elections and hopes to achieve a sizeable representation to challenge the constitution.
The opposition will be watching the Shura Council to see whether new legislation increases civil liberties and addresses poverty and social inequalities — or increases the ability of the state to crack down on its critics and impose an Islamist rule, as many fear.