RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In Egypt, the interim government is trying to wipe out every trace of the Islamist legacy during their rule, even replacing the constitution they had adopted late last year. To that end, the military-backed interim president last week appointed a 50-member committee to help draft a new constitution. That committee, which includes only one of ousted President Mohamed Morsi's allies, meets for the first time today Sunday in Cairo. Critics in Egypt say the new constitution is likely to be just as controversial as the last one.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson files this report from Cairo.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The constitutional assembly includes many Egyptians who are usually shut out of their country's political process, among them artists like Mohammed Abla.
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NELSON: He smiles when asked whether he was surprised about his appointment, given his very open criticism of the military - with which he's had a longstanding land dispute. /
MOHAMMED ABLA: We artists, we have a vision we can imagine how future could be or how Egypt should look like in 20 years and 30 years.
NELSON: Abla says he is determined to draft a constitution worthy of Egyptians, one that protects freedom of expression and, more importantly, eliminates Egypt's long-standing authoritarianism.
ABLA: It is a big fight because the army, they are not going to give up so easily as the Muslim Brothers didn't give up so easily. And we want to take this society out of this classical duel between the Muslim Brothers and the army.
NELSON: Across town, fellow committee member Kamal al-Helbawi has equally lofty goals for the draft document. He's a former high-ranking official of the Muslim Brotherhood who is now vehemently opposed to the Islamist group.
KAMAL AL-HELBAWY: I do not like to see anyone eating from the garbage in Egypt. I would like to see that the unemployment percentage is decreasing. I would like see Christians have full rights like Muslims.
NELSON: But whether the military and interim government will give Helbawy and other assembly members the power to make bold changes is far from certain. According to some Egyptian officials, they may not even be allowed to revise constitutional amendments drawn up by a judiciary panel last month.
The lone ultra-conservative Salafi in the assembly wants to reinsert a clause about the application of Islamic law that was discarded by the judiciary panel. Others amendments are more controversial, including one that some fear could lead to the return of what's left of Hosni Mubarak's regime.
Amr Darrag, who is a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing, says it's also a mistake for the interim government to exclude his group from the constitution-drafting process.
AMR DARRAG: The party that got the majority in the elections is not invited to this committee? OK, because now we are becoming terrorists.
DARRAG: This is what they are saying. Is this an inclusive process?
NELSON: The government, however, says it did invite the Brotherhood and other Islamist parties to submit candidates' names for the 50-member committee, but that only the Salafist Nour Party responded.
But some constitutional experts say a bigger impediment to drafting a meaningful, democratic constitution is time. The assembly has only been given two months to complete the draft. Zaid al-Ali of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance predicts that won't be enough. Ali says even the Islamists who spent a half year drafting their version ended up with a document that was largely unchanged from the one used during the Mubarak era.
ZAID AL-ALI: Many countries around the world - the countries that have done this successfully - take years to do this, right? It takes them years to be able to identify all of these issues and negotiate them and then record them in a well-drafted agreement. The suggestion that a country like Egypt could do something like that in a just a matter of months after having emerged from a harsh dictatorship lasting for decades is quite frankly very unrealistic and I feel seriously misjudges how complex the process is.
NELSON: Ali and other analysts say that as a result, few of the problems that have plagued Egypt for decades are likely to be tackled in the new draft. Those include human rights abuses and reforms to the mammoth, centralized and unaccountable government institutions.
Nevertheless, Egyptians will be asked to vote on their new constitution as early as November.
NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.
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