CAIRO — The embattled Egyptian government on Tuesday named panels of jurists to reform the constitution of this one-party state, its latest effort to regain the initiative in shaping Egypt's future from the tens of thousands of chanting protesters in Cairo's main square.
Anti-government protesters, who appeared to come out in record numbers Tuesday, quickly rejected the committees and stuck to their refusal to negotiate until U.S.-backed President Hosni Mubarak steps down. Many of them called for suspending the constitution. If Mubarak didn't respect the rule of law, they reasoned, they shouldn't have to adhere to a constitution that was altered to keep him in power.
The tug of war underscores the central question before this nation of 80 million people, the touchstone for the Arab world: Will it evolve into a constitutional democracy through a prolonged reform process or does it first require a dramatic shakeup by ousting Mubarak as head of state?
Newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman announced in a televised address that committees of legal experts would hammer out amendments to Egypt's constitution, which now sets no presidential term limits, restricts political candidacy almost exclusively to the ruling party and leaves little room for judicial oversight in elections.
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Political analysts, including those who are sympathetic to the popular rebellion, warn that drafting a constitution from scratch runs the risk of open-ended debates on minutiae when a more efficient approach might be for the opposition to work with the committees to strip away executive powers and then prepare a candidate for presidential elections this fall. That way, they said, if the protest movement loses steam, there's at least a greatly weakened presidency.
"The regime can wait them out — unless the crowds keep coming," said Tarek Masoud, an assistant professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who closely monitors Egyptian politics.
The crowds came by the tens of thousands Tuesday, and for the first time many left Tahrir Square to set up a parallel camp in front of parliament. Emboldened by the high turnout two weeks into their uprising, protesters chanted against merely amending the constitution and, in slogans and on posters, deemed unacceptable any concession short of Mubarak's ouster.
Agreeing to work with the reform committees would involve a huge leap of faith by the opposition. The proposed amendments would have to be pushed through Mubarak's rubber-stamp parliament and then put to a national referendum overseen by his election officials. Mubarak would remain in office throughout the process, robbing the protesters of the symbolic victory of seeing him overthrown.