Egypt's 50-member constitutional panel convenes

CAIRO (AP) — A 50-member panel tasked with amending Egypt's Islamist-backed 2012 constitution convened for the first time on Sunday to look into key revisions of disputed articles — the third time in less than three years that the charter is being changed.

In its first session, the panel dominated by secularist parties and liberal public figures elected as its president Amr Moussa, a former Arab League chief and presidential candidate, and worked on drafting bylaws.

The panel is convening according to a timeline laid out by the military-backed government five days after a July 3 coup overthrew Islamist President Mohammed Morsi following demonstrations by millions calling for his removal.

It has two months to finalize constitutional amendments that have already been proposed by a 10-member expert panel. The 50-member panel, selected by the military-appointed interim president, is supposed to be a means that the public can influence the charter before it goes to voters for a referendum.

"I feel optimism as we are paving the road for a new era where the constitution will be its base," Moussa said in his opening remarks after being elected. The session was aired live on state TV.

The country is scheduled to head to presidential and parliamentary elections early next year as part of a fast-track plan aimed at returning to democratic rule.

This is the third time since Egypt's 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak that the constitution has been amended.

Egypt's constitution was amended by a military-appointed panel after Mubarak's overthrow and a new constitution was adopted in 2012 under Morsi. Liberals and secularists said their objections to many of its clauses were ignored.

This time around, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood — many of whose leaders have been rounded up in a mass crackdown — isn't represented on the panel. The ultraconservative Salafi party al-Nour, the only religiously based party that supported Morsi's overthrow, has not decided yet on whether to participate in the panel or not. The party expressed concerns that the secularist majority would remove articles that could give Islamic Shariah law a bigger role in legislation.

The panel includes three representatives of Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's most prestigious learning institute. There are also representatives from professional unions, universities and the arts.

It has also four representatives from youth groups involved in protests against Morsi and Mubarak. There are also three Christian clerics, but no private citizens who are Christians. The panel was criticized for having only five women.