Soldiers were deployed to protect the parliament building as several dozen people protested outside [Reuters]
A bloc of liberal lawmakers have walked out of a parliamentary vote on appointing a 100-member panel to draft Egypt's new constitution, citing differences with Islamist and Salafi parties who dominate the two houses of the legislature.
During a heated joint session of parliament on Saturday, lawmakers from the liberal Egyptian bloc, which consists of three parties that hold nine per cent of the lower house's seats, walked out of proceedings.
The dissenters accused the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party of attempting to use its majority in parliament to dominate the selection.
Emad Gad, a member of the liberal bloc, denounced the session as a "farce".
"All our MPs withdrew," said Naguib Sawiris, founder of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, which is a member of the Egyptian bloc.
"It's ridiculous: A constitution being written by one force and one force alone. We tried our best and there was no use."
At least two other parties had boycotted the voting from the start, including the left-wing Tagammu party.
The selection of the constituent assembly is part of Egypt's transition to democracy, following the revolution which toppled former president Hosni Mubarak after 18 days of widespread protests in February 2011.
It is likely to be part of a weeks-long struggle over the charter that will go some way in defining Egypt's political identity.
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"It is probably the most important parliamentary session that we have seen since the parliament was elected earlier this year," said Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros, reporting from outside parliament on Saturday.
"We have over 1,000 names that have been nominated. It's up to these hundreds of MPs to whittle them down to just 100.
"Fifty of that 100-member constituent assembly will be sitting parliamentarians and the other 50 will be trade unionists, members of civil society and so on," our correspondent said.
Following Egypt's parliamentary elections, which began in November 2011, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood movement emerged with a majority of seats.
It then stipulated that half of the people charged with writing the new constitution should be sitting parliamentarians.
"Of the 50 sitting parliamentarians, we expect about 40 of them to come from Islamist parties and from the other 50 there could well be Islamists among them as well," Tadros said.
"So we are talking about a constituent assembly that will be largely dominated by Islamist members of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the Salafist Nour Party."
Put together, the country's liberal parties hold less than one-third of the seats in parliament. On Saturday, Mostafa al-Naggar, the leader of the liberal Justice Party, walked out of the joint session in protest after his proposal that 25 seats in the constituent assembly be reserved for public figures was rejected.
Parliament will also choose 40 reserve candidates.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) controls the most seats in both chambers of parliament, but the party has said that it seeks a constituent assembly with representation for all parties and groups.
The party has posted a list of its nominees for 50 seats to be allocated to lawmakers in the constituent assembly, with 36 Islamists and 14 lawmakers from other parties gaining the FJP's backing.
The constitution that the assembly will draft will define Egypt's system of government, particularly the balance of power between parliament and the president, role of Islam in the running of the state and society and the political role of the military, which has governed Egypt since Mubarak's fall last year.
"This [process] has been incredibly controversial," our correspondent said.
"We have seen lots of protests and lots of calls for protests today around Cairo because the protesters think that the Islamists are really just trying to hijack this whole process and make sure that they control the whole writing of this constitution."
Liberal judges and activists have filed legal challenges to the decision to appoint 50 of the 100 council members from their ranks.
"This can actually result in a very tilted constitution that reflects the interests of only one segment of the population, which is the Islamists," Khaled Fahmy, from the American University in Cairo, told Al Jazeera.
Fahmy said the overwhelming influence Islamist parties could have on the writing of a new constitution would "very much" affect the identity of the state.
"In the past two months since parliament sat we have been seeing very interesting proposals for legislative changes affecting women, marriage, divorce, criminal law, education policies ... various things not about the economy, not about foreign policy, but about culture about identity and that is the main card by which Islamists have won this election," he said.
The FJP, however, says that it wants all sectors of Egyptian society represented in the assembly.
In a statement, the party said: "The party's parliamentary bloc is keen to include all political and ideological streams in the assembly, as well as, representing all sectors of Egyptian society ... including youth, women and Copts' representatives."
Liberal lawmakers were, however, unconvinced.
"The constitution should not reflect the majority, it should reflect all forces in society," said Rifaat al-Said, the head of Tagammu.
"There is an attempt to possess everything," he said of his party's Islamist opponents. "Possessing the constitution is the most dangerous thing."
After the panel writes the constitution, which it will have six months to do, it will be put to a vote in a national referendum. The old 1971 constitution was abolished after the revolution that overthrew Mubarak.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies