Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led parliament began drawing up a no-confidence motion against the military-appointed government Thursday, further escalating the Islamists' increasingly public power struggle with the country's ruling generals.
The Islamists were also squabbling with liberal and secular groups over the commission that is to draw up the nation's new constitution. After the Brotherhood took a clear majority on the 100-member body for itself, 25 other members resigned. The latest was the representative of Al-Azhar, the pre-eminent institute of Islamic learning in the Sunni Muslim world.
On Thursday, a meeting between the Islamists and liberals chaired by military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi produced no compromises.
Liberals fear the Islamists plan to impose their religious agenda on the constitution. Islamists say liberals are a minority who have no popular support.
Relations between the military and the Brotherhood have deteriorated in recent weeks, as the fundamentalist group has pushed for the army to fire the Cabinet for alleged incompetence. The Brotherhood wants to form a new government, a task it claims is urgent because of Egypt's deteriorating security and economic situation.
During a heated session in parliament Thursday, lawmakers lambasted Prime Minister Kamal el-Ganzouri's government for its performance, accusing it of wasting billions of dollars of public funds. Six Cabinet ministers stormed out in protest.
Lawmakers also started drafting a motion for a vote of no confidence in the government, said parliamentarian Hussein Ibrahim. He said that parliament, where the Brotherhood and other Islamists hold nearly 75 percent of the seats, will vote on the measure within two weeks.
"No one can give a kiss of life to a dead government," lawmaker Osama Yassin said.
While Egypt's interim constitution does not give parliament the power to dismiss the Cabinet, a no-confidence vote would be a sharp blow to the ruling generals and make it difficult for them to continue backing el-Ganzouri's government.
For months, the Brotherhood and the military, which have emerged as the two most powerful institutions since the uprising that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak last year, have alternated between cooperating and jockeying for position.
Thursday's move pointed to the Brotherhood's growing confidence. The group holds nearly half the seats in parliament, making it the largest bloc. Its strength grows even more on some issues in which it is backed by the second-largest bloc, the ultraconservative Islamic Salafis.
Last week, the military council issued a veiled threat of a crackdown on the Brotherhood if it persisted in its demands to form a new government.
The showdown over the government is but one front in a deepening political struggle in Egypt ahead of presidential elections scheduled for late May. That vote is supposed to be the last chapter in Egypt's transition from decades of authoritarian rule to democracy.
Once a president is elected, military rule is supposed to end and the current Cabinet will resign, to be replaced by one appointed by the new president.
Brotherhood officials have said they feel increasing urgency to oust the current government now and replace it with one selected by the parliament they dominate. They say further delays would leave the next government with a gutted economy because of the current Cabinet's inaction.
The military is anxious to protect its special privileges, including widespread economic interests, and deny civilians any oversight powers over its budget. The military also objects to the Muslim Brotherhood's plans to change Egypt's political system from presidential to parliamentarian, which the army fears would allow Islamists to carry out sweeping changes in the country's institutions.
Saad Emara, a parliamentarian with the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said that the military initially agreed to allow the parliament to form a Cabinet — but only if two deputy prime ministers and 10 ministers, including defense and security ministers, were appointed by the military. The Brotherhood refused.
"The Cabinet showdown is a symptom, while the military's worries over its special interests are the heart of the issue," Emara said.
Also Thursday, a Cairo court convicted and sentenced Mubarak's ex-housing minister to eight years in prison for corruption. Egypt's MENA state news agency said Mohammed Ibrahim Suleiman was found guilty of squandering public funds, profiteering and illegally seizing a large swath of land.
MENA said the court also sentenced businessman Magdi Rasekh in absentia to three years in prison in the same case. Rasekh is the father-in-law of Alaa Mubarak, the former dictator's eldest son.
Suleiman and Rasekh were fined nearly 2 billion Egyptian pounds ($330 million) together.