By-election legal quagmire
Last week's judicial ruling limiting the 25 December by-elections in 17 districts to candidates who ran in the original contests seems to have entered an infinite legal loop. Gamal Essam El-Din reports
Much to the dismay of political and legal pundits, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has deployed a legal loophole of sorts in order to circumvent a court ruling that wasn't in its favour. By filing counter-appeals against a Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) ruling mandating the 25 December by-elections (meant to replace seats left vacant by two draft- dodging NDP MPs in Beni Sueif's Ahnasia and Al-Fashn districts) be limited to those who ran in the original 2000 race, the ruling party has managed to force the elections to take place on time, without the court-stipulated constraint.
The key to the matter is that the counter-appeals -- which were filed with Cairo's downtown Abdin Court for Urgent Matters, will only be dealt with on 7 and 8 January, or after the by- elections actually take place on 25 December.
Although the SAC ruling specifically dealt with the up- coming by-elections in Beni Sueif, the majority legal opinion is that SAC rulings are aimed at establishing comprehensive principles that must be respected and followed by all state authorities. As a result, the interior minister's decision to open up by- elections in the 17 districts where draft-dodging MPs had been forced to leave parliament, to an entirely new field of candidates -- rather than confining them to those who ran in 2000 -- was deemed null and void.
Depending on how a deputy leaves parliament, the by- elections to replace him or her differ. Had the 17 NDP MPs affected by a court decision canceling their parliamentary membership for having not performed their military service been officially stripped of their seats by the assembly, the by-elections would be limited to those candidates who had run against them in the original race. In this case, however, all 17 NDP draft- dodgers resigned, thus opening the door to a new field of candidates. The SAC ruling slammed this tactic. "The resignation of the draft-dodgers would have been a legitimate option if their parliamentary membership had still been valid. Their membership, however, had (by force of a Supreme Constitutional Court ruling on 17 August) been actually invalid since 2000," the court said.
The Interior Ministry bluntly dismissed the notion that it urged the State Cases Authority (the government's lawyer) to file the counter-appeals (called "istishkalat"). An informed security source said NDP candidates in Al-Fashn and Ahnasia lodged the appeals. "This shows that the government has no plans to circumvent court rulings," the source said.
Political and legal pundits, however, said the move set a highly dangerous undemocratic precedent. According to Fawziya Abdel-Sattar, the former chairman of Parliament's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the appeals are "a legal tool aimed at winning time and delaying the application of some court rulings". Abdel-Sattar said that by the time the Abdin Court summarily rejects the appeals because they do not fall under its jurisdiction, "the by-elections would have already taken place without the SAC ruling being implemented".
While Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Sorour called the appeals "a permissible manoeuvre aimed at delaying court rulings", independent MP Adel Eid tried to submit a bill amending "the Legal Pleading Procedures Law" to prevent citizens from filing appeals against administrative rulings at civil courts (and especially at Abdin). Because it requires the approval of two thirds of MPs in the NDP-dominated parliament, Eid's draft law is not expected to pass.
Eid and Abdel-Sattar both said the counter-appeal tactic had been used to help unqualified candidates -- draft dodgers, loan defaulters and drug-smugglers amongst them -- to buy time, contest elections and become parliamentary deputies in the last few years.
In any case, the by-elections were hotly debated in the People's Assembly last Monday. Wafd Party spokesman Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour warned NDP officials that ignoring the SAC ruling would not only tarnish Egypt's image, but also open the door to contesting parliament's constitutionality. "Why are you so fond of circumventing judicial rulings while calling for a national dialogue on political reform?" asked Abdel-Nour. Parliamentary Affairs Minister and NDP leader Kamal El-Shazli responded by arguing that not only were the administrative justice rulings on the 25 December by-elections not final, El-Shazli said, they also contradicted each other.
The assembly, meanwhile, ended up accepting the resignation of yet another draft-dodging NDP MP, Abdel-Rahman Radi. The press also reported that an additional seven NDP MPs might soon be resigning for the same reason.
Between 110 and 130 candidates have registered to run in the 17 by-election districts on 25 December. Most are either official NDP candidates or NDP members who decided to run independently.
Al-Wafd Party Chairman No'man Gomaa said the elections were being manipulated by the NDP to maintain its monopoly of political life. "We thought the NDP's leadership would be more democratic instead of just talking about more democratisation and a national dialogue for political reform," Gomaa said.
The ruling party's leadership chose not to comment on the SAC ruling. NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif told the party's political club meeting on Saturday that strict orders had been given to provincial secretaries to provide solid support for the party's official candidates in the by-elections.
Meanwhile, administrative justice courts in five governorates (Cairo, Alexandria, Beni Sueif, Marsa Matruh and Gharbiya) have ruled against several other district by-election plans. The Supreme Administrative Court is likely to -- like in the Al- Fashn and Ahnasia cases -- uphold these rulings, thus making the NDP and Interior Ministry positions yet more awkward.