Behind yesterday's unanimous vote in favour of President Hosni Mubarak's proposed constitutional amendment there are some divisions, if not in the NDP, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
Since the small hours of yesterday morning the street leading to the People's Assembly has been occupied by members of Cairo's central security force. Their presence was in response to a 50-person demonstration, organised by the leftist Tagammu Party, protesting against President Hosni Mubarak's 26 February announcement that the constitution would be amended to allow for multiple- candidate presidential elections. The Tagammu demonstration came two days after a similar protest by the Islamist-oriented Labour Party, who denounced the proposals as a "gimmick". The Tagammu protesters presented the office of the Assembly speaker with a statement entitled "Democracy is the Solution -- Mubarak's Constitutional Proposal is Not Enough".
A majority of MPs, however, took an alternative view. They were keen to be present and vote in what many described as an historic session. And vote they did, all 424 who were present, rubber-stamping Mubarak's constitutional proposal.
Deputies belonging to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) used the debate as an opportunity to heap praise on Mubarak. The proposal was, said some, a political crossing as heroic, in its way, as the crossing of the Suez Canal in the October War. Others described it as a "wedding day for democracy", "a political earthquake that has shaken the foundations of political life in Egypt" and "a political strike that President Mubarak has directed to the heart of political reform just like the air strike he led against Israel in the early hours of 6th October 1973".
If there was unanimity over just how splendid the proposal was among NDP MPs, they managed to exhibit some difference over the reasons that had prompted the 26 February constitutional bombshell. Kamal El-Shazli, NDP assistant secretary-general and minister for parliamentary affairs, surprised MPs by announcing that "there is a secret about President Mubarak's proposal."
It was a secret he went on to divulge.
"In February 2004," El-Shazli told the house, "President Mubarak asked me and other leading NDP members to inform MPs that the era of the referendum was over." Deliberating the implications of this, the "leading NDP members" apparently agreed that any such announcement would be best postponed to 2005. "Thus it was," El- Shazli continued, "that President Mubarak unveiled his proposal on 26 February in Menoufiya."
Although MPs welcomed the proposal they split into two camps, with members of the NDP greeting it as the be all and end all while opposition MPs argued it needed to be accompanied by further reforms. Opposition MPs went so far as to warn that the proposal might end up as being little more than window-dressing without additional measures being taken.
In debating the proposal NDP members lavished praise on the 31-page report prepared by the Assembly's General Committee. The report provides guidelines for the Assembly's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee which will be charged with hammering out the small print of the amendment before it is referred back to the Assembly for a final vote. The vast majority of the committee's 35 members are drawn from the ranks of the NDP. If approved by the Assembly in the second week of May, the proposal will then be presented to the public in a referendum.
NDP MPs were keen to insist that guarantees be in place to ensure the competence of potential candidates. "The office of president is the most exalted post in Egypt," said Hussein Megawer, NDP parliamentary speaker. "We must ensure that those who aspire to it are suitably qualified."
Although hammering out the constitutional details is the job of the Assembly's Constitutional Committee NDP MPs rallied behind the principles President Mubarak has outlined in order to ensure the success of his proposal. These stipulate that candidates must be supported by a fixed quota of MPs in the People's Assembly, Shura Council members and members of local councils. They also include provisions for a committee to be created to oversee the presidential election which will take place in a single day.
Before yesterday's parliamentary session representatives of the main opposition parties had voiced fears that Mubarak's proposal would be drained of any real meaning by a mix of old guard NDP legal experts and high-ranking NDP officials, including Parliament Speaker Fathi Sorour and his deputy Amal Othman.
Following a meeting on Monday leaders of the Wafd, Nasserist and Tagammu parties said they welcomed the decision that candidates put forward by political parties for this year's presidential election would be exempted from the stipulation that they secure a quorum of supporters in the People's Assembly and among local councils.
"It is a very restrictive stipulation," said Rifaat El-Said, chairman of the Tagammu, "and delivers a knock out blow to the proposal." Were it to be applied, El-Said said, it effectively restricts candidacy to NDP nominees.
Opposition leaders argue that the restriction be replaced by a provision stating that candidates obtain a fixed number of signatures of registered voters. The Tagammu and Nasserist parties suggest a figure of 10,000, while Al- Wafd would prefer it to be 80,000.
The opposition parties were in full agreement, however, over their objections to the committee charged with overseeing the elections being headed by any official affiliated to the NDP.
"It would be completely incredible," said El-Said, "that a member of the ruling party's politburo be entrusted with supervising the presidential poll." The opposition, says El-Said, wants the committee to be headed by the chair of the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest judicial authority, or of the Supreme Administrative Court.
Many Muslim Brotherhood MPs believe that restrictions placed on candidacy are aimed at preventing them from running for office. Their general mood was summed up by one Brotherhood MP who insisted that Mubarak's proposal would be nothing but a mirage should independent candidates be prevented from competing. "This proposal," he added, "must be accompanied with an end to emergency law, respect of human rights and the release of political prisoners."