Narrowing the gap
The fourth round of national dialogue seems to have brought the opposition and ruling party closer to agreement, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
A mood of optimism prevailed during last Wednesday's fourth round of the national dialogue between leaders of 14 official opposition parties and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Disagreements between the opposition and the NDP, such a feature of the previous three rounds, appeared to have all but evaporated.
Kamal El-Shazli, NDP assistant secretary- general, said the fourth meeting had focussed on proposed amendments to the law on the exercise of political rights -- electoral law (73/1956). The law's 31 articles regulate parliamentary and municipal elections. The 1956 law, El-Shazli said, was amended in the summer of 2000 in order to place polling stations under judicial supervision. The amendment, however, fell short of winning the approval of the opposition which complained that judicial supervision was too lax, allowing the poll to be manipulated in favour of the NDP.
On Wednesday opposition leaders joined forces to propose that elections be placed under judicial supervision from A to Z. This, said Rifaat El-Said, chairman of the leftist Tagammu Party, means that the Interior Ministry must be excluded from any direct role in elections. The opposition, he said, wants to see judges exercising control both inside and outside polling stations. The issue was being pursued so strongly, El-Said revealed, because of repeated complaints in 2000 of the Interior Ministry compromising judicial supervision and allowing NDP voters access to voting booths while preventing supporters of opposition groups from doing the same.
"A judicial commission," said El-Said, "must be created to take charge of supervising the election process from its earliest stage -- the registering of voters -- until the announcement of the results."
Anyone who faces problems casting their vote, El-Said added, should report it immediately to the concerned judge in order that immediate action be taken.
While the opposition agreed on the broad outline of proposals, differences emerged over the membership of the supreme judicial commission. Some -- including the Tagammu -- argued that the committee be chosen from members of the supreme courts -- the Court of Cassation, the Supreme Administrative Court and the Supreme Constitutional Court while other parties, including the Wafd, favoured membership being confined exclusively to senior judges.
NDP officials agreed that the commission should include senior judges along with prominent public figures. They asked that the commission be headed by the justice minister, a request rejected by all members of the opposition on the grounds that he is an NDP member.
Negotiations between the NDP and opposition leaders, said El-Shazli, ended in them agreeing that the proposed election commission include five senior judges, three non-partisan members selected by the Shura Council and two members, one representing the Ministry of Justice, the second the Ministry of Interior.
El-Shazli also indicated that the NDP and opposition officials had agreed that there should be additional guarantees to ensure the integrity of elections. Foremost among these, El-Shazli explained, the application of emergency laws during the election. Voters would also have their fingertips marked with phosphorescent ink once they had voted, in order to prevent them voting twice.
The supreme judicial commission, El-Shazli added, would also monitor campaign expenses in order to ensure that they do not exceed the yet to be agreed ceiling. The ceiling was set at LE5000 in 2000 but all parties agreed that it should be raised for the upcoming election.
The fourth national dialogue meeting also broached the issue of next presidential election. Once the constitution is amended to allow more than one candidate to run in next fall's presidential election, El-Shazli said, it will be necessary to draw up a new law aimed at regulating the presidential election: "Initially there were proposals that a special paragraph dealing with regulations governing the presidential election be drafted and annexed to the law on the exercise of political rights. But we found it better that regulations tackling the presidential election be enacted into a separate law in order to ensure transparency and integrity."
NDP Secretary-General Safwat El- Sherif said opposition proposals on amending Article 76 of the constitution had been presented to People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour.
"These proposals," said El-Sherif, "will be discussed by the People's Assembly Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee."
The committee's discussions, revealed Sorour, will be open to the public: "They will be attended by MPs, public figures and leading professors of constitutional law in order that an amendment be reached that is acceptable too."
The first of the committee meetings will be held next week.
In requesting an amendment to Article 76, President Hosni Mubarak stipulated that the selection criteria for presidential candidates be discussed by the People's Assembly.
Meanwhile, El-Sherif said that he had informed the ministers of social affairs and international cooperation of opposition concern over NGOs accessing foreign funding. "Opposition leaders," he said, "strongly criticised six NGOs for receiving $1 million from the American Embassy in Cairo in a public ceremony."
He concluded by revealing that opposition leaders had asked that security forces respect the right of citizens to hold public rallies and demonstrations. Opposition leaders agreed, he said, that demonstrations be restricted to certain squares in order not to disrupt traffic or risk conflict between rival demonstrators.