Jockeying for position
Gamal Essam El-Din
reviews the run-up to Tuesday's People's Assembly vote on the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution
On 10 May the People's Assembly is scheduled to vote on the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution that will allow for Egypt's first ever multi-candidate presidential elections in September. Two weeks later it will be the turn of the public to vote on the amendment in a referendum, after which President Hosni Mubarak is widely expected to announce whether or not he intends to run for a fifth six-year term.
Mubarak's 26 February call for the constitution to be amended initiated an ongoing debate in the country. Many independent political observers share the view of Al-Ahram journalist Mohamed El-Sayed Said, who believes the call has opened a door to political reform that may well prove impossible to close.
Whether the amendment of Article 76 will mark a stride towards democracy or whether it will end up being little more than a piece of democratic window dressing now depends, says Said, on the wording of the motion that will be presented to the People's Assembly.
The Assembly's Legislative and Constitutional Committee meets today to finalise the motion that will be submitted for next Tuesday's final vote. The meeting was originally scheduled for 3 May and was delayed, according to Mohamed Moussa, the committee's chairman, to allow time for the recommendations submitted by MPs and constitutional experts to be fully considered. "The committee," he said, "is keen that Article 76 be drafted in a way that satisfies all political forces."
Informed sources, however, suggest the postponement came at the request of senior officials from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) who were keen that NDP MPs reach a consensus on the drafting of the article. That consensus, they say, will emerge late on Friday at a meeting of the NDP's Parliamentary Committee attended by Gamal Mubarak, chairman of NDP's Policies Committee, and Safwat El-Sherif, NDP secretary- general and speaker of the Shura Council. Earlier in the week El-Sherif had said the meeting aimed at finalising the NDP's recommendations on Mubarak's 26 February call. The party, he said, wanted its MPs to come to the Assembly having agreed on how the constitutional amendment should be applied.
The final draft of the amendment agreed by the Legislative Committee today is expected to be referred to the Shura Council on Sunday for approval before the People's assembly plenary session on 10 May. Then it must garner the support of two-thirds of MPs before being put up in a public referendum.
In the two-week run-up to today's final drafting divisions emerged between the NDP and opposition parties in three key areas as opposition leaders accused the NDP of seeking to neuter the amendment and NDP officials responded by arguing that the draft must be tight enough to prevent the emergence of "opportunistic" and "non-patriotic" candidates.
That, said Kamal El-Shazli, NDP parliamentary whip and assistant secretary-general in a meeting with parliamentary reporters on 18 April, meant "independent" presidential hopefuls would be required to obtain the backing of 10 per cent of elected MPs in the People's Assembly and Shura Council, in addition to the backing of 10 per cent of elected members of municipal councils in at least 12 governorates. Should these restrictions be incorporated in the final draft then candidates would have to obtain the support of at least 182 elected officials before putting their names forward. That, as Muslim Brotherhood MP Mohamed Mursi told Al- Ahram Weekly, would make it impossible for any independent candidate, especially one belonging to the Brotherhood, to run against Mubarak.
"From the very beginning the Brotherhood was aware that the amendment might be tailored to suit just one candidate," said Mursi.
The NDP, however, has indicated that the stipulations should not apply to candidates belonging to legally recognised parties. It should be sufficient, said El-Shazli, for parties to have just one MP, in either the People's Assembly or Shura Council, in order to field a presidential candidate, though the exemption should be restricted to the 2005 presidential election. The opposition wants the exemption to apply indefinitely.
The Wafd Party surprised observers by asking that candidates be restricted to parties that had been in existence for five years or more, an obvious attempt to sideline Ayman Nour, leader of Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, formed six months ago. Nour, along with Nomaan Gomaa, leader of the Wafd Party, and Khaled Mohieddin, leader of the leftist Tagammu Party, have all indicated that they will be entering the presidential race.
NDP officials have made it clear they want the commission supervising next month's presidential elections to include both judicial and public figures, while the opposition wants it to consist exclusively of members of the judiciary. Which begs the question of how, since both opposition and NDP agree that the elections take place in a single day, 8,000 judges are going to supervise 250 principal, and 35,000 auxiliary, polling stations.