Political bills draw fire
New bills aimed at liberalising the exercise of political rights were heatedly criticised by the opposition. Gamal Essam El-Din
Two key laws regulating political participation and political party performance were being rammed through parliament before it adjourns for its summer recess next week. According to Sirri Siam, assistant to the justice minister for legislative affairs, amendments to the Political Parties Law (40/1977) are primarily aimed at facilitating the formation of political parties. The law raises the number of Political Parties Committee members from seven to nine. The chairman of the Shura Council will still head the committee, which is exclusively authorised to regulate and license political parties. Its members will include the ministers of interior and People's Assembly affairs, as well as three former judges and three independent public figures. This means, Siam said, that the justice minister will no longer be a member of the committee. The president, meanwhile, will select the independent public figures.
New political parties must gain the approval of at least seven of the committee's members, and the committee must provide its final say on whether a party will be licensed or not within 90 days of application. If it fails to do so, the party will be considered valid, and automatically licensed.
Although revising the Political Parties Law has long been a key opposition demand, the opposition was not very pleased with the amendment. Leftist Tagammu Party Chairman Rifaat El-Said said the amendment did not correspond to discussions that took place between opposition parties and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) during last April's national dialogue meetings. Rather than facilitating the formation of parties, he said, the amendments actually introduced new restrictions.
Foremost among these, said El-Said, is that the parties committee will be empowered to freeze a party's activities if the party itself, or one of its leading members, begins to espouse principles differing from the original party line, or if the committee decides that freezing the party is in the national interest.
The new law also authorises the committee to ascertain that political parties are pursuing "democratic practices" in the application of their internal regulations. According to El-Said, this clause in particular opens the door wide for the committee to interfere in parties' internal affairs.
Actually, most opposition forces want the parties committee to be scrapped altogether. Nasserist Party Chairman Diaaeddin Dawoud, for one, said the new law basically tightens the NDP's control over the political scene, since the party committee's leading members will all be senior NDP officials, including the Shura Council chairman (who is also the NDP's secretary- general), and the minister of People's Assembly affairs (who is the NDP's assistant secretary-general). Dawoud said this dynamic meant that the committee would "play the role of adversary and judge at the same time".
Instead of making it easier to form a party, Dawoud said, the new law actually makes it more difficult. Those wanting to form a party now need to obtain 1,000 signatures, rather than the currently stipulated 50. The signature clause became a major issue when Al-Ghad Party Chairman Ayman Nour was accused -- earlier this year -- of forging thousands of the signatures he used to obtain approval for his party. His trial begins next month.
The amendments to the Political Rights Law being discussed by the assembly also generated controversy. These include a new stipulation that a Supreme Electoral Committee be formed to supervise People's Assembly and Shura Council elections. This committee will be headed by the justice minister and include three current senior judges, three former senior judges, and three public figures to be selected by the People's Assembly and Shura Council, as well as a representative of the Interior Ministry. According to Siam, the electoral committee will be solely empowered with supervising parliamentary elections from start to finish (from accepting nominations to revising voter- registration lists, and regulating election campaigns to announcing the results). "This is a good way to guarantee that parliamentary elections will be marked with integrity," Siam said.
The law also includes other guarantees, like obliging voters to sign their names and provide a fingerprint when voting. It also imposes an LE100 fine on voters who deliberately boycott the vote. Voters who are proven guilty of using force against any electoral committee member can face a five-year prison sentence.
Although not as angry at the Political Rights Law, the opposition still complained about the role given to the Interior Ministry by the new draft. El-Said argues that the electoral committee must have complete supervisory powers over both the polling stations, and their general vicinity. "To defuse judicial supervision over the 2000 elections, security forces would ban citizens from even coming near the polling stations," said El-Said.
The People's Assembly is also discussing laws regulating the performance of both the People's Assembly and the Shura Council. The first requires that candidates must have completed the preparatory education stage. "However, for those who were born before January 1970, the requirement is just that they be literate," Siam said. The law also stipulates that during election campaigns, candidates must not target the private lives of their rivals, or raise issues that might cause sectarian strife. Candidates must also be banned from receiving foreign funding or donations from public sector companies. These same new rules will apply to Shura Council candidates.
The two draft laws also raise the salaries of MPs and Shura Council members from LE500 to LE1000 per month. The salaries of the parliamentary speaker and the speaker of Shura Council will be raised to a vice-president's level.