More than amendments
Do the reforms outlined in President Mubarak's 28 July candidacy speech have the makings of a new constitution? Gamal Essam El-Din
explores the possibilities
While announcing his intention to run for president last week, President Hosni Mubarak also vowed to implement a package of seven key political reforms if elected. He said they would be a priority in his fifth six-year term.
First and above all, Mubarak said, he aims to strike a greater balance between the powers of parliament and government. Mubarak said the cabinet and the president must also share in the decision-making process. To achieve these two objectives, Mubarak said, the constitution would have to be amended to constrain the powers of the president of the republic, while strengthening the powers of the cabinet and local councils at the same time. Decentralising the decision-making process was key.
Mubarak also vowed to press for a new electoral law that will provide political parties with more opportunities to earn seats in a parliament that will have a greater say in drafting the country's economic policies.
The president also pledged to replace the much-maligned emergency law with anti- terrorism legislation.
The package of reforms contained in Mubarak's 28 July speech will be part of his election campaign, National Democratic Party (NDP) sources said. Once official campaigning begins on 27 August, the details of these reforms, and when they might be implemented, will be discussed, said Mohamed Ragab, the NDP spokesman at the Shura Council.
Mohamed Moussa, chairman of parliament's legislative and constitutional affairs committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that key political laws, like the 1956 law on the exercise of political rights, and the 1979 local councils law, would have to be changed to fit the president's plans. The reforms would also necessitate amending several articles of the constitution, especially those dealing with the powers of the president of the republic and the overall system of Egypt's government. "This vision," Moussa said, "is not just a matter of changing some laws. It could result in amending the constitution itself as a whole."
A fierce battle over this very subject -- wide-ranging political and constitutional reform -- took place between the ruling NDP and the opposition during the first half of 2005. Scrapping the current, 34- year-old constitution, and replacing it with a new one, is a key demand of not only opposition forces, but also all political movements aiming to transform Egypt into a liberal democracy.
In the run-up to the amending of Article 76 of the constitution last April, the People's Assembly held a series of hearing sessions during which constitutional law professors argued that Egypt needs a new constitution that balances the authorities of its executive, judicial and legislative branches. A recent study by Al-Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies shows that the president, for example, monopolises almost 64 per cent of the nation's executive powers.
Last month, veteran Cairo University constitutional law professor Tharwat Badawi -- widely known as "the doyen of constitutional law in Egypt" -- was commissioned by the recently-formed National Coalition for Democratic Transformation to draft a new constitution. Tharwat told the Weekly that Mubarak's proposed reforms tackled the powers of the legislative (parliament) and the executive (the president, the government and local councils) branches, while "ignoring the judiciary. In order to turn his vision into a reality," Badawi said, Mubarak would have to change complete chapters of the constitution. "This might be a hint that the president was at last opting to change the constitution as a whole rather than merely introducing a hodge-podge of amendments."
Badawi's own constitutional project will be moving in three directions. In terms of parliamentary reform, the constitution he is drafting will create a bicameral system, providing the Shura Council and the People's Assembly with full legislative and supervisory powers, Badawi said. Curtailing the president's powers, meanwhile, will require the phasing out of two articles: 77 and 74. According to Badawi, Article 77 -- which states that the president may be re-elected for "other" successive terms -- must be amended to mandate that he may only be elected for two six- year terms. As for Article 74, Badawi said it must be revoked altogether, since it currently gives the president sweeping powers to do whatever he wants under the pretext of safeguarding national security.
Just a week before his arrest on forgery charges, opposition MP and presidential candidate Ayman Nour submitted a draft constitution to parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour that seeks to transform Egypt into a parliamentary democracy, by reducing the office of the president to a largely ceremonial role, and investing real power in the office of the prime minister. Nour's constitution mandates that the prime minister be the leader of the party that wins the largest number of parliamentary seats in democratic general elections. Caught up in legal woes, Nour has been unable to pursue his ambitious dream of collecting a million signatures in support of his constitutional draft.