Twelve months after President Mubarak announced Article 76 would be amended, and the public still awaits the reform of Egypt's political life, writes Gamal Essam El-Din
Twelve months ago President Hosni Mubarak unleashed a political bombshell, announcing that Article 76 of the constitution would be amended to allow for allow multi-candidate presidential elections. Hopes ran high that the ensuing changes would usher in a spring of comprehensive constitutional and political reforms. At times it seemed political analysts were falling over themselves to announce the imminent arrival of Egypt's "second republic" in which radical constitutional reform would finally transform the country from a military to a civil political system.
A year later and most of those hopes have been shattered, a view shared by opposition figures and leading liberal members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
The amendment, said Al-Ahram political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie, was flawed from the start, formulated in such a way as to make it impossible for independents to run. With the exception of last year's presidential election, he continued, the amendment also makes it impossible for opposition candidates to contest a future poll given that nominees must obtain the backing of at least 250 elected members of the People's Assembly, Shura Council and municipal councils. The amendment stipulates that only candidates from parties which have won five per cent of elected seats in the People's Assembly (22 seats) and Shura Council (13 seats) will be eligible to run, an impossible threshold, says Rabie, given the NDP's ruthless state- supported monopoly of political life. Worse, he added, in the last parliamentary elections, only two legal opposition parties -- Al-Wafd and Tagammu -- were able to win any seats at all. "As a result," he concludes, "there is no chance in the foreseeable future that the opposition secular parties will be able to field candidates in presidential elections."
While the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood did win 88 seats in last year's parliamentary elections, the NDP dominated People's Assembly rushed through legislation delaying local council elections -- originally scheduled for this month -- for two years in an attempt, say MB activists, to stem their rising tide of support. The MB believes that had the elections taken place as planned they would have won a landslide victory, paving the way for a candidate to contest the next presidential poll.
The manner in which the People's Assembly approved the highly restrictive amendment, fuelled speculation that the constitutional changes first mooted by President Mubarak on 26 February 2005 were no more than democratic window dressing.
Indeed, Kifaya coordinator George Ishak goes so far as to suggest that the only positive effect of the amendment was to show the outside world just how undemocratic and authoritarian the regime of President Mubarak is.
"The move was adopted following pressure from the United States and its aim was to waste time while paying lip service to democracy," says Ishak.
The conduct of last year's referendum and the presidential elections that followed, he says, confirm his argument. During the referendum Kifaya activists were harassed, and several women journalists sexually assaulted.
Interior Minister, Habib Al-Adli announced that the turnout for the referendum was 53.6 per cent, and of the 17 million voters who went to the polls 82.9 per cent voted in favour of the amendment. So why, asks Ishak, is it that during the 7 September presidential elections only seven million people bothered to vote?
"How can it be that 17 million voted in a referendum while just seven million could be bothered to vote in the country's first multi-candidate presidential election? Don't the contradictions inherent in those figures demonstrate that both the referendum and the presidential elections were rigged?"
The irregularities which marred parliamentary elections, and which include allegations that voters were prevented from reaching polling stations as well as assaults against supervising judges, serve to underline the fact that the regime had never been sincere in its commitment to democratisation, says Ishak, who believes the rigging of parliamentary elections and the rescheduling of local council elections serve a single purpose: to ensure that Gamal Mubarak becomes the next president of Egypt. "The recent promotion of Gamal Mubarak within the NDP and his father's dismissal of calls that Article 76 be redrafted are intended to facilitate the son's inheritance of power."
Not everyone shares Ishak's pessimism. While conceding that the amendment of Article 76 is far from perfect it has, believe some political analysts, created an unprecedented state of political ferment, a positive development.
"It cannot be denied," said Abdel-Moneim Said, head of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, "that the amendment of article 76 gave Egyptians their first chance to see candidates compete to gain their favour. For more than a month of presidential election campaigning Egyptians saw President Mubarak's policies being criticised while the President himself was forced to tour several governorates promising a package of constitutional and political reforms for the first time in 24 years in power."
Whatever the shortcomings to the amendment of Article 76, Said continues, it has at least the virtue of drawing attention to the urgent need for constitutional reform: "In short, the amendment broke the taboo that meddling with the constitution, in the words of President Hosni Mubarak himself just one month before his decision to amend article 76, would be "a black and shameful act."
Said believes that amending Article 76, whether or not it was intended as a piece of political window dressing, helped politicise large sections of the public and that it was the political ferment that allowed the opposition to increase its number of seats in parliament from just seven per cent in 2000 to 27 per cent now. And while he fears that the implementation of President Mubarak's presidential election campaign promises of constitutional reform may well fall short of public expectations, "they will help make constitutional reform the main focus of political debate in the next few years".