As the People's Assembly votes in favour of President Hosni Mubarak's proposed constitutional amendments, opposition and independent MPs are in disarray, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Sorour
The People's Assembly last week approved in principle President Hosni Mubarak's 26 December initiative to amend 34 articles of the constitution. While the vote in support of the proposals was overwhelming and marks the end of the first stage of the initiative, the month-long debate that preceded the vote saw serious rifts emerge between independent MPs and in the ranks of opposition parties.
On 17 January, the day of the preliminary vote, Kamal Ahmed, spokesman of the independent bloc in the People's Assembly and a veteran MP with Nasserist leanings, surprised his colleagues when he expressed his approval of Mubarak's proposed amendments.
"No one can reject putting a formal ban on parties based on religion or empowering parliament to change the budget and withdraw confidence in the government," said Ahmed. Besides, he added, "while it's true that our hopes for wider-ranging constitutional reforms were high we must acknowledge the gap." Other independent MPs, including the usually vocal Mustafa Bakri, preferred not to speak up, or else stayed away during the vote.
Alaaeddin Abdel-Moneim Amin, MP for Cairo's downtown district of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar and secretary-general of the independent bloc, was keen to underline that Kamal was speaking for himself and "his words do not represent the position of all independents."
A four-page statement endorsed by 10 independent MPs emphasised their rejection of all the proposed constitutional amendments. In form, the statement argued, Mubarak's amendments may appear to be a progressive step but once the content of the proposals is examined "the disadvantages of the amendments greatly outweigh the advantages". The proposals were, said the 10 MPs, "honey mixed with poison".
"They want us to think that poison is honey and ask us to drink both."
The MPs objected to Mubarak's initiative which "aims to make it easier for political parties to field candidates [and] seeks to eliminate independents from the political arena under the pretext of reinforcing legal parties". The statement further claimed that the intention of the amendments was to "constitutionalise the rigging of elections" by eliminating full judicial supervision and adopting a slate system which obliges party candidates to run on a single ticket. The MPs' statement also objected to the Shura Council assuming legislative powers, the president being allowed to dissolve parliament, the imposition of anti-terror legislation and the appointment of the president as chairman of the Higher Council of Judicial Authorities.
The independent bloc, a coalition of Nasserist, liberal and leftist deputies, does not include the 88 members of the Muslim Brotherhood coalition in the People's Assembly.
Mohamed Anwar Essmat El-Sadat, a liberal-oriented independent MP and nephew of late President Anwar El-Sadat, argued that since the inauguration of the current parliament in December 2005, independent MPs, including leftist, liberal and Islamist, have been the most vociferous critics of Mubarak's policies. "This is why Mubarak's amendments read like a declaration of war on independent politicians," said El-Sadat. He believes that once the amendments are approved in a public referendum, President Mubarak will then dissolve parliament in a move intended to rid the People's Assembly of independent MPs.
Political parties have also objected to the amendments. In the liberal-oriented Wafd Party two positions have emerged. Mahmoud Abaza, chairman of the Wafd Party, and Mohamed Sherdy, a Wafdist journalist, argue that "the amendments are generally positive."
"The Wafd Party agrees that a formal ban should be imposed on parties based on religion and that parliament be empowered to change the budget and withdraw confidence from the government," said Abaza. He did, however, criticise the expected anti-terror law as a potential threat to basic freedoms.
Wafdist journalist Mohamed Abdel-Alim Dawoud, MP for the Delta Governorate of Kafr Al-Sheikh, took issue with his party's leader.
"Had Saad Zaghloul, the founder of the Wafd Party, still been alive he would have rejected these amendments out of hand," said Dawoud. "After sending Ayman Nour and Talaat El-Sadat, two opposition figures, to jail, the government now wants greater constitutional powers to continue harassing opposition figures."
The leftist Tagammu was equally divided. Tagammu leader Rifaat El-Said, who is a member of the Shura Council, adopted a position similar to that of Abaza, his Wafdist counterpart.
"These amendments are a mix of the good and bad," said El-Said, who approved of parties based on religion being formally banned and of the People's Assembly and Shura Council being given a greater supervisory and legislative role. But he objected to the amendments' failure to curtail the prerogatives enjoyed by the president as well as what he described as attempts to drive a wedge between political parties and independents.
In the People's Assembly, however, Mohamed Abdel-Aziz Shaaban, the Tagammu's sole MP, said his party rejected the amendments which, Shaaban argued, aimed to break the socialist foundations upon which the Egyptian economy was built. "Socialism is El-Tagammu's flagship ideology and the party cannot, therefore, approve these amendments," concluded Shaaban.
Rumours continued to fly that last week Gamal Mubarak, the president's 44-year-old son and chairman of the NDP's Policy Committee, met with Abaza and El-Said, to urge them not to oppose the amendments and instead concentrate on curtailing the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Diaa Rashwan, a political analyst with Al-Ahram, told the Weekly that he is disappointed the three major opposition parties -- Wafd, Tagammu and the Nasserists -- have failed to develop a united stand against the amendments.
"I agree that these amendments mix honey with poison in a bid to gain the approval of political parties and discourage them from joining forces with Muslim Brotherhood," said Rashwan.
Following the Assembly's approval the proposed constitutional amendments will now enter their most crucial stage. According to parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour, the Assembly's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee will now embark on a month- long session of hearings.
"By 17 March the Assembly, after listening to the opinion of MPs, constitutional law professors, journalists and politicians, is scheduled to start forging the final draft of the 34 amendments," said Sorour.