Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 March 2007
Issue No. 836
Front Page
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Before the vote

Controversy over constitutional amendments proposed by President Mubarak, reports Gamal Essam El-Din, has centred on civil liberties being under threat

Following almost three months of intensive debate, next Monday the People's Assembly will put President Hosni Mubarak's 26 December constitutional initiative -- that 34 articles be amended -- to a final vote. The new draft, finalised by a special nine-member parliamentary sub-committee last week, was approved by the parliament's upper house (the consultative Shura Council) last Tuesday and approved by the Constitutional Affairs Committee (ALCAC) of the People's Assembly on the same day.

While Muslim Brotherhood MPs as well as leftist-leaning independent deputies boycotted the ALCAC meeting, only three of a total of 43 committee members rejected the draft. They were Wafd Party leader Mahmoud Abaza and independent MPs Kamal Ahmed and Mohamed El-Omda. El-Omda's insistence on taking President Mubarak to task for the new draft of Article 179 triggered a storm of protest from National Democratic Party (NDP) MPs. The draft gives the president of the republic sweeping powers to combat terrorism.

It was not only El-Omda, however, who cried foul over the 34 proposed constitutional amendments. At a press conference on Monday at the Wafd Party headquarters in Dokki, a coalition of the liberal Wafd, the Muslim Brotherhood, the leftist Tagammu Party, the Nasserist Karama movement, and independent MPs joined forces to declare a united front against the drafts.

A statement released by the coalition singled out amendments to articles 88 and 179 as threatening civil liberties. The statement read: "The new draft of Article 88 eliminates full judicial supervision over elections and brings us back to the days before the ruling of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) regarding this article."

In June 2000, the SCC ruled that a correct interpretation of Article 88 establishes as obligatory that the government place elections under full judicial supervision (or a judge for every ballot box) and that to achieve this end, elections should not be conducted in one day.

The coalition's statement also emphasised that the proposed amendment of Article 179 grants the president powers striping individuals of the guarantees secured by articles 41, 44 and 45, and opens the door to a police state in Egypt.

Articles 41, 44 and 45 state that, "the law shall protect the inviolability of the private life of citizens" and that "correspondence, wires, telephone calls and other means of communication shall have their own sanctity and secrecy and may not be confiscated except by a judicial warrant and for a definite period in accordance with the provisions of the law."

People's Assembly Speaker, Ahmed Fathi Sorour, indicated that the new draft of 179 would also authorise the president to refer civilians implicated in terrorist acts to military tribunals. Opposition forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, are up in arms. Saad El-Katatni, the Brotherhood's spokesman in the assembly, said the Brotherhood would boycott this coming Sunday and Monday's parliamentary debate on the 34-article initiative. "The Brothers cannot accept to be an eyewitness to a constitutional crime," El-Katatni said.

Hamdeen Sabahi, leader of the Karama movement and MP for the Delta Governorate of Kafr Al-Sheikh, said more than 100 opposition and independent MPs have decided to boycott the final discussion of the 34-article amendments. "We will organise a protest picket in front of the parliament, wearing a 'No to amendments' banner." The Wafd and Tagammu parties, however, said the decision of whether to boycott Sunday and Monday's parliamentary sessions rested with party top executive bodies. Rifaat El-Said, leader of the Tagammu Party, said Mubarak's initiative "has become like a suit tailored to fit the measures of one specific person".

Other political forces also lined up against the amendments in their present form. Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd, deputy chairman of the National Council for Human Rights, said "the way the amendments were drafted resembled the attempt of transplanting into the body of a dying man a liver, a kidney and a heart." Zakaria Abdel-Aziz, chairman of the Judges Club, an independent professional association, said the new draft of Article 88 would make judges eyewitnesses to election rigging. "Eliminating the rule of a judge for every ballot box means we are back to the days when stuffing boxes with votes in favour of the NDP was the hallmark of auxiliary polling stations," Abdel-Aziz said.

Meanwhile, senior NDP officials insist they would not be intimidated by the opposition joining forces against Mubarak's constitutional initiative. Gamal Mubarak, chairman of NDP's powerful Policies Committee, said the NDP would remain loyal to the new amendments of articles 88 and 179. "The draft of Article 88 is an excellent translation of President Mubarak's 2005 presidential election programme," said Gamal Mubarak.

The NDP's secretary-general and chairman of the Shura Council, Safwat El-Sherif, attributed the Brotherhood's strong rejection of the proposed amendments to the fact that they impose a ban on religious parties. "The draft of articles 1 and 5 aim to maintain national unity in Egypt while they [the Brothers] want to exploit religion to secure their own ends," said El-Sherif.

In its two-day discussion, the Shura Council recommended several minor changes to the proposed amendments. The council asked that any new elections system, as stated by Article 62, should set a minimum quota for women in the two houses and that Article 74 should be amended to state that the People's Assembly and Shura Council -- rather than the People's Assembly alone -- cannot be dissolved while the president is exercising his exceptional powers to face immediate and serious danger. While the ALCAC rejected the council's first proposal, it approved the second.

Ahmed Ezz, the NDP's secretary for organisational affairs, told Al-Ahram Weekly that once approved next week, leading NDP officials in provincial offices will be mobilised to rally members to vote for the proposed amendments when they are put to a public referendum in the first week of April. "Different rallies will be organised in cities, towns and even villages to explain to the people the importance of voting for the amendments," said Ezz.

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