'Impossible to amend'
Senior NDP officials are adamant there can be no changes to election regulations ahead of November's parliamentary poll, reports Gamal Essam El-Din
National Democratic Party (NDP) leaders stressed this week that the 1956 law concerning the exercise of political rights would not be amended ahead of November's People's Assembly elections.
Their comments came in response to the one-day conference held by the Coalition of the Egyptian Opposition Parties (CEOP) on 8 August which called on President Hosni Mubarak to change the law to ensure that the elections were free and fair.
The conference convened at the Wafd Party's headquarters, even though the Wafd had earlier said it would quit the coalition following criticisms levelled at the party by Osama El-Ghazali Harb, the chairman of the Democratic Front. Harb had warned that the Wafd's refusal to boycott the poll would lead to rifts within the ranks of CEOP.
Fathi Sorour, People's Assembly speaker and a member of the NDP politburo, told parliamentary correspondents on 10 August that amendments to the 1956 law on the exercise of political rights approved in May 2007 included sufficient guarantees that parliamentary elections would be marked with integrity.
"Opposition suggestions that the poll be placed under the full supervision of judges from the Court of Cassation would have to be discussed first by the People's Assembly. Since both the assembly and Shura Council are currently in recess it is impossible to implement any changes ahead of the November poll," he said.
Sorour also pointed out that though under Article 147 of the constitution President Hosni Mubarak can issue legislative amendments when parliament is not sitting, the prerogative is restricted to matters of national emergency. He argued that the amendment of 34 constitutional articles in March 2007, which placed monitoring of the elections in the hands of a Higher Election Commission (HEC), ensured that the polls would be fair.
"The changes came in response to opposition demands to place the monitoring of elections in the hands of a body that comprised senior judges and would exercise comprehensive control of the polls," said Sorour. "The new system is far better than the old one, which was based on the principle of a judge for every ballot box, causing a lot of embarrassment for judges and implicating them in political disputes."
Sorour made his remarks while touring the Cairo district of Al-Sayeda Zeinab, which he has represented since 1987 and plans to contest in November's election.
The 8 August conference, held under the slogan "No to elections without guarantees" saw the coalition, which includes Wafd, Tagammu, the Nasserists and the Democratic Front, adopt a final document demanding that the HEC be headed by the Chairman of the Court of Cassation, the highest judicial authority in Egypt, rather than the Chairman of Cairo's Appeal Court, as is currently the case.
"The HEC, membership of which should be restricted to senior Court of Cassation judges, should exercise full control of the polls, including selecting polling and vote-counting stations, regulating their performance and ensuring that they are supervised and monitored by one or two senior judges," said the document. It also called for the police to be subject to HEC supervision to ensure they do not interfere in the election process.
"In coordination with the ministries of interior, justice, foreign affairs, defence, health and manpower, the HEC should revise voter lists to make them consistent with the newly-designed national identity cards," the document concluded.
Wafd Party Chairman El-Sayed El-Badawi said the CEOP document also called on President Mubarak to scrap the existing individual candidacy system in favour of the more proportionally representative slate system, so as to ensure a stronger voice in parliament for political parties and underrepresented groups such as Copts and women.
In response Sorour argued that "the proportional representation slate system is too difficult for the electorate to understand". He also said that to succeed it would require strong opposition parties with an active presence in the political arena which is currently not the case.
"Most of the existing parties, with the exception of the majority NDP, are weak and ineffective. And while it is true that Article 5 of the constitution states that the multi-party system should characterise Egypt's political life this will remain only a hope until strong opposition parties emerge."
Moufid Shehab, minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs and NDP assistant secretary-general, agreed that "it is impossible to amend the 1956 political rights law ahead of the upcoming elections". He pointed out that it has been amended 14 times since 1956, most recently in May 2007 in order to accommodate opposition calls for elections to be placed under a Higher Election Commission.
Following the conference El-Badawi made it clear that unless the coalition's legislative demands for free elections were met by 17 September, the General Assembly of the Wafd Party would convene to decide whether or not to boycott the polls.
"NDP officials should understand that guarantees for fair elections are good for them as well as for the opposition parties. Without them there will always be doubt over the fairness of any poll," he said.