Ways to engineer political change seem to be discussed everywhere. But where is the debate heading, asks Gamal Essam El-Din
Constitutional reform and "breaking the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) monopoly on power will be the focus of a three-day conference scheduled next Saturday. Convened by the Coalition of Egyptian Opposition Parties, which includes Wafd, Tagammu, the Nasserist and the Democratic Front, the conference is expected to attract more than 100 participants, including democracy activists, civil society leaders and professors of constitutional law.
A working paper, "A Safe Option for the Nation", has already been prepared and discussions of its proposals will form the centre- piece of the conference.
"The paper reflects the official position of coalition members on the future of democracy and constitutional reform in Egypt," says Mahmoud Abaza, chairman of the liberal-oriented Wafd Party. "The conference," he hopes, "will end up crystallising a kind of national consensus about the necessity of amending the constitution in favour of more democratic reforms."
The working paper argues that the constitution must be amended "in order to avoid the collapse of the political structure of the country".
"The amendments must focus on three areas: ensuring the integrity of elections, breaking the NDP's monopoly on power, and reshaping the balance between the executive, legislative and judiciary."
"A list of guarantees," it continues, "must be put in place to ensure the integrity of general elections in Egypt... Egypt and its people have long suffered from the rigging of elections, largely due to the fact that since 1952 the constitution has given the Interior Ministry, rather than the judiciary, supervisory power over elections. This has shaken the people's confidence in the ballot box and it is now time for that confidence to be restored."
"Article 88 of the constitution must be re- amended to give the judiciary full supervision of the elections and a supreme electoral commission, independent of the Interior Ministry, should be created to oversee the election process from beginning to end."
"The commission should take responsibility for updating voter lists on the basis of the newly issued identity cards; supervising main and auxiliary polling stations with a judge for every ballot box; monitoring the process of vote- counting and announcing the final results of the elections."
The paper suggests this commission comprise 15 judges and other public figures, be chaired by the head of the Court of Cassation, and have the head of the State Council as deputy chairman.
The paper also addresses the republican nature of Egypt's political system.
"The core of any republican system is that public posts, especially the presidency, should be rotated among citizens. Article 76 of the constitution violates this principle by reinforcing the NDP's monopoly of the post of president. It makes it impossible for independents and strong opposition parties to field a successful presidential candidate. Consequently Article 76 must be re-amended so that prominent figures and political parties with a credible level of popularity can stand in direct, multi-candidate presidential elections."
In addition, the paper recommends Article 77 be changed to limit the duration of the presidency to two terms in office.
"The defining feature of any republican system is that public posts, on top of which is the post of president, be limited in the number of terms served. Without such limits the republic can turn into a monarchical or family dynasty system."
The paper recommends that "the president abandon any party-based role in order to act independently, with complete impartiality and in the interest of all Egyptians".
It provides details about how the coalition views the balance between the executive, legislative and the judiciary.
"All the constitutions issued since 1952 granted the president of the republic sweeping powers at the expense of the independence of the judiciary and the legislature. The powers of the president should be curtailed in order to strike a better balance."
In this regard the paper recommends that Article 173 of the constitution be revoked and that the law regulating the judiciary be amended in order to furnish greater guarantees of independence.
The paper also calls for clearer regulations governing the relationship between the president and prime minister.
"This requires that we adopt a system of parliamentary democracy that holds the president and prime minister accountable before a democratically-elected parliament."
The conference comes amid increasing calls for political and constitutional reform ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections. On Monday a seminar was held under the banner "The Constitution and the Political Future of Egypt", organised jointly by the government- affiliated Higher Council of Culture and Cairo University's Faculty of Law.
Hassan Nafaa, a Cairo University professor of political science and the conference's rapporteur, said "the conference was organised to garner as much support as possible for exerting pressure on the NDP to accept amending the constitution".
"We agreed that articles 76, 77 and 88 of the constitution must be amended. It was also recommended that laws regulating exercise of political rights and the formation of parties be revised to allow for greater political participation. We called for an end to the state of emergency, the reinstitution of judicial supervision of elections and the right to vote being extended to eight million Egyptians living abroad."
Yosri El-Assar, a professor of law at Cairo University, adds that the conference also recommended amending Article 179 of the constitution which grants the president absolute power in referring civilians to military tribunals.
Two weeks ago Mohamed El-Baradei, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), issued a manifesto for political reform in Egypt. The manifesto sheds light on the objectives of the National Assembly for Change, formed on 23 February and which El-Baradei was asked to lead.
Under the title "Together We Will Change", the manifesto lists seven reforms which it argues are essential to revamping the political arena, including an end to the state of emergency, full judicial supervision of elections and permission for international and local monitors to observe the poll. It also stipulates that candidates in elections should enjoy equal access to the media, restrictions on who can stand in presidential elections be lifted, the duration of the presidency limited to two terms in office and voter lists drawn up on the basis of the newly issued identity cards.
These increasing calls for constitutional reform come as President Mubarak is recovering from surgery in Germany. In a press conference held with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on 4 March, President Mubarak broke the NDP's silence on El-Baradei's manifesto.
"No curbs have been placed on El-Baradei running for president," said Mubarak. "He can stand in the elections either by joining a political party or running as an independent."
Other NDP officials followed Mubarak's lead. In a meeting of the NDP's Policies Committee on Tuesday, NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif said, "the NDP does not have any plans for amending the constitution".
"The conditions set by Article 76 were approved in a public referendum in 2007. What concerns the NDP now is preparing for parliamentary elections."
Gamal Mubarak, younger son of President Mubarak and chairman of the NDP Policies Committee, told university students in a meeting in Luxor on 3 March that, "the second amendment to Article 76 in 2007 was a progressive democratic step."
"Egypt has a multi-party system and we made it very easy for any party with one elected deputy, either in the Shura Council or the People's Assembly, to field a presidential candidate."
Alieddin Hilal, NDP secretary for media affairs, also argued that, "El-Baradei should hurry up and join a political party in order to qualify as a presidential candidate".