Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 March 2011
Issue No. 1037
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Farewell to Pharaohs

The eight constitutional amendments announced on Sunday mark the end of the presidency being a lifetime occupation, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

The amendments to Egypt's 1971 constitution, unveiled on 26 February, are a major step towards dismantling the autocratic legacy first ushered in by the army in 1952. They represent a fundamental break from the past, not least by placing a fixed limit on presidential terms. Henceforth, it is an office no one will enjoy for life.

Tarek El-Beshri, the reformist judge who heads the committee tasked by the ruling military junta with reforming the constitution, announced that Article 77 of the constitution would be amended to limit presidential terms to a maximum of four years, with candidates eligible to serve two terms.

"This is the best way to ensure that future rulers do not have sufficient time to establish a power base strong enough to bring the old Pharaonic style back to the political system," said El-Beshri.

It will also, argues Gamal Abdel-Gawad, head of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, "help inject new blood and allow younger generations a chance of running the country".

Under the proposals Article 76 will be amended to place fewer restrictions on presidential candidates. To be eligible to run they will now need to be endorsed by 30 members of the People's Assembly or Shura Council, collect 30,000 signatures supporting their candidacy from across at least 15 governorates, or else secure the nomination of a political party that holds at least one seat in the People's Assembly or the Shura Council. Lowering the threshold for candidacy in such a way provides the possibility for meaningful presidential elections for the first time in Egypt's history. It is a major break with the current text which allowed the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak to maintain a stranglehold on power.

No sooner had details of the proposed amendments been announced than public figures began jockeying for position. On 27 February Amr Moussa, chairman of the Arab League and a former minister of foreign affairs, was the first to announce his intentions to field himself as a presidential candidate. Moussa, 74, enjoys a high public profile and is expected to emerge as the frontrunner if presidential elections are held in August or September. Much of his popularity dates back to his time as foreign minister (1991-2001), when he regularly criticised Israeli policies in public.

Among the changes unveiled by El-Beshri was the surprise proposal that Article 75 include a clause requiring presidential candidates to be born to two Egyptians parents, and barring anyone from standing if they have a non-Egyptian spouse. Forty was also set as the minimum age for candidates.

The amendment, if passed, would exclude Egyptian-American scientist and Nobel laureate Ahmed Zuweil, who is married to a Syrian, from standing.

Reports that Mohamed El-Baradei, 69, holds dual Egyptian-Swiss nationality and is married to a foreigner are, says the ex-chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), totally unfounded.

Though El-Baradei has repeatedly said that he has no ambitions to become Egypt's president it is a position from which he appears to have retreated in recent days.

El-Baradei's problem, says Abdel-Gawwad, is that "he lacks the charisma of Moussa," and while he has been successful in establishing a presence in cyberspace he has not opened up channels of communication with ordinary people.

Other presidential hopefuls include 47- year-old Ayman Nour, founder of the Ghad Party, who came a poor second to Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections only to be thrown in prison for his trouble, and Hamdeen Sabahi, 57, the firebrand Nasserist who heads the Karama (Dignity) Party.

Others mentioned as possible candidates are Kamal Al-Ganzouri, the prime minister between 1996 and 1999 who was sacked by Mubarak; Omar Suleiman, the chief of General Intelligence since 1993 who for two weeks served as Mubarak's vice president, and Hisham El-Bastawisi, the reformist judge vilified by the regime in 2006 after he accused Mubarak, the NDP and former interior minister Habib El-Adli of rigging the previous year's parliamentary elections.

Though the democratic tenor of the proposed amendments has been welcomed some reservations remain. Gamal Zahran, professor of political science at Suez University, questions why Article 139 has been changed to require the president to nominate one or more vice presidents within 60 days of election.

"Given they decided to adopt the US system of limiting the presidency to two consecutive terms, you might have expected that vice presidential nominees would have been announced ahead of any presidential campaigns," says Zahran. "If we are to have an elected president we should also have an elected vice president given that it is the latter who will take over should the president be incapacitated for any reason."

Zahran also questions the wisdom of changing Article 93 to give the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) the final say in any election appeals rather than the Court of Cassation. Under the current constitution it is the People's Assembly that acts as final arbitrator.

"One of the opposition's main demands was that the assembly -- packed with members from Mubarak's ruling party, should not judge cases of electoral fraud," says Zahran. "It is the Court of Cassation that has the greatest experience in dealing with election appeals, not the SCC which lacks the expertise necessary to do the job."

Judges' Club head Ahmed El-Zind agrees. "The SCC is mainly concerned with investigating the constitutionality of laws and other regulations, not investigating election appeals," he says.

Zahran also sees no need to retain the Shura Council. Phasing out what he characterises as an institution to provide sinecures for regime cronies would, he points out, save LE60 million a year.

Former Shura Council member Shawqi El-Sayed argues that rather than be abolished the Shura Council should be strengthened. "It should have supervisory legislative powers, as was the case with the Maglis Al-Shiyoukh (the senate) before 1952," he says.

As well as limiting the length and number of terms, the proposed amendments place restrictions on the power of the president to declare or renew a state of emergency. The declaration of a state of emergency will henceforth require approval in a public referendum, and will have a lifespan of just six months.

Proposals to amend Article 189 to allow a 100-member commission drawn from parliament to draft a new constitution rather than leaving this in the hands of the president and a third of sitting MPs mark a further erosion of presidential prerogative.

Full judicial supervision of elections is to be restored, and El-Beshri indicated that laws regulating the exercise of political rights, the People's Assembly, Shura Council and presidential elections would all be redrafted.

A referendum on the amendments is expected to be held on 19 March, parliamentary elections in June and presidential elections in either August or September. That, at least, is the timetable outlined by the Higher Council of the Armed Forces in recent meetings with representatives from the youth movements that kick-started the 25 January Revolution.

Such a tight time frame has led to concern that it will be impossible to establish democratic institutions ahead of elections. Amr Hamzawy, a political analyst with the US- based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that there is a danger that Mubarak regime loyalists could return, while Zahran believes curtailing the time available to form parties and campaign will favour the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egyptians need time to form political parties and to communicate with the people, insists El-Baradei, and this cannot happen in just six months.

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