Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 May - 1 June 2011
Issue No. 1049
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Secular opposition slams new electoral law

While amendments to the electoral law have faced strong criticism from secular opposition forces, they have been welcomed by the Islamist movements, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

The amendments to Egypt's 55-year-old law on the exercise of political rights faced strong criticism from the leaders of several political parties, the leaders of youth dissent movements and prominent legislative experts this week, who blamed the ruling Higher Council of the Armed Forces (HCAF) for imposing the law on the country without first carrying out public consultation. In response to attack from opposition and youth movements, the HCAF issued a statement warning that "some are still fond of falsely raising patriotic slogans and strive to drive a wedge between the army and the people." Mamdouh Shahin, a member of the HCAF, aslo emphasised that "the new amendments of the law on the exercise of political rights were the result of a dialogue with all political forces and never reflected the HCAF's view point only."

In a statement, the Youth Coalition of the 25 January Revolution said that "since the HCAF took over after deposing former president Hosni Mubarak, it has been continuously imposing amendments to major pieces of legislation."

"This process began with the amendment of the political parties law, and it continued last week when it published amendments to the 1956 law on political rights, taking the country's youth dissent movements and opposition parties by surprise."

Joining forces with young political activists, Mohamed El-Baradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and potential candidate in Egypt's presidential elections, slammed the amended law, saying that it stripped millions of Egyptians working abroad of the right to vote.

El-Baradei complained on Twitter that the law had been dictated by the HCAF without public consultation. "While the army is refraining from launching a dialogue on the political future of Egypt, the roadmap to this future is becoming increasingly complicated and ambiguous," El-Baradei said.

He said that there was a need for civilian movements to take part in the political process and not to let the army impose its vision. El-Baradei called for the country's parliamentary elections to be postponed until liberal forces had taken root and were able to compete against Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

El-Baradei also told the US CNN television network that he feared the HCAF's decisions would mainly serve the Brotherhood. He said that a new constitution upholding the principles of the 25 January Revolution should be drafted ahead of new parliamentary or presidential elections.

Rifaat El-Said, chair of the leftist Tagammu Party, also complained that the law had been issued by the HCAF without consultation. "The amendments stop short of tackling several key issues, on top of which they do not cover the electoral system to be used for the next parliamentary elections and whether the quota of 64 seats reserved for women will be maintained," El-Said said.

He said that the new law failed to place a ceiling on spending during electoral campaigns and that it did not tackle the issue of the use of religious slogans during campaigns.

El-Said also criticised the HCAF's announcement that key issues, such as giving Egyptians abroad the right to vote or deciding on the electoral system, would be left to amendments designed to regulate the People's Assembly, the lower house of Egypt's parliament.

"This means that the time before we know which electoral system will be used will be very short, and most secular opposition parties will have very little time to prepare for the elections," El-Said said, adding that the country's "Islamist forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, are the ones that will benefit from the HCAF's legislative amendments."

"The Muslim Brotherhood has been the first to form a party, to buy a new headquarters, and to be able to afford the high cost of publishing a list of the members of its proposed party in two national newspapers," El-Said said.

He said that the amendment to the law reinstituting full judicial supervision of elections was a step in the right direction, as this recognised the rule of "a judge for every ballot box". However, he warned that "it could be difficult to implement this rule, due to a lack of security in several governorates."

El-Said also approved the amendments' allowing voters to use their national identity cards when casting their ballots, doing away with the need to obtain voting cards. "Look what happened during the referendum on 19 March, when it was much easier for citizens to vote using their national identity cards," he said.

Nevertheless, the "HCAF's insistence on holding the elections next September will strip them of competition and will lead old bad practices, such as vote-buying, to proliferate."

According to Mamdouh Shahin, a member of the HCAF, the amendments to the law are designed to eliminate the decades- long role of the Interior Ministry and police in supervising parliamentary elections.

"The police and Interior Ministry will no longer have the upper hand in supervising parliamentary elections, and judges operating through a Higher Electoral Committee [HEC] will take full charge of the electoral process," Shahin said.

The HEC would be made up of judges, with the chair of Cairo's Appeals Court acting as its head. "Military police will be entrusted with safeguarding polling stations against violence or thuggery, but they will not be allowed to enter the stations themselves," he said.

He said that the issue of giving Egyptians abroad the right to vote would "require careful study" as "we have to see how the rule of 'a judge for every ballot box' can be implemented abroad."

"Egyptian ambassadors cannot play the role of judges in elections," he said.

Meanwhile, Ali El-Salami, a member of the liberal-oriented Wafd Party's higher council, argued that the amendments included positive reforms, such as reinstituting full judicial supervision, giving civil-society organisations and the media the freedom to monitor elections, the use of national identity cards in voting, and the exclusion of public figures from membership of the HEC.

El-Salami said that a way should be found to give Egyptian expatriates the right to vote. "We do not need judges to be available in foreign countries to help Egyptians working abroad to vote," he said.

"In countries such as the United States, there is no need for judges to monitor elections. It is enough for international media and civil society organisations to monitor the voting process to make sure it is properly carried out."

Moreover, El-Salami agreed that "the electoral system to be adopted in the next parliamentary elections should be left to the law regulating the People's Assembly." He said "there should be a mix between the individual candidacy system and the proportional party-list system, in order to give equal rights to independent and party-based candidates."

However, he lamented the fact that "opposition parties were not consulted before the amendments were ratified by the HCAF."

Mohamed Abul-Ela of the Nasserist Party also said that he was surprised that the HCAF had failed to consult on the law. He complained that the amendments had stopped short of imposing a ban on the use of religious slogans and of mosques and churches in election campaigns.

Although benefited by the amendments to the law, the Muslim Brotherhood complained that these did not include a ruling on what electoral system would be used in the forthcoming elections.

However, Brotherhood leader Essam El-Erian urged the leaders of the country's opposition parties and youth dissent movements to begin preparing for the elections rather than voicing criticism of the army and its amendments.

"This law is a very progressive step, and the leaders of the political parties should not make themselves busy attacking the army and accusing it of imposing its decisions on the political forces when this is not true," he said.

Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood lawyer and a member of the committee tasked by the army with amending several articles of the constitution, said that an individual candidacy system would be used in the parliamentary elections scheduled for next September, while a proportional party-list system would be delayed until a new constitution had been drafted.

Members of the opposition parties claimed that the individual candidacy system served the Muslim Brotherhood, members of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and businessmen because it obliged citizens to elect representatives according to tribal and familial relations.

"This system causes the proliferation of vote-buying and the use of thugs and violence on a wide scale," reiterated El-Said, arguing that "the party-list system obliges citizens to elect candidates according to their platforms, ideology and programmes, all of which are good for advancing a democratic political culture."

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