When the High Elections Committee (HEC), the seven-member judicial body in charge of supervising Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections, announced an initial list of candidates on 16 September, many were taken by surprise.
HEC's spokesperson Omar Marwan announced that of 5,955 individuals who between 1 and 12 September applied to run, 535 had their applications rejected. "This represents nine percent of the total number of candidates who had applied," said Marwan before adding that there were a number of reasons for the remarkably high number of rejections.
Marwan said many failed to provide necessary documents including proof of military service, proof of clean criminal records, statements about personal wealth and proof they had not received money and donations for campaigning.
The HEC spokesman, however, said the majority of the rejections were due to candidates failing obligatory medical tests by testing positive for illegal drug use.
The HEC sub-committee responsible for processing registration applications announced on 16 September that the medical tests of many hopefuls indicated heavy involvement in drug-taking .
This was confirmed by deputy health minister Nassif Al-Hefnawy who announced that medical labs conducting health tests for prospective candidates found many of them testing positive for drugs like cannabis (active in hashish), opium, opioids (active in Tramadol) and cocaine. Many were also found to be alcoholic, even though this condition is not testable in a medical lab.
Hassan Nagy, a health ministry official, told Al-Wafd newspaper on 8 September that prospective candidates had undergone rigorous medical tests by as many as 80 hospitals and labs affiliated with the ministry.
"We were surprised that those who want to represent citizens in parliament are heavy drug users," said Nagy, adding that "an elected MP should be psychologically and physically fit and one with a drug addiction cannot be so and cannot be trusted for exercising his or her legislative and watchdog roles in parliament."
Figures released by the HEC show that eleven hopefuls in the Nile Delta governorate of Gharbiya, 27 in Daqahliyaa governorate, four in Damietta governorate, six in Menoufiya, one in Giza, six in the Upper Egypt governorate of Qena, one in South Sinai, seven in Alexandria and four in Luxor tested positive and were rejected.
The biggest surprise was that an Islamist candidate affiliated with the ultraconservative Nour Party in Luxor was found to be a user of Tramadol. Nour is the only Islamist force contesting the polls.
A potential candidate by the name of Sameh Salam in Giza's constituency of Al-Haram has filed an appeal with HEC after testing positive.
"This is false. I tested negative last February when the door for registration for polls scheduled for March," said Salam, insisting that "tests conducted in health ministry hospitals are not correctly conducted and cannot be validated".
According to the law on exercising political rights (law 45/2014) and the HEC's rules, potential parliamentary candidates must undergo rigorous medical tests to check their psychological well-being and physical fitness.
When Egypt's parliamentary elections were originally scheduled to be held last March, all potential candidates were forced to undergo medical check-ups.
But after the elections were postponed until October and November, the HEC said those who had successfully applied last March and aimed to run again would not be required to take medical tests.
This, however, did not go down well with Egypt's Administrative Courts, which ruled that those who applied last February must undergo new medical check-ups if to be accepted in next month's elections.
The court said "there is a period of seven months between February and September during which the health conditions of many potential candidates could have changed". Each potential candidate was forced to pay LE2,850 to undergo a medical test.
Under the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak, parliamentary candidates were not required to pass medical tests. But after joining parliament many were found to be drug users.
In one case in 1990 four candidates from North Sinai were found to be drug traffickers and they came to be known as "the drug deputies." They were stripped of parliamentary membership and referred to trial.
Some reports cite the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) statistics as placing Egypt 12th worldwide in terms of hashish production.
UNODC estimates that Egypt produces over 18 million kilograms of hashish and over 73 million kilograms of marijuana every year.
The deserts of Sinai are widely believed to be fertile ground for hashish production.
Some even believe that Islamist militants fighting the Egyptian army in Sinai, primarily the Beit Al-Maqdis group, use proceeds from drug sales to fund weapons purchases and operations.
Interior ministry reports show Tramadol smuggling has risen in recent years, primarily coming from war-torn Libya. Statistics also show there are approximately 10 million drug users who live in Egypt.
Judge Khaled Al-Shabasi told Al-Ahram newspaper on 19 September that prospective candidates who had tested positive on drug use cannot be prosecuted.
"Drug users can be prosecuted or referred to trial only when they are caught "red handed," said Shabasi, adding that "it must be proved that they have committed a crime under the influence of drugs in order to face criminal charges." He urges authorities to change laws to allow prosecuting those who test positive on drug use.