In a stormy session rife with acrimonious debate and political divisions, the upper house of the Egyptian parliament, the Shura Council, currently endowed with legislative powers, gave the okay for referring three proposed amendments to the 1972 Judicial Authority Law to the Council's Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee for discussion article by article.
Ahmed Fahmi, chairman of Shura Council and a leading official of Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), stressed that, "The Shura Council is not seeking a confrontation against judges."
Fahmi expressed hopes that "the Justice Conference will be held very soon and that judges will be able to reach a consensus over proposed amendments of the law regulating the performance of the judicial authority and then submit these amendments to the Shura Council to adopt them."
Fahmi also underlined that, "The Shura Council aims to protect judges over 60 in age because they are the bastions of justice in Egypt and [the council] does not aim to demolish these bastions."
The morning session of the Shura Council began Saturday with non-Islamist deputies battling against Islamist MPs who pressed hard their proposed amendments to the judicial authority law. The Islamist MPs belong to the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), Al-Wasat and Gamaa Islamiya's Reconstruction and Development Party. The amendments assert the necessity of cutting the retirement age for judges from 70 to 60; setting new rules for appointing the prosecutor-general in accordance with Article 173 of the constitution; and making it obligatory for judges to participate in supervising general elections, exposing those who boycott this duty to punishment.
Non-Islamist deputies wore sashes bearing the words "No for a flawed law and no for a flawed session." When Fahmi said MPs voted in favour of referring the amendments to the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, non-Islamist deputies shouted "A flawed and invalid measure!" In response, Islamist MPs shouted "Yes for cleansing justice of corruption!"
Ihab Al-Kharrat, chairman of the Shura Council's Human Rights Committee and a member of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, told Ahram Online that "non-Islamist deputies wanted that the proposed amendments be rejected altogether because the Shura Council is not authorised to discuss them and it must wait until the yet to be elected House of Representatives (the lower house of parliament) is formed."
Al-Kharat said "the non-Islamist deputies reached an agreement with MPs of the Salafist El-Nour Party, the party with the second biggest political bloc in Shura Council," that they would walk out of the session if the council approved the proposed amendments, even in principle. "Although the non-Islamist and Nour Party deputies do not have a majority, their agreement to withdraw from the session was aimed to embarrass the Shura Council and strip the amendments of legitimacy and consensus," said Al-Kharrat.
For his part, Taher Abdel-Mohsen, deputy chairman of the council's Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, said he is proud that he is one of three deputies who took the initiative of proposing amendments to the Judicial Authority Law. "I think the time has come to re-organise the judicial authority and rid it of corrupt elements," said Abdel-Mohsen.
Tarek Al-Malt, a deputy of the Wasat Party, told Ahram Online that "the move of referring the proposed amendments back to the Constitutional and Lesgilative Affairs Committee was expected because Article 169 of the constitution stresses that 'amendments of laws regulating the judicial authority cannot be discussed without first seeking the opinion of the representatives of judicial authorities.'" Al-Malt added that "the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee will embark upon holding a series of hearing sessions and receiving amendments proposed by judges until it gains consensus on a new draft Judicial Authority Law."
Aside from the difficult job of reaching consensus on amendments to the Judicial Authority Law, the Shura Council is slated to re-amend two laws regulating parliamentary elections for the third time in six months. On Saturday, the High Constitutional Court (HCC) ruled that four articles of the law regulating parliamentary elections and nine articles of the law on the exercise of political rights are unconstitutional. The court, in a shocking report sent to Shura Council Saturday, said "the new laws regulating the election of the House of Representatives and the Exercise of Political Rights, passed by the Shura Council on 11 April, included 13 unconstitutional articles."
For example, the report said, the new redrawing of electoral districts as stated by the parliamentary elections law still violates the principle of equality and does not ensure fair representation of citizens in parliament. "The constitution stressed that a new election law must guarantee that electoral districts be designed to ensure fair representation of citizens in parliament," the HCC report said, adding that "for example, the distribution of electoral districts in governorates like Alexandria, El-Sharqiya and Damietta show that the electoral districts in these governorates were not fairly designed in space and size to guarantee equal representation of citizens."
The HCC also criticised the absence from the law of a ban on the use of religious slogans during election campaigns. "This is unconstitutional because it violates the principle of national unity guaranteed by the constitution," said the report, "adding that the use of religious slogans stands as an obstacle before citizens when electing candidates on objective grounds."
The Muslim Brotherhood's FJP pressed hard for lifting the ban on the use of religious slogans during parliamentary elections, rejecting the opposition's argument that such practices inflame sectarian feelings.
The HCC also criticised the fact that the parliamentary elections law gave the president of the republic authority to set the date for parliamentary elections and to decide their time period. "The Supreme Electoral Commission is the one authorised to take these decisions to ensure the fairness of these elections ... The president in its capacity as head of the executive authority does not have a hand in it," the report stated.
The HCC also said that "stripping police and army men of exercising political rights, including voting in elections, is unconstitutional." "Citizenship rights guarantee equality among citizens and must not be an excuse to strip army and police officers and men of exercising their political rights," the report said.
The HCC also underlined that "citizens who failed to perform military duty for security reasons must not be allowed to stand in elections."
While drafting the law, Muslim Brotherhood deputies in the Shura Council insisted that "citizens who failed to perform military service upon security grounds must not be allowed [to run] in elections [but] only if courts issue final verdicts confirming this."