Egypt's opposition threatens boycott of parliamentary elections over draft laws

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 2 Jun 2014

A new law giving individual candidates 80 percent of parliamentary seats has angered political groups, who say the system cuts out smaller pro-revolutionary groups

Egyptian Parliament
Egyptian house of Parliament (Photo: Reuters)

Two new laws aimed at regulating Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections and the performance of the House of Representatives have triggered a sharp backlash from most political parties, be they old guard political parties or new revolutionary movements.

The differences over the two laws must be settled by newly-elected president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi before 18 July as the new constitution, passed on 18 January, stipulates that preparations for Egypt's parliamentary polls must begin within six months of its ratification or before 18 July.

The two laws whose drafts were announced on 24 May aim to raise the total number of parliamentary seats from 508 to 630 and stipulate that 80 percent of seats be contested via the individual candidacy system, with 20 percent from party lists.

Mahmoud Fawzi, a spokesman of a technical committee which took charge of drafting the two laws, said the drafts were completely revised on Sunday by the State Council, a judicial advisory body.

Fawzi said the first law regulating the performance of the House of Representatives stipulates that as many as 480 seats – or 80 percent – will be reserved for independents, while just 120 seats will be allocated to party-based candidates.

Fawzi also indicated that the new draft House of Representatives Law stipulates that each list of party-based candidates must include three women, three Coptic Christians and two representing farmers and workers.

Egypt's Minister of House Affairs and Transitional Justice Amin El-Mahdi said in a press conference on Saturday that an eight-member committee, formed by interim President Adly Mansour on 14 April, found out that most political factions are in favour of most of the new parliamentary seats be elected via the individual candidacy system.

"This is a positive response to national dialogue sessions that were held by interim President Adly Mansour, where most of the political factions agreed that the individual candidacy system is the best for Egypt at this stage," said El-Mahdi.

The increase in individual candidacy seats represents the greatest in 40 years. Under the 30-year regime of authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in 2011's uprising, the number of parliamentary deputies stood at 454 – with 444 seats by election and 10 by appointment. The number increased to 508 – 498 seats by election and 10 by appointment – after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took power in February 2011.

But the allocation of most of the coming parliament's seats to individual candidates has drawn sharp reactions from political parties.

In a letter issued by several political factions and high-profile public figures – like Amr Moussa, Egypt's former foreign minister who headed the 50-member committee which drafted the country's new constitution last December – who say they completely reject the draft law's stipulation of allocating 80 percent of seats in the coming parliament to independent candidates and just 20 percent to party-based ones.

They also criticised the law upon the grounds that it adopts the application of the so-called "closed or absolute party lists."

El-Sayed El-Badawi, chairman of the liberal Wafd Party, argued that the new draft House of Representatives law kills any hopes of creating a vibrant political life or a strong multi-party system in Egypt.

"We will be back to the Mubarak days when crony tycoons mixing business with politics were using the individual candidacy system to get the upper hand in parliament," said El-Badawi, who is himself a high-profile businessman.

El-Badawi also cautioned that the individual candidacy system will allow officials of Mubarak's defunct ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to dominate the new parliament again. Worse, he said, is that the new draft House of Representatives law adopts what is called "the absolute or closed party lists."

"This means that each party list must get at least 50 percent of votes per district so that all candidates on this list can be qualified to join parliament," said El-Badawi, adding that "this also means that if a party list was not able to get the required 50 percent votes or even 49 percent, its candidates would not be able to join parliament."

El-Badawi proposed that the new draft House of Representatives law be amended to stipulate that 50 percent of seats be allocated to party-based candidates and 50 percent to independents. Besides, he added, "the absolute or closed party lists must be scrapped in favour of proportional lists which refrain from imposing a fixed percentage for party lists to be qualified to join parliament."

New political parties such as the Free Egyptians Party and the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) also expressed an outright rejection of the new draft law.

Senior officials like Mohamed Abul-Ghar, ESDP chairman, even threatened that his party will boycott parliamentary polls if the committee maintains the draft law without change. The two parties warned that the law kills any hopes for new political parties which espouse the ideals of the two revolutions of 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2013 to get a large number of seats.

"By contrast, it allows old guard forces like Mubarak's NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood to run on a wide scale in the coming parliamentary elections and this represents a big shock to the two revolutions," said Abul-Ghar.

Abul-Ghar said "the closed party list prevents political parties which are still new or need some time to expand all over Egypt from attaining the required 50 percent of votes per district."

"The proportional lists allow new political parties to be reasonably represented in parliament, while the closed lists help old political parties with a long history of political activity sweep the polls," said Abul-Ghar.

Amr Hashem Rabie, a political analyst at Al-Ahram, agrees that the new draft House of Representatives law is biased against political parties. "To reach a common ground among all forces, I propose that the draft law be revised to stipulate that two-thirds of seats be elected via the individual candidacy system and one third be elected via party lists," said Rabie.

However, Rabie dismissed fears that the new draft law allows Brotherhood or NDP stalwarts to dominate the new parliament: "This is wrong not only because the Muslim Brotherhood was designated by judicial authorities as a terrorist group but also because the new constitution prevents political parties based on religious foundations like the Muslim Brotherhood and its allied Islamist parties from exercising political activities."

Rabie also points to a judicial order banning leading NDP officials from standing in elections: "Though it does not extend to include members who did not top senior political posts with the NDP, the order is not expected to help former NDP cadres to invade parliament again."

In its revision of the law, the State Council maintained the closed party lists, approving that they are constitutional and legal. The State Council, however, ordered that elected MPs cannot be appointed in executive posts like cabinet ministers or provincial governors. The council also stated that if any MP is selected a member of an international organisation, he/she must scrap his/her parliamentary membership.

Fawzi defended the closed party lists, arguing that they are rather flexible in that they allow more than one political party to submit one list of candidates or independents to form one list or even a mix of independents and party-based candidates to run on one ticket.

For his part, minister El-Mahdi denied charges by political forces that the closed party lists do not help create a balanced parliament. "When we sent the draft law to these parties, they failed to give any constructive amendments of its articles," said El-Mahdi.

As for the second law – the law on the exercise of political rights – Fawzi indicated that it gives a Higher Election Committee (HEC), as stipulated by article 228 of the constitution, absolute powers in supervising the upcoming parliamentary polls. Once a new parliament is elected, the HEC will be dissolved and replaced by a National Election Commission that will be in charge of supervising all subsequent elections of all kinds.

The State Council amended the law to allow that when necessary, the HEC headquarters will be relocated to another Egyptian city besides just Cairo.

The council also approved that the law refrains from imposing any kind of political disenfranchisement.

"This goes in line with the new constitution which states that citizens can only be stripped of exercising their political rights if there is a final judicial ruling against them," said Fawzi.

On 8 May, the Cairo Court for Urgent Matters ordered that leading officials of Mubarak's NDP be banned from standing in elections.

The same court ordered on 24 February that the Brotherhood be designated a terrorist organisation.

Fawzi indicated that the law will only ban "those found guilty of involvement in political corruption or tax evasion practices" from standing in elections.

The HEC's orders will not be immune to appeal. Parliamentary candidates will be permitted to file appeals before administrative courts.

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