A flurry of public statements about a new law aimed at redrawing Egypt's electoral constituencies has left the country's political parties divided. It has also left everyone confused about when Egypt's long-awaited parliamentary elections will be held, as the law is considered the last legislative obstacle before the polls can be held.
Ibrahim El-Heneidy, minister of transitional justice and house of representatives affairs, said in an interview with Al-Ahram's Arabic newspaper on Sunday that the cabinet would finally endorse a final draft of the electoral districts law on Wednesday.
But he backtracked on Tuesday, announcing that the endorsement could be postponed for another week or two.
"The reason for this is for the cabinet in its weekly meeting on Wednesday to be able to discuss the creation of new governorates and if this takes place, it means the law will be postponed for one or two weeks to be in line with the boundaries of these new governorates," El-Heneidy told parliamentary reporters on Tuesday.
El-Heneidy announced on Sunday that the cabinet in its meeting on 12 November approved a semi-final draft of the new electoral districts law.
El-Heneidy said a technical committee formed one month ago by Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab almost finalised redrawing the electoral constituencies in line with the new constitution and a new House of Representatives law which states that the new parliament must be comprised of 567 seats.
"To achieve this objective," said El-Heneidy, "the committee created four party-list constituencies which will have 120 deputies, with two constituencies having 90 deputies or 45 each, and another two constituencies having 30 deputies or 15 each."
El-Heneidy also indicated the committee had reached two drafts on constituencies reserved for competition among independents.
"The first draft said the number of these constituencies will stand at a total of 246, but under this system, some constituencies will be represented by just one independent and others by two or three, so that the total does not exceed 420," said El-Heneidy.
As for the second draft, El-Heneidy said it is aimed at creating just 420 constituencies, with each slated to elect one independent candidate, as stipulated by the law.
According to the House of Representatives law, Egypt's new parliament must include 567 deputies, with 120 elected as party-based candidates and 420 as independents, while 27 will be presidential appointees.
El-Heneidy said when the cabinet meets on Wednesday, he will present the two options about independent seats.
Sources said most of the technical committee's members are in favour of the second option, creating 420 constituencies, with each slated to elect one independent candidate.
El-Heneidy, in his statement to parliamentary reporters on Tuesday, denied that the cabinet would discuss a final draft of the electoral districts law on Wednesday.
"The cabinet will discuss the new boundaries among governorates on Wednesday and if these are endorsed, the law will be delayed for one or two weeks," said El-El-Heneidy, explaining that "the reason for the new delay is because a number of four or five governorates will be created and this means that electoral constituencies will have to be adjusted to cope with this new development."
"But if the new boundaries are not endorsed by the cabinet on Wednesday and the old ones were maintained, it will mean that the electoral districts law in its current form as drafted by the technical committee can be passed by the cabinet," said El-Heneidy, adding that "he will be in contact with Minister of Local Development Adel Labib on the latest development on new boundaries among governorates.
President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi made a final review of the new boundaries among governorates in a meeting with Mahlab and Labib on Sunday. Presidential spokesman Alaa Youssef said El-Sisi discussed the creation of new governorates near the Red Sea and the north Mediterranean coast.
El-Heneidy's contradicting statements come amid accusations from political parties that the government's drafting of the law moved at a snail's pace and caused the country's long-awaited parliamentary polls to be postponed to the first quarter of 2015.
Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of the liberal Reform and Development party, told Ahram Online that political parties have strong suspicions that the government deliberately aims to postpone the polls.
"We do not know the reason for this, even if Prime Minister Mahlab in recent meetings with political forces stressed that the government wants parliamentary polls as soon as possible," said Al-Sadat.
Al-Sadat expressed fears that the government just wants a toothless parliament to be created so that it does not face strong opposition.
Other political forces said that in their meetings with Mahlab they were clear in criticising the three laws which are slated to regulate the coming polls: the electoral districts law, the house of representatives affairs law and the political rights law.
According to Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, chairman of the leftist Socialist Popular Alliance party, the three laws will only lead to the resurrection of the diehards of the former regime of Hosni Mubarak.
"When you reserve two-thirds of seats to independents, this does a lot of harm to new political parties and helps the old Mubarak regime remnants, especially the wealthy businessmen, to dominate parliament again," said Shukr.
A number of political parties closely related with the former Mubarak regime and allied under the title The Egyptian Front coalition took a different position.
Mostafa Bakry, the coalition's spokesperson, said the front insisted in its meeting with Mahlab that the electoral districts law must observe equality among constituencies, as stated by the new constitution.
"When you say that each constituency will be represented by one independent, you must make sure that there should be equality among constituencies in terms of number of registered voters and geographical size," said Bakry.
Ahmed Al-Fadaly, chairman of the so-called Independence Current coalition – a loose mix of low-key political parties formed under the former regime of Mubarak – told Al-Ahram Online that the coalition doesn't object to the law.
"We insisted from the beginning that at least two-thirds of seats must be allocated to independents and so we do not have an objection, but we will wait until we say how independents will be elected from different constituencies," said Al-Fadaly.
In spite of their objections to the above three laws, political parties say they will still contest parliamentary polls. They have requested that the government subjects the law to a national dialogue.
Gamal Zahran, a professor of political economy at Suez Canal University and chairman of the Social Justice electoral alliance, told Ahram Online that although he has reservations about the distribution of seats among independents and party lists, this isn't a reason for his alliance to boycott the polls.
Zahran also has fears that electing an independent per district could be ruled unconstitutional.
"The norm in Egypt for over 40 years has been that two independents are elected per constituency. But when you decide that just one independent must be elected per constituency, you will have to make sure there is a kind of strict equality among constituencies in terms of geographical size and the number of registered voters," said Zahran, arguing that "if one independent candidate found that its constituency was larger in size and voters than others, it could take the matter to the Supreme Constitutional Court."