The latest amendment of the parliamentary elections law, which drew heavy criticism from most of Egypt’s post-revolution political forces, has reignited the question of when Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election will be held.
When changes to the elections law were announced last week, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) failed to provide a date for upcoming presidential polls. In a televised interview, SCAF member Lieutenant-General Mamdouh Shahin declined to provide any details on when exactly presidential elections might be expected.
This week, however, the military council announced its decision to hold presidential elections following a constitutional referendum.
The decision, reached at a meeting between SCAF and representatives of 13 political parties, contradicts a SCAF-issued constitutional declaration in March, which stated that presidential polls would be held following parliamentary elections, in advance of the drafting of a new national charter. The decision also contradicts a 27 March announcement by the SCAF (No. 28), which stated that presidential elections would be put off until next year.
Based on the new agreement between the SCAF and the 13 political parties, the road map will be as follows: the first session of the People's Assembly (the lower house of Parliament) will be held in the second half of January 2012; the Shura Council (the upper house) will hold its first session on 24 March 2012; then both councils will hold a joint session to elect members of a provisional assembly that will draw up a new constitution in late March or early April.
According to the agreement and documents published online by the SCAF, a maximum of six months will then be given for the formation of a provisional assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution. An additional six months will then be given for assembly members to draft the constitution.
The draft constitution will then be put before a popular referendum for approval. If the new charter is approved by the public, the process of accepting presidential candidacies will begin. This, however, means that presidential elections could be held as late as April 2013.
Jurists and constitutional experts, for their part, believe that drafting a new constitution should not take more than a couple of weeks or months.
Not only has the new roadmap presented by the SCAF stirred bitter controversy among and within political parties, but also among the handful of would-be presidential candidates to have emerged in recent months: Mohamed ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, Mohamed Salim El Awa, Hazem Abu Ismail, Hamdeen Sabahi and Hisham El-Bastawisi.
All of them - except ElBaradei - have called for parliamentary elections to be held by the end of this year. They have also demanded that presidential elections be held no later than March 2012.
Unlike the other candidates, ElBaradei believes that the constitution should be drafted in advance of presidential elections. He has always maintained the view that it does not matter how long the transitional period is, as long as it is made in the correct way through a new constitution. "A president without a constitution will create a new pharaoh," ElBaradei said last Monday.
Former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, for his part, rejected the SCAF’s extension of the transitional period, which he said would harm Egypt's economy and security and increase political tension. He demanded that power be handed over to a civilian authority by mid-2012. Moussa has consistently advocated the ‘presidential elections first’ formula, whereby presidential elections are held before parliamentary elections and before redrafting the constitution. Moussa strongly opposed the constitutional referendum, held by SCAF in March.
Despite his stated trust in the SCAF, Moussa believes it is better to have a civilian president presiding over the current transitional period. He says that drafting a new constitution should not take more than two months.
Mohamed Salim El-Awa, who recently announced that he was temporarily suspending his electoral campaign, strongly criticised the SCAF road map on Monday. “The people are tired of the transitional period,” he said. “There’s no solution except to transfer power [to an elected authority] as soon as possible.”
In his weekly television programme on religious channel Al Nas, would-be presidential contender Sheikh Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, a Salafist leader, said that the long transitional period was "slaughtering" the nation. The Egyptian military’s primary task, he stressed, was to “protect the country.”
And on Sunday, potential Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul-Fotouh criticised the SCAF-political parties agreement, which he believes does not fulfil the minimum level of Egypt’s revolutionary ambitions. He warned that a longer-than-necessary transitional period would “endanger the revolution” and increase economic burdens on the public. Aboul-Fotouh demanded that SCAF hand over power to a civil authority by March 2012.
The organising law for presidential elections will supposedly answer all these questions.
According article No.61 of the constitutional declaration, SCAF will hand over power and the army will return to its barracks following the handover of power to an elected president. He or she would assume their powers following the election of a new Parliament.
Aside from the date of the presidential elections, there are other questions concerning a proposed presidential elections law aimed at organising the entire electoral process.
According to a second constitutional declaration issued in March 2011, a presidential elections commission - made up of senior judges - will be formed to supervise the presidential poll. This commission was to be setup after parliamentary elections. However, the most recent SCAF time-table, to which the 13 political parties put their signatures, reneged on that commitment as well, making it unknown when a presidential electoral commission will be formed.
Based on March’s constitutional declaration, once Parliament begins work, the presidential elections commission will prepare an “organising law for presidential elections” to be presented to the Supreme Constitutional Court for revision.