After 90 of its newly-appointed members swore in on 26 December and gathered to listen to a speech by President Mohamed Morsi on 29 December, the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, will soon plunge into business.
According to Article 230 of the recently-approved constitution, the Shura Council shall take charge of the power of legislation once the constitution goes into effect and until a new House of Representatives (formerly the People’s Assembly) is elected in about two or three months.
In his speech before the Shura Council on 29 December, Islamist President Morsi indicated that not only would the Shura Council take charge of drawing up Egypt’s legislative map in the next period, it will also be tasked with overseeing independent supervisory institutions and selecting their chairmen.
On top of these is a new Press and Media Authority tasked with regulating state-owned press and media activities.
Morsi indicated that a draft law regulating the upcoming parliamentary elections should be a top priority on the council’s legislative agenda. In Morsi’s words: "There must be a national dialogue on the amendments of this law so that they gain the satisfaction of all political parties and the upcoming House of Representatives comes expressive of the true will of the people."
Noteworthy is that Mahmoud Mekki, Morsi’s vice-president who resigned from office last week, is currently holding a national dialogue on amendments to the parliamentary elections law. The dialogue was boycotted by the National Salvation Front (NSF), a secular coalition led by ex-UN diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei. Although the Front said it does not have trust in this dialogue, it said it would instead send its proposed amendments on the elections law to the Shura Council. “And we will wait to see how this Islamist-dominated council will respond to our proposals,” said Hamdeen Sabbahi, a leading official of the NSF, indicating that “the reaction of the Shura Council to our proposals will determine whether we will participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections or not."
For his part, chairman of the Shura Council Ahmed Fahmi vowed that all draft legislation will be put to a national dialogue first, before it is passed by the council. "We have high hopes that the Shura Council becomes a forum for national consensus and free constructive debate," he said.
No sooner had Morsi ended his speech on 29 December than the council’s General Committee (including Fahmi and his two deputies, chairmen of 13 sub-committees and representatives of political forces) held a meeting to discuss the legislative agenda. A statement by the General Committee said: "The amendments to the 1956 Law on the Exercise of Political Rights — known as the Election Law — will be the council's top priority."
The Shura Council will hold a general plenary meeting next Wednesday, after which the amendments of the election law will be discussed. Younis Makhyoun, a member of the Salafist El-Nour Party, told Ahram Online that "the amendments of the 1956 Political Rights Law will be discussed by the council’s Legislative Committee — most probably on Monday."
Makhyoun indicated that political parties were asked to submit their proposed amendments to the law before the afternoon of 29 December. "I think that the amendments of this law will be approved by the council next Wednesday or Thursday and then sent to President Morsi to be finally ratified," said Makhyoun, indicating that "once ratified, President Morsi will issue a decree setting a date for the upcoming election of the House of Representatives."
According to Article 231 of the new constitution, the upcoming parliamentary elections will be held under a mixed electoral system. "Two thirds of seats of the House of Representatives will be elected under the party-based list system, while the remaining third will be governed by the individual candidacy system,” states the article.
It also gave party-based members teh right to compete for the one third of seats reserved for independents. This system was ruled unconstitutional by the High Constitutional Court (HCC) last June, after which the then current People’s Assembly was dissolved.
According to Article 177 of the new constitution, amendments of laws regulating parliamentary and presidential elections must be first revised by the HCC before they are enacted. This means that amendments of the 1956 Elections Law will have to be vetted first by the HCC.
Article 228 of the new constitution states that the current Supreme Electoral Commission will be officially in charge of monitoring the upcoming parliamentary elections.
In its draft proposals, the opposition National Salvation Front said the 1956 Elections Law must be amended to comply with the new constitution. Abdel-Ghaffar Shura, a leftist in charge of the NSF’s Legislative Committee, announced this week that the front submitted 94 amendments to the 1956 law.
On top of these is that the Supreme Electoral Commission must adopt internationally-accepted standards required for ensuring the integrity of elections. "One of these is that judges in charge of this commission must not be members of any authorities affiliated with the executive branch of power in any way, to ensure that they are impartial and unbiased," said Shukr, also indicating that "the commission must embark upon updating voter lists, redistributing electoral districts, and excluding any executive authorities from having a hand in supervising the election."
Shukr said the NSF insists that a special police force be formed and put at the disposal of the Supreme Electoral Commission to safeguard judges from any attacks and to prevent vote rigging.
The front also proposed penalties imposed on election fraud be stiffened and that human rights organisations have the right to file lawsuits against officials accused of involvement in rigging practices. The front said the party-based lists of candidates must include one or two women at least.
Shukr indicated that the amendments must also stress that religious slogans are strictly banned and that places of worship must not be used in any way for electioneering. "Candidates found guilty of these practices must be excluded from the parliamentary race and each fined LE50,000," said the front.
For its part, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) — the political arm of Muslim Brotherhood — held a meeting last week to debate the law. The FJP's secretary-general, Mahmoud Amer, said the "FJP wants the election law be amended to state that judges take charge of counting votes and announcing the results in each auxiliary polling station, and that representatives of candidates take a copy of the official result statement, as was the case with last summer’s presidential election."
The Shura Council is expected to discuss other complementary political laws, such as stripping leading officials of former president Hosni Mubarak’s defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) from standing in elections for 10 years.
The council is also expected to discuss amendments to the statute of the High Constitutional Court. The economic agenda includes laws aimed at setting up an anti-corruption commission and an authority with the job of recovering money stolen by the former regime and sent abroad.
Mohamed El-Feki, chairman of the Shura Council’s Economic and Financial Committee, said the council will also discuss the government’s economic agenda in the next period, on top of which raising the prices of some commodities to generate more revenues necessary to cover the budget deficit.