After a three-day marathon of debates, the Islamist-led Shura Council (the upper house Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative powers) finally voted in favour of a new government-drafted law regulating the election and performance of the House of Representatives (the lower house of Egypt's parliament, formerly known as the People's Assembly).
Ahmed Fahmi, Shura Council chairman and leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said on Thursday that "the two laws regulating the election of the House of Representatives and the exercise of political rights will be sent to the High Constitutional Court (HCC) next Sunday to be revised in accordance with Article 177 of the new constitution."
If approved by the HCC, President Mohamed Morsi will be free to set a date for upcoming parliamentary elections. The HCC is allowed 45 days to revise the law, according to Egypt's new national charter.
The new House of Representatives law was first approved in principle in a plenary Shura Council session on 26 March. It was then referred to the council's legislative and constitutional affairs committee, which debated each of its articles and reviewed amendments proposed by MPs.
The 44-article law was generally approved on Wednesday night after MPs and government officials reached agreement on a new map of Egypt's electoral districts.
Electoral districts & voting systems
According to the amended Article 1, the incoming House will include 546 MPs, to be elected via direct secret ballot. It was initially proposed by the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC) that six seats be added for Egyptians living abroad. This proposal, however, was rejected by MPs and the justice ministry.
According to Sobhi Saleh, a leading FJP official and a member of the legislative and constitutional committee, "after the elimination of the six seats [for expats], the number of House deputies will stand at 546, two thirds of whom will be elected on the basis of party, while the remaining third will be elected via an individual candidacy system."
Saleh explained that 49 districts would be subject to a party-list system, producing 364 deputies, while 91 districts would be reserved for individual candidacies, producing 182 independent MPs. "This puts the total number of elected deputies at 546, the most in Egypt's parliamentary history," he said.
In former president Hosni Mubarak's 2005-2010 parliament, the number of MPs stood at 454. This rose to 518 after a 64-seat quota was established for female MPs in Egypt's 2010 parliament, which was dissolved after Mubarak's departure in February 2011.
Saleh said the above figures were in line with Article 331 of the constitution, which states that two thirds of the seats in parliament must be elected via a party-list system, while the remaining third is to be reserved for candidates running as independents – with the stipulation that half of the total elected deputies represent farmers and workers.
Article 2 also states that "a 'farmer' is someone who has been involved in agricultural activities for at least ten years, while a 'worker' is someone employed by others against payment of a salary."
According to Saleh, the council's legislative and constitutional affairs committee agreed that, in line with the HCC's instructions, Article 3 should state that MPs who change their classification (from worker to farmer, or vice versa) or their political affiliation (from independent to party affiliate, or vice versa) must be stripped of their parliamentary membership.
Article 3 (paragraph 4), meanwhile, was a highly contentious one. Islamist MPs objected that the law had compelled political parties to include female candidates on the first half of their candidate lists. The article was therefore amended to state that "each party list must include one female candidate."
Non-Islamist council members asserted that "Islamists were able to impose their will on the article; this represents an injustice to women."
Rami Lakah, an appointed Christian MP, expressed fears that "the number of women and Copts in the upcoming parliament will be very insignificant because some insist on marginalising these two social segments."
Mohamed Mohieddin, a member of the liberal Ghad Party, said that "placing women on the first half of parties' candidate lists was guaranteed to boost the number of female MPs in the coming parliament to at least 27."
In response, Salah Abdel-Maaboud, representative of the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour Party, asked: "If secular parties are really sincere about strengthening women's political role, why don't they take the initiative and place female nominees on the first half of their candidate lists?"
Article 5 of the draft law also caused controversy. The article, which prevents anyone who failed to perform military service for security reasons from standing in elections, was rejected by the HCC while the court was in the process of reviewing an overall elections law passed in February. The HCC stated that the article must be formulated so as to be brought into line with the new constitution.
The Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies objected, however, saying that "those who failed to perform military service under the former regime for security reasons must be allowed to stand in [post-revolution] elections." Saleh, for his part, argued: "It is in line with the ideals of the 25 January Revolution that anyone who suffered from the repressive practices of the former regime and suffered arbitrary arrest should be allowed – in an age of freedom – to stand in elections."
Article 5, detailing conditions for candidate registration, was finally worded to state that "anyone who aims to stand in elections must have performed obligatory military service; or must have been exempted from performing it; or was excluded from performing it, unless this exclusion was based on a final court order and caused damage to public interests or tampered with state security in accordance with the law."
This text, however, was rejected by government representative Omar El-Sherif, who argued that it did not adhere to the HCC's orders.
The same article also bans leading officials of Mubarak's now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) from standing in elections. In accordance with the orders of the HCC, NDP MPs who were members of the last two Mubarak-era parliaments (2005 and 2010) will be the only ones barred from contesting the polls.
Religious campaign slogans
Another contentious point is Article 13 of the law, which was amended under Islamist pressure to lift a longstanding ban on the use of religious electoral slogans. Along with the conditions stipulated by this article, paragraph 2 had stated that candidates must "uphold national unity" by refraining from using religious campaign slogans. It had also banned the use of houses of worship for campaigning purposes.
Islamists, led by Sobhi, voted in favour of amending the article to state that "candidates must uphold national unity by refraining from using slogans that promote discrimination against citizens on the basis of religion, gender or race." This text, however, was rejected by government representative El-Sherif. It was also rejected by Coptic-Christian deputies, who argued that lifting the ban on religious slogans would "inflame sectarian strife."
"Islamist MPs should have learned a lesson from the recent sectarian clashes in Al-Khosous and in Cairo to maintain the ban on religious slogans," said Kamal Ramzy, an appointed Coptic MP.
Islamist representatives also tried to raise MPs' monthly salaries from LE1,000 to LE10,000. Saleh, however, objected to this, saying the proposed increase "would cost the state LE10 million per year, and this would be unsuitable given Egypt's difficult economic circumstances."