After lengthy debates on Sunday, the Islamist-led Shura Council (the upper house of parliament) approved new amendments to a 1956 law on the exercise of political rights. Ahmed Fahmi, chairman of the council and a leading official of Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), announced that the amendments would be referred back to the High Constitutional Court (HCC) on Monday to determine whether they were in line with the constitution.
Fahmi explained that the council would embark next week on amending a 1972 law regulating the election of the House of Representatives, Egypt's lower house of parliament (formerly known as the People's Assembly). Fahmi stressed that the council, currently endowed with legislative powers, is keen that the HCC confirms the two laws' constitutionality and sets a date for the first parliamentary elections to be held since the promulgation of the new constitution.
The two laws regulating political rights and polls for the House of Representatives were first amended and passed by the council on 11 April. They were referred to the HCC on 14 April for revision in accordance with Article 177 of the constitution, which entrusts the HCC with reviewing all political draft laws. The HCC took 45 days to revise the two laws and sent them back to the council on 25 May.
The HCC found nine articles of the law on the exercise of political rights and four articles of the law regulating parliamentary elections to be incompatible with the constitution.
In a significant political development, the HCC stressed that stripping military and police personnel of voting rights goes against the principle of citizenship enshrined in the constitution. The HCC also criticised the council's decision to lift the ban on the use of religious slogans during elections, stating that this ran counter to the principle of national unity guaranteed by the constitution.
The court also curtailed the right of the president of the republic to set the date for parliamentary elections, including postponing polls or cutting the election timetable short. It also stressed that voting by expatriate Egyptians must be placed under full judicial supervision.
A council divided
The Sunday debate on the above findings left members of the council divided. Concerning the voting rights of army and police personnel, Hatem Bagato, the newly-appointed minister of parliamentary affairs, and Major-General Mamdouh Shahin, deputy defence minister for legislative affairs, said they agreed that army and police personnel must be given voting rights in accordance with the new constitution, but asked that this right be delayed until 1 July 2020.
"We were not surprised by the HCC's order but we ask for a delay because we need time to put the names of army and police personnel on the list of voters in a gradual way," said Shahin. For his part, Bagato argued that "allowing army personnel to vote in the coming parliamentary elections could reveal their exact number, and this comes at the expense of national security."
Bagato added that "the names of army and police personnel would be added gradually until it is completed by 1 July 2020." As a result, the first article of the law was amended to state: "Army and police personnel will be excluded from voting in elections until 1 July 2020."
While Bagato's and Shahin's arguments were supported by the Islamist majority, they were rejected by secular deputies. Appointed MP Mahmdouh Ramzy said: "The amendment will be ruled unconstitutional by the HCC because it does not strictly conform with its order in this respect."
Ramzy added that "national security cannot be cited as a plausible excuse for delaying the voting rights of army and police personnel." He asserted that "Shahin was a member of the constitution-drafting assembly and knew that the constitution gives army and police personnel voting rights, but he kept silent on citing national security reasons to delay this right."
Ramzy also said that "if voting by army personnel harms national security, what about policemen? What national security reasons could be cited to strip them of exercising this right until 2020?"
Joining forces with Ramzy, Rami Lakah, another appointed MP, said: "Shahin's and Bagato's reasons for delaying voting rights for military and police personnel are by no means convincing, and, if anything, it shows that the constitution was drafted without much debate or national consensus."
He went on to ask: "Why does it takes such a long time – seven years – to add the names of army and police personnel on the list of voters?"
'Serving the Brotherhood'
Gamal Zahran, an independent MP, told Ahram Online: "The delay of voting rights for army and police personnel is aimed at serving the Muslim Brotherhood. They form a big bloc of voters and most of them reject Islamists and the rule of Muslim Brotherhood." He added: "placing them on the list of voters could have a profound impact on the outcome of upcoming elections, both parliamentary and presidential."
Shura MPs were also left divided over the HCC's order to curtail the president's right to set a date for parliamentary elections. FJP MPs said the HCC's order did not apply to upcoming parliamentary elections. FJP spokesman Essam El-Erian insisted that "the coming election cannot be considered a new one."
El-Erian argued that "the upcoming parliamentary elections will be held after the 2012 parliament was dissolved by the HCC." So, El-Erian added, "the upcoming election must be considered a re-run or complementary one rather than a new one. As a result, the right of the president to set a date for the election must be preserved."
Other deputies, even those of the FJP, begged to differ with El-Erian. Sobhi Saleh, a leading FJP official and member of the council's legislative affairs committee, said "the HCC stressed that any election held after the [new] constitution was promulgated must be put under the complete supervision of the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC) – including the right to set the date of elections – because this guarantees the integrity and fairness of the polls."
Joining forces with Saleh, constitutional law professor Maged El-Hilw argued that "the constitution is not clear about who should be entrusted with setting the date of elections." He added that "the constitution gave the president the right to dissolve parliament under certain conditions, but it kept silent on who should set a date for new elections."
El-Hilw said he believed that parliamentary elections must be left in the hands of the SEC and that the constitution must be re-drafted to make it clear on this point.
In the light of the above, Article 31 of the law was amended to give the SEC the absolute right to set the date for parliamentary polls (at least 60 days ahead of election day), and that if parliament were dissolved, "the president maintains the right to invite citizens to take part in a referendum or new parliamentary elections."
The text adds that "in times of necessity, both the president and the SEC reserve the right to delay parliamentary elections or referendums or the election in some districts."
Zahran told Ahram Online that the above amendment does not conform to the HCC's rulings. "Again, Muslim Brotherhood officials intervene to impose their viewpoints in violation of the constitution and the HCC's orders, providing fresh proof that they do not want to abide by laws or even by the controversial constitution, which has severely divided the nation into two warring political camps."
The FJP's El-Erian admitted that "the constitution is in a pressing need for amendment." According to him, "the constitution is a human product and it is by no means a holy Quan."
Aside from the above differences, the majority of the council's deputies ratified the HCC's order imposing a ban on religious electoral slogans. They also approved the notion of placing expatriate voting under judicial supervision. But while the HCC stressed that auxiliary voting stations affiliated to Egyptian embassies abroad must be established to regulate expatriate voting, the council rejected this, insisting that expatriates' votes should be sent by mail to Egypt and then counted under judges' supervision.
"Sending judges to supervise Egyptian expatriate voting abroad could cost the state budget LE37 million in expenses," Bagato said.