Egypt's election laws leave political parties further polarised
Gamal Essam El-Din, Monday 4 May 2015
Leading opposition groups divided over whether or not to boycott parliamentary polls held purely on government terms

The Egyptian government's recent amendments of three laws necessary to pave the way for the country's long-delayed parliamentary elections have left opposition political parties in tatters.

On Sunday, a meeting aimed at unifying positions over Egypt's election laws instead revealed divisions among the parties to form part of the opposition in any upcoming parliament.

The meeting included a mix of liberal and leftist political parties such as the Wafd Party, the Reform and Development Party, the Conservatives Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and the Socialist Popular Alliance.

Mohamed Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of the liberal Reform and Development Party and one of the participants, told Ahram Online that, instead of unifying the positions of political parties over the government-drafted election laws, the meeting left the participants greatly divided.

"The meeting was primarily aimed at unifying proposals from opposition political parties for amendments to election laws into one legislation [proposal] to be presented to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi instead of the government amendments being revised by the State Council," Sadat said.

According to Sadat, all the attending political parties had expressed reservations over the government's amendments for different reasons.

"As a result, we proposed that our different amendments to the electoral constituencies law to be merged into one law [proposal] to be presented to President El-Sisi in the name of Egypt's secular opposition parties," Sadat said.

But, said Sadat, "there were several disagreements among the participants over how the law should be amended, and how they would react if the amendments were rejected."

"While the majority of participants stayed in favour of taking part in the elections, even if the amendments were rejected by El-Sisi, some voiced rejection, preferring a boycott on the grounds that, in such a case, the polls would be meaningless," he explained.

"In fact, this [last] camp wants a boycott to warn El-Sisi that the government-drafted amendments will only lead to creating a toothless parliament and a dysfunctional democracy that is not good for the image of his regime."

The boycott camp believes that increasing the number of MPs to an unprecedented 596 will only leave the coming parliament in paralysis, Sadat said.

"They argue that, as independents will form a sweeping majority and party opposition will just be a helpless minority, Egypt's coming parliament will only serve as a rubber stamp to the president," he said. "They want the electoral system to be radically changed to create a balance between independents and party MPs."

"To them, this will only happen through allocating more seats to party MPs, which in its turn will require creating more party list constituencies," said Sadat.

According to the most recent government-drafted amendments, currently being revised by the State Council, Egypt's parliament would have 596 seats (an increase by 150 seats from parliaments under the former Hosni Mubarak regime), with 448 seats for independents, 120 for party MPs and 28 for presidential appointees.

According to these amendments, the 120 party MPs would be elected from four constituencies, while the 448 independents would be elected from 203 constituencies.

Another camp at Sunday's meeting, to which Sadat belongs, however warned that "any radical amendments to the constituencies law would only lead to a further delay of the polls."

"I believe we can change all the election laws, and not just the one on constituencies, but only after we join a parliament," said Sadat.

The rifts among political parties on election laws further widened when several secular political parties refused to join Sunday's meeting.

"Any new amendments to election laws, either on the part of the government or opposition parties, will only lead to further postponing the polls,"said Osama Al-Ghazali Harb, an Ahram political analyst and the former chairman of the Liberal Free Egyptians Party.

In a recent Ahram article, Harb urged political parties to instead focus on preparing themselves for the upcoming election battle.

"It's too late for any political party to call for a boycott or even ask for radical change to the election laws," said Harb. "These moves will only harm political parties themselves."

According to Harb, political parties should keep in mind that the next parliament will not be the ideal one they hope for, and that having a powerful legislature will take years.

"It will take decades if we always insist that the election laws be radically changed to allocate the majority of seats to party-based candidates," wrote Harb. "Political parties should instead be pragmatic, and know that what cannot be completely attained should not be completely discarded."

Wagih Shehab, spokesman for the Free Egyptians Party, announced that the party refused to attend the meeting, believing that it would only polarise the political scene in Egypt.

Nour, Egypt's major Islamist party, also joined the fray, rejecting Sunday's meeting as "useless".

"Proposing new amendments to election laws will only complicate political conditions and it is better for political parties to prepare well for the polls," leading party member Salah Abdel-Maaboud told the Ahram newspaper.

According to Sadat, participants at Sunday's meeting also discussed whether the polls should be held before or after the holy month of Ramadan, but on this matter they were united.

"We agreed that the Higher Election Commission is exclusively authorised to set a timeline," he said.

These rifts over the government's election laws have emerged as several of Egypt's leading political parties already face severe internal divisions and power struggles.

A number of leading officials from Al-Wafd, Egypt's leading liberal political party, have asked members to withdraw confidence from chairman and business tycoon Al-Sayed Al-Badawi.

The Nasserist party, a leading Egyptian leftist force, has lately been suffering from festering internal power struggles. Two leading officials -- Sameh Ashour and Mohamed Abul-Ela -- have resorted to the courts, with each claiming that he is the party's legitimate chairman. These internal divisions have led several Nasserist factions to join different electoral coalitions without prior consent from the party's leadership.

The Revolutionary Constitution Party has gone into paralysis after its chairwoman Hala Shukrallah resigned from her position last week.

Egypt's parliamentary elections were scheduled to be held in March, but were postponed after two election laws were ruled unconstitutional.

Political parties complain that parliamentary elections, which form the third part of a political roadmap adopted after the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, have still not been implemented.