Activists table fresh initiative for swift handover of political power

Salma Shukrallah , Wednesday 1 Feb 2012

Dissenting political forces reach consensus on speedy transfer of power to a civil authority but remain at loss as to how it should be implemented

Tahrir square
Demonstrators gather in Tahrir square in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)

A general agreement has been reached among certain political groups, parties and figures that a quick transition of power from Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to a civil authority is needed. Exactly how power should be handed over, however, remains the subject of debate.

After a number of Tahrir Square demonstrators realised that the primary demand put forth during the December Cabinet sit-in – namely, the formation of a "national salvation" government – had failed, activists were left at a loss for alternatives. Many ideas were soon put forth, but all of these lacked consensus.

Several groups adopted the idea that parliament, as Egypt's only elected body, should take over power until a president is chosen. The initiative was immediately criticised by almost all parties with a parliamentary presence. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party was the first to condemn the proposal, stating that it conflicted with a constitutional declaration – approved in a March popular referendum – and stressing its commitment to the military council’s proposed timeline for the transfer of power.

However, the timetable laid down by the SCAF, many argued, conflicted with the referendum results as well. Judge Tarek El-Beshry, member of the committee that drafted the constitutional amendments approved in March, has stated repeatedly that the SCAF’s proposed timeline was unconstitutional. He confirmed that, while the referendum dictated that presidential polls take place directly after elections for the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of Egypt's parliament), the SCAF was now proposing that polls be postponed until a new constitution is drafted and approved – potentially prolonging the transitional period by months or even years. The Brotherhood was again quick to clarify its position, calling for presidential elections to be held in tandem with – not after – the drafting of a new constitution.

Still, those in favour of an immediate handover of power to parliament argued that the only way to guarantee presidential elections not held under military rule was for parliament to assume the military council’s authority. Egypt’s 1971 constitution, many argued, dictated that, in the event that the presidency was vacant, the parliamentary speaker should take over until a new president is elected within 60 days.

Khaled Abd El-Hamid, member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, which has endorsed calls for parliament to take over, said: "Parliament, which has been chosen by the people, has the responsibility to fulfil the revolution’s demands, which include an immediate handover of power. It doesn't matter whether parliament wants it or not – the elected parliament must assume its responsibilities."

Ironically, Abd El-Hamid believes that those fearing an Islamist-dominated parliament are as opposed to the initiative as those currently dominating the assembly. In short, the parliamentary majority does not agree with the initiative, he explained, nor do those who oppose parliament for its Islamist majority.

Consequently, other initiatives have been put forth. Calls for early presidential elections now seem to dominate. The Mesrana ("Our Egypt") movement, initially formed to bridge the widening rift between the Brotherhood and other parties and movements, has issued calls under the slogan “The president first," implying that a president should be chosen before a new constitution is drafted.  The call demands that presidential elections be held in April; mass demonstrations in support of the proposal are planned for Friday.

“The SCAF’s proposal for presidential elections to take place after the drafting of a new constitution and its approval via national referendum actually circumvents what people voted for in the March referendum," said Mesrana founding member Wael Khalil. "As someone who voted 'yes' in the March referendum, I believe our demands for early presidential elections don't conflict with the referendum results – not the other way around, as the military council claims."

“When we demand that presidential elections be held in April, we're not demanding that they be held earlier than planned, but that they be held on time as dictated by the referendum," added Khalil.

Former presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, on the other hand, has proposed an entirely different roadmap. As a proponent of a new constitution and opponent of the March constitutional amendments, ElBaradei argues that there can be no president without a constitution that lays down presidential authorities. On Twitter, ElBaradei proposed that power be delegated to an interim president elected by parliament, after which a provisional assembly be formed to draft the constitution and determine Egypt's political system. After drafting a new national charter, new presidential elections should be held, says ElBaradei, followed by fresh parliamentary elections.

In an attempt to reach consensus, several political groups have launched the "One Demand Initiative," which includes a list of demands upon which all involved political forces agree. The demands, which were to be presented to parliament on Tuesday, include regulations to guide the process of an immediate handover of power through holding early presidential elections. The regulations are meant to allay fears on the part of those demanding that presidential elections not be held under military rule.

The initiative proposes that the newly elected parliament form a commission composed of sitting MPs to supervise presidential elections. Nominations should be made by 11 February and elections conducted within 60 days of that date.

The proposal also calls on parliament to form a judicial committee to investigate all incidents of violence against political activists from January 2011 until the latest crackdown on the Cabinet sit-in in December, which left at least 19 dead. The committee, according to the initiative's proponents, should then summon for questioning those responsible for unwarranted violence, be they military or police personnel.

Signatories to the statement included the Coalition of Revolutionary Forces, the April 6 Youth Movement (Democratic Front), the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, the Revolution Youth Union, the Kazaboon ("Liars") Campaign, the Maspero Youth Union, the Popular Movement for the Independence of Al-Azhar, the Maspero Media Revolutionaries, and the Revolutionary Socialists. Political parties that signed on to the statement included the liberal Egypt Freedom Party founded by MP Amr Hamzawy, the moderate-Islamist Wasat Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance Party, and the Egyptian Current Party.

Meanwhile, the SCAF’s Advisory Council on Monday stated that elections should be held earlier than previously announced by SCAF. Nominations should be made in March and elections should take place by May, the Advisory Council recommended. The council, consisting of political figures meant to guide the SCAF during Egypt’s transitional period, unveiled the proposal following mass rallies on 25 January – the revolution’s first anniversary – to demand an immediate end to military rule. The newly proposed timeline has yet to be approved by the SCAF.

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