The 270-member upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, today began debating the new controversial election law, approved by the council's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee Tuesday, with the majority of Islamists expected to rubber-stamp the legislation at the end of a plenary meeting Thursday.
The 39-article law includes amendments of the law on the exercise of political rights (Law 73/1956), and on the performance of the People's Assembly (law 38/1972), now to be called the House of Representatives according to the new constitution.
The committee's approval of the law came after six days of heated debates. Islamists — mostly Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafists who dominate the council — differed with representatives of civil political forces and newly-appointed Christian members over several articles. Islamists also differed with representatives of the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence over an article that allows citizens who have not performed military service to register in elections as candidates. In all cases, Islamists were able to impose their positions on the committee.
The first verbal clash erupted when Islamist Salafists strongly objected to the law's Article 3 (paragraph 5), which stipulates that at least one female candidate must be placed at the top of each party-based list of candidates. Thanks to their majority in the committee, 13 Islamists voted against this article while 11 voted in favour. Mohamed Touson, chairman of the committee and a member of Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), said it was deplorable that some members voted against this positive discrimination for women. "I, however, have high hopes that when the law comes up for discussion before the council that the majority of members will rally behind retaining the article," said Touson.
Joining forces with Touson, Deputy Justice Minister Omar Sharif appealed to Salafists to vote in favour of the article. "Women in Egypt have suffered long from marginalisation and now it is time that they play a greater role in political and parliamentary life, in line with the ideals of the January 25 Revolution," argued Sherif.
In reaction, Salafists led by the representatives of El-Nour Party, insisted that they could never approve the article, not because of bias against women but on the grounds that it violates the constitution. Salah Abdel-Maaboud, a leading Salafist official of El-Nour Party, said: "The new constitution states that no 'discriminatory quotas' can be allocated to any sectors of society in parliament; that the whole matter should be left to voters to decide during elections." He added: "All we can do is just urge political parties to put women on top of their lists of candidates rather than draft a law aimed at making it a must to do this."
The hardline Salafist position triggered furious reactions from the council's female members. Mona Makram Ebeid, an appointed Coptic member and professor of political science in the American University in Cairo, responded: "I am disgusted by the male culture that is dominant among members of the council and makes it clear to me that there is still deep-rooted discrimination against women in Egypt."
Late Wednesday, Ahram Arabic news reported that the article had been put to the vote before the council as a whole and that it was passed by a margin of 103 to 82.
Salafists also strongly objected to a proposal tendered by Christians newly appointed to the council by Islamist President Mohamed Morsi suggesting that a quota of seats be reserved to Christians for an initial period of 10 years, in the same way the new constitution decided to retain a 50 per cent quota for representatives of farmers and workers for five years. Rami Lakah, a newly-appointed Christian Shura Council member with a business background, warned that "unless this quota is instituted, the new parliament will come free of any Christians, especially after the new constitution revoked the president's right of appointing 10 deputies in the House of Representatives."
Salafists and other forces, however, insisted that "reserving a quota for Christians could be ruled unconstitutional." Mohamed Mohieddin, the representative of the Ghad El-Thawra Party led by political activist Ayman Nour, also said: "All we can do is urge political parties to field Christians on the top of their lists of candidates during elections." Coptic member Ebeid responded by saying she has strong doubts that majority political Islamist parties would put Christian candidates on the top of their lists of candidates.
The text of Article 3 (paragraph 6) also caused contention between Salafists and representatives of the Ministry of Defence. The committee's approval on 10 January of the article granting citizens who have not performed military service the right to run in elections caused a backlash from the ministry. Major General Mahmdouh Shahin, assistant defence minister, surprised all by attending the committee's meeting 12 January and crying foul that "The armed forces will never let this article pass."
Shahin and the committee members decided that that those who had served a penalty for not performing military service could register in elections as candidates. They also decided that citizens who had been detained for political reasons (mostly Islamists) could stand in elections.
Aside from these differences, the committee's Islamists and secularists voted unanimously in favour of Article 5 (of Law 38/1972 on the People's Assembly) that strips leading officials of the now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) of former president Hosni Mubarak from engaging in public political activities, including standing in parliamentary and presidential elections.
The number of NDP officials who would be negatively affected by this article — which goes in line with Article 232 of the constitution — is expected to be between 1,300 and 1,500. This includes around 315 from 2005-2010's parliament and around 420 from 2010's parliament, which was dissolved two months after its composition. It also includes around 300 NDP members of Shura Council between 2007 and 2010. To this is added to around 200 who were members of the NDP's Policies Committee headed by Mubarak's younger son Gamal. It also includes NDP's secretariat-general and political bureau.
In its 150-page report about the law, the committee said the law conforms with Article 231 of the new constitution, which states that two thirds of the seats of the House of Representatives will be elected according to a party-based list system, and one third by individuals candidates. In this light, the report said, the committee decided that the number of electoral districts reserved for competition among party-based candidates stands at 46, while those allocated to independents stand at 83
The report also indicated that the list system will be "closed" rather than "open." This means that voters will be obliged to choose among complete lists of candidates rather than vote for certain names of candidates on one list. It said the law allows that the one list includes candidates fielded by more than one political party, or include a group of independents. It stipulated, however, that the one party-based list of candidates must get at least a third of the votes registered in the one electoral district in order to be eligible for joining parliament. If the list failed to meet this threshold, the votes left behind will be distributed among the winning lists.
The committee also decided that voting at polling stations will begin at 9am and run to 9pm.
Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki was cited by the committee's report as stating that once approved the Shura Council, the new election law would be sent to the High Constitutional Court (HCC) for revision in accordance with Article 177 of the constitution that states that political laws must be vetted by the HCC before they are ratified by the president.
Mekki also indicated that the Court of Cassation will be granted an absolute right to investigate appeals filed against the results of elections, and given the final say about deputies' memberships.
In its morning debate today, the Shura Council approved three articles of the law, two of the most important. The council first gave the okay for Article 2, which retains the 50 per cent quota of seats for representatives of workers and farmers in accordance with Article 229 of the constitution, though it introduces new definitions. The article states that a farmer must have been involved in agricultural activities for 10 consecutive years while a worker must secure his or her primary income from manual or intellectual business in agriculture or industry or the services sector.
The council, however, introduced slight but significant changes to Article 3 (paragraph 1), which states that (in line with Article 231 of the new constitution) two thirds of the House of Representative seats will be elected according to a party-based list system, one third by individual candidates.
On the same article, the council also voted in favour of stating that a deputy who wins election as a farmer and then changes this affiliation to be a worker (or vice versa) after he or she joins parliament will be stripped of his membership.
The Shura Council, led by Islamists, rejected that deputies who change their ideological grounding after they join the house be stripped of parliamentary membership. Civil forces said the rejection by Islamists (led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party — FJP) of this text means a move back to the old tactics of Mubarak's NDP. Christian MP Lakah said that in 2005, the NDP's official candidates won just 30 per cent of the vote, but after the party's members who won as independents rejoined the NDP's ranks in parliament it reached a majority of 70 per cent. "We do not want these corrupt practices to happen again because it represents a kind of deception for voters and political life," said Lakah.
In response, the FJP's Essam El-Erian insisted, "We will never be back to the dictatorial practices of the NDP, but now individuals are free to set up political parties and independents will be allowed to have their own lists of candidates, so why we should put a restriction on personal freedoms, on top of which the right of individuals to change their ideological allegiances?"
Salah El-Sayegh, a Wafdist, said the rejection of Islamists of this text is due to the fact that they intend to field as many candidates as possible, either in the form of party-based runners or independents. "When their independents enter parliament they change their ideological definition and join the party to help it get the majority in the same NDP way," said El-Sayegh.