Egypt's Shura Council seeks way out of electoral law stalemate

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 11 Mar 2013

Islamist-dominated Shura Council is about to discuss a new electoral law, after a court ruled the current law unconstitutional and said that elections would have to be postponed

Members of Shura Council
Members of the Shura Council (Photo: AP)

The Shura Council, the upper house of Egypt's parliament, is moving towards preparing a new electoral law.

The move comes after Cairo's Administrative Court ruled on 6 March that parliamentary polls, scheduled to begin in April, cannot be held on time "because the president and the Shura Council failed to abide by the constitution in promulgating the electoral law."

The court accused the president and Shura Council of violating Articles 141 and 177 of the newly-approved constitution, which state that the president cannot exercise his domestic powers (including ratifying laws) without first consulting with the government, and that the Shura Council must refer the law back to the High Constitutional Court (HCC) to get final approval. 

The Administrative Court ordered that the law be sent back to High Constitutional Court to decide whether it is constitutional.

The court's ruling took the Islamist-dominated Shura Council by surprise. The council's chairman Ahmed Fahmi said: "We respect the HCC's remarks on the electoral law, and that the best option now is to issue new election legislation... to be referred back again to the HCC rather than wait until the HCC gives its opinion about the law as requested by the Administrative Court's 6 March ruling."

Fahmi told parliamentary reporters on Monday that a new draft electoral law had been submitted by Mohamed Touson, a leading official of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and chairman of the Shura Council's legislative and constitutional affairs committee.

"I ordered that a report about this draft electoral law be completed on Wednesday, so that the council can discuss it in a plenary session at the earliest possible time," said Fahmi.

On Fahmi's instructions, the Shura Council's legislative and constitutional affairs committee set to work on Monday, with the majority of FJP deputies agreeing that a new electoral law must be drafted rather than introducing slight amendments to the old one, which was passed on 21 February. 

Sobhi Saleh, deputy chairman of the committee, told Ahram Online that "the FJP saw that it would take a long time, possibly four months, to wait until the High Court gives a final verdict on the electoral law, as demanded by Administrative Court's 6 March ruling." 

This, Saleh argued, would make it impossible to set a new date for parliamentary polls until next June.

Saleh indicated that a large number of deputies, including FJP members, opted for drafting a new electoral law. 

"Once this law is approved by the Council, it will be referred to the High Court, to give its say in 45 days or less, and in accordance with Article 177 of the constitution," said Saleh, adding that "this would cut short the time and help set a date for parliamentary polls at the end of April or early May, rather than wait until June or even after."

Joining forces with FJP MPs, deputy justice minister Omar El-Sherif told the committee's Monday meeting that a new election law must be drafted. 

"But this law must tackle three controversial points in compliance with the High Court's orders," argued El-Sherif, indicating that these points deal with the performance of military service, redrawing electoral districts and judicial supervision of the voting of Egyptians living abroad," said Sherif.

The Shura Council's non-Islamist deputies, however, expressed dissatisfaction. 

Mohamed Mohieddin, the representative of the liberal Ghad Al-Thawra party, warned that "the submission of a new electoral law would trigger objections from opposition forces and the public." 

"We would rather wait until all political forces reach a consensus on a new electoral law than rushing to issue a new one reflecting the viewpoint of one political force," said Mohieddin. 

Ihab El-Kharat, a member of the liberal Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party and chairman of the Council's human rights committee, argued that "even if we decided to issue a new electoral law, this would take time because the issue of redrawing electoral districts would require long debates."

The National Salvation Front (NSF), a coalition including liberal, leftist and nationalist forces, decided to boycott polls in objection to the electoral law. An NSF spokesman accused the FJP deputies of ramming the law through the Shura Council without taking the opposition's remarks into account.

NSF member and constitutional law professor Gaber Nassar pointed out that the Shura Council refused to implement two HCC orders: that anyone who failed to perform military service for national security reasons must be excluded as a candidate and that electoral districts must be redrawn in a fair way.

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