Legislative stalemate set to delay Egypt parliament polls to next year

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 27 May 2013

After High Court rules two election laws unconstitutional, Egypt's Shura Council finds itself in legal stalemate – making prospect of parliamentary polls more distant than ever

Shura Council
Shura Council (Photo: Ahram Weekly)

Holding parliamentary polls has become a complex issue once again. On 26 May, the High Constitutional Court (HCC) declared 13 articles of two draft laws regulating elections – which had been approved by the Shura Council, parliament's upper house – to be unconstitutional.

According to article 177 of Egypt's new constitution, five political laws – including two laws regulating elections – drafted by parliament must be subject to prior review by the HCC. If the court finds any of the proposed legislation unconstitutional, it must be sent back to parliament for amendment.

The HCC ruling throws a massive spanner into the works once again. It is the second such ruling in six months, making the holding of parliamentary polls this year a tall order.

The two draft laws in question – amendments to a law on the election and performance of parliament's lower house (1972) and a law on the exercise of political rights (1956) – were approved by the Islamist-led Shura Council (currently endowed with legislative powers) on 11 April. Three days later, they were referred to the HCC for review.

Shura Council members had hoped that the HCC would vouch for the two laws' constitutionality, allowing Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to set a date for Egypt's second post-revolution parliamentary polls.

Shura Council chairman Ahmed Fahmi, who reviewed the HCC's findings in a 26 May plenary session, had passed them on to the council's constitutional and legislative affairs committee the same day for discussion.

'Political earthquake'?

The HCC found four articles of the law regulating parliamentary elections and nine articles of the law on political rights to be in violation of the constitution. For one, it objected to the notion of stripping police and army personnel of the right to vote in elections.

According to the HCC, articles 5, 6, 33, 55 and 64 of the new constitution lay down the principle of citizenship.

"This means that stripping army and police personnel of their voting rights – even if they are still in service – goes against the principle of citizenship," the court asserted. "Even if some legislation states that army and police personnel are banned from joining political parties, this must not extend to stripping them of the right to cast ballots in general elections."

The HCC ruling took political observers by surprise.

Independent analysts, such as Suez Canal University political science professor Gamal Zahran, said the ruling would affect both parliamentary and presidential elections.

"The participation of army and police personnel in political life – even if only in terms of voting in elections – is tantamount to a political earthquake," Zahran told Al-Ahram Online. "The number of army and police personnel is estimated at 2.5 million, or even more. Such numbers could alter the balance of any election and change the political landscape."

"The votes of army and police officers might not be so significant in parliamentary elections, but they will be a major force in presidential elections," Zahran added. "Most police and army personnel abhor Islamists, and in a presidential election their votes could be easily manipulated to stop Islamist candidates from winning."

Zahran expects that the HCC decision might help judges obtain voting rights as well.

"After the ruling, judges will be the only sector to be stripped of voting rights, and this violates constitutional principles of equality and citizenship," he said. "If judges filed a lawsuit, they, too, might be granted the right to vote."

Hatem Bagato, for his part, the newly-appointed minister of parliamentary affairs and a former member of the HCC board, told reporters that he was against granting police and army personnel the right to vote.

He said he would do his best to consult with Shura Council MPs to re-amend the two election laws to bring them in line with the constitution in this regard. "Once re-amended, both laws must then be referred back to the HCC for yet another revision," said Bagato.

Parliamentary polls: 'A distant hope'

For their part, Islamist parties agreed that the HCC ruling would likely end up delaying parliamentary polls until next year.

"We are keen to implement the HCC's decisions regarding the two elections laws, but this will take time," Sobhi Saleh, of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and member of the Shura Council's legislative and constitutional affairs committee, said.

Essam El-Erian, the FJP's Shura Council spokesman, said: "We don't object to army and police personnel voting in elections, but some precautions must be taken since they are the ones tasked with safeguarding polling stations and ensuring the integrity of elections."

Tarek El-Sehary, a leading official of the Salafist Nour Party and deputy Shura Council chairman, said that military and interior ministry representatives "will be invited to the councils' legislative affairs committee to discuss how police and army personnel would be allowed to exercise their new right."

"I also think that the ruling entails a revision of voter lists to add the names of army and police personnel," El-Sehary added. "This will take time and make the holding of parliamentary polls this year a distant hope."

Religious campaign slogans

In a related development, the HCC also ruled that the law's lack of any bans on the use of religious campaign slogans violated articles 5, 6, 9, 33 and 55 of the constitution.

"This is unconstitutional since it violates the principle of national unity guaranteed by the constitution," said El-Sehary. "The use of religious slogans is a stumbling block before citizens attempting to elect candidates on objective grounds."

While drafting the laws, the FJP pressed hard for lifting the ban on the use of religious campaign slogans during parliamentary elections, rejecting opposition arguments that such practices served to inflame sectarian sentiments.

Last April, Saleh had said, "If we decided to impose a ban on religious slogans, such as 'Islam is the Solution,' secular slogans should likewise be banned from parliamentary election campaigns."

Mamdouh Ramzi, an appointed Coptic Shura Council member, told Al-Ahram Online that the HCC ruling on religious slogans "is a very positive achievement, because it respects the principle of national unity and helps prevent mixing religion with politics."

Ramzi blamed the Brotherhood's Shura Council MPs, who, he claimed, had exploited their majority to tailor laws in line with their ideological leanings without obtaining popular consensus.

"This forced the opposition to threaten an electoral boycott, while Brotherhood MPs' modest legislative skills and ideological preferences are primarily to blame for delaying parliamentary elections, even though the constitution was approved six months ago," said Ramzi.

The HCC, meanwhile, has also criticised the fact that the parliamentary elections law gives the president the authority to set the date for parliamentary elections.

"This violates articles 6, 55, 200, 208, and 228 of the constitution, which grant the Supreme Electoral Commission absolute authority to take these decisions to ensure the fairness of elections," the HCC asserted. "The president, in his capacity as head of the executive authority, must not have a hand in it."

Military service & voting districts

The HCC also stressed that "citizens who have failed to perform their military service for security reasons must not be allowed to stand in elections."

While drafting the law, the Muslim Brotherhood's Shura Council deputies insisted that "citizens who failed to perform their military service on security grounds must not be allowed to run in elections, but only if the courts issue a final verdict to this effect."

They had been supported by their Islamist allies – especially Salafist parties – although government representatives, including Deputy Justice Minister Omar Sherif, had rejected this argument as potentially unconstitutional.

The HCC also stressed that the redrawing of electoral districts as laid down by the new parliamentary elections law still violated the principle of equality and did not ensure fair representation of citizens in parliament.

"The constitution stresses that a new elections law must guarantee that electoral districts are designed to ensure fair representation of citizens in parliament," the HCC stated. "For example, the distribution of electoral districts in governorates such as Alexandria, Damietta, Sharqiya, Ismailia, Sohag, Minya, Aswan and Luxor show that electoral districts in these governorates were not fairly designated in terms of size to guarantee the equal representation of citizens."

In response, the FJP's Saleh emphasised that the Shura Council's legislative affairs committee had done its best to consult with the ministries of interior and administrative development to ensure that electoral districts were fairly established.

"I think this matter will require more effort and time to ensure that populations in various governorates are fairly represented in parliament," said Saleh. 

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