Campaign breaches could haunt Egypt's next president

Sherif Tarek , Monday 30 Apr 2012

Egypt's next president can theoretically be prosecuted, even jailed, for breaking campaign laws - a prospect that could put him at the mercy of the country's ruling junta

Presidential candidates
All 13 Egyptian presidential candidates (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Electoral violations committed by Egyptian presidential candidates would be enough to put them behind bars – whether before or after next month's elections – say legal gurus, who point out that Egypt's next president will not be immune from such legal sanctions, "theoretically at least."

Recent months saw many contenders break campaign regulations in different ways, by holding, for instance, press conferences at houses of worship – as was done by disqualified Salafist candidate Hazem Abu-Ismail – or buying citizens' signatures in support of their candidacies, of which Ahmed Shafiq campaigners were accused.

But the violation that has been repeatedly committed by most candidates, and which legally threatens them with possible prison terms, is campaigning before the start of the official campaign period – 30 April to 20 May – either via the media or through their active supporters, along with spending unregulated money on their respective campaigns.

"The presidential campaign laws contain many articles that impose punishments on whoever breaches the regulations, such as violating the 'cooling-off' period [during which campaigning activity is prohibited], forgery, and using hidden funds for campaigning," legal expert and judge Mohamed Hamed El-Gamal told Ahram Online.

"Punishments can range from prison sentences of between two and five years," El-Gamal added. "During elections, the Supreme Presidential Elections Commission (SPEC) can file complaints against one or more candidates with the general prosecution, which in turn would refer the defendants to a court of law."

"From a legal perspective, pressing charges against candidates for electoral violations can be done any time after elections are over," he said. "Any Egyptian citizen can lodge a complaint with the prosecutor-general against any candidate if he is believed to have broken the law."

"The president himself can, theoretically at least, be brought to justice for violations, but this is an imaginary scenario – in my opinion – because of the country's political boundaries," El-Gamal concluded. "I would say it's impossible for the incumbent president of Egypt to stand trial in such a manner."

But while the average Egyptian might be unable to unseat a sitting president for electoral violations, might a political movement or institution have better chances in this regard?

Leverage over the president

Lawyer Mohamed Abdullah, head of legislation development at the state-run National Council for Human Rights and prominent legal activist, believes that proven electoral violations could provide a powerful state institution – such as Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) – a degree of leverage over Egypt's next president.

"All the official presidential contenders could be incriminated for breaking these laws," he told Ahram Online. "I'm expecting the presidential finalists to further infringe these regulations in coming weeks, which would give Egypt's military rulers more leverage over the next president."

"The SCAF can press charges – sooner or later – against any of them, including the winning candidate," Abdullah added. "Whoever assumes power will, therefore, be at the military council's mercy."

The SCAF, which assumed executive power on a temporary basis following the ouster of long-time president Hosni Mubarak early last year, was seen by the public in the wake of the uprising as the "protector of the revolution," taking the side of the people against the autocratic Mubarak regime.

As the months passed, however, many activists began to see the country's new military rulers as an extension of the ousted regime, blaming the armed forces for failing to fulfil the chief demands of the revolution and for the death and injury of scores of anti-SCAF protesters in the violent clashes that eventually ensued.

By presiding over the coming constitution-drafting process and boasting a degree of leverage over the Egypt's next president, revolutionary activists are now convinced that the SCAF would like to hold on to executive power, allowing it to maintain control over the nation's assets and – more importantly – put the armed forces beyond legal accountability.

The SCAF is now set to remain in power until a new constitution is drafted, while the next president will not be immune from prosecution and can therefore be prosecuted while in office.

"The 1971 constitution gave the president unfettered authority and put him beyond legal accountability, but this constitution has been declared null and void since last year's constitutional declaration," said Abdullah.

"Right now, according to the constitutional declaration [issued by the SCAF in March of last year and approved via popular referendum], the president is equal before the law to any other citizen, and can be prosecuted if he breaks that law – and any new constitution will stipulate the same," he said. "The SCAF, therefore, will have the right to prosecute him."

Abdullah added: "The new president will be immune from prosecution only if the new charter grants him the same authorities as the previous one – which is highly unlikely."

With secularist and Islamist political currents now locking horns, groups from both sides would be likely to legally challenge any president perceived as a political rival. Meanwhile, a president associated with the former regime – such as Ahmed Shafiq or Amr Moussa – could also face legal attempts by both currents to bring him down.

"All candidates could be charged with illegal campaigning since they have been promoting themselves through press conferences, posters and television appearances before the campaigning period officially began – which is illegal – not to mention other electoral breaches, such as using religious slogans and state institutions in their campaigns," Abdullah said.

"All these breaches," he added, "could technically land violators in jail."

When asked whether illicit campaigning could be blamed on supporters acting on their own accord and without the candidate's knowledge, Abdullah explained: "The law stipulates that anyone who participated in illegal campaigning must be brought to justice."

He continued: "But practically speaking, no court would prosecute the supporters of a particular presidential candidate – it's the candidate himself who would be held accountable. He has the responsibility to point the finger at those who campaigned for him without his permission."

Campaign funding limits

As for the contentious issue of campaign funding, the SPEC has decreed that each candidate must open a bank account with which to fund his respective electoral campaign. Candidates are strictly forbidden from exceeding the budget limit – LE10 million for the first voting round and another LE2 million for the runoff round – or obtaining campaign financing from foreign sources.

With some candidates spending lavishly on their campaigns, questions have been raised over whether all candidates had abided by the funding restrictions. The fact that candidates only opened their compulsory accounts last week, however, has made such conjecture difficult to substantiate.

"The SPEC wants candidates spend no more than LE10 million on campaigning [in the first round] and to have all the money regulated in bank accounts, which the commission has not named officially up till last week," Abdullah explained. "There is no way to officially estimate the money spent before that."

The accounts must be denominated in Egyptian currency at only three state-owned banks – the National Bank of Egypt, Misr (Egypt) Bank and Banque du Caire – so as to allow the source of the funds to be monitored by authorities.

The 13 approved contenders for next month's election are: Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi; Mubarak-era FM and veteran diplomat Amr Moussa; former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq; popular Islamist activist Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh; ex- intelligence officer Hossam Khairallah; Nasserist opposition figure Hamdeen Sabbahi; reformist judge Hisham El-Bastawisi; international law professor Abdallah El-Ashaal; labour activist Abul-Ezz El-Hariri; socialist activist Khaled Ali; Islamic thinker Mohamed Selim El-Awa; former police officer Mahmoud Hossam; and former police officer Mohamed Fawzy.

Egypt's first post-Mubarak presidential elections will take place on 23 and 24 May, with a runoff vote slated for 16 and 17 June in the event that no single candidate wins an outright majority in the first round. The new president will be formally named on 21 June.

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