Political landscapes

President Hosni Mubarak’s proposed constitutional amendments were approved by the People’s Assembly majority — but not without a barrage of criticism from opposition and independent MPs, Gamal Essam El-Din reports

The People’s Assembly yesterday provisionally approved President Hosni Mubarak’s 26 December request to amend 34 articles of the constitution.

Unlike the Shura Council, where 244 out of a total of 264 members last week rubber-stamped Mubarak’s proposal, in the People’s Assembly, whereas 315 MP’s approved the amendments, over 100 MPs opposed them. These included Muslim Brotherhood, leftist and nationalist deputies who lashed out at the suggested changes, describing them as botched and “representing another constitutional setback in the long history of Egypt”.

Although deputies from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) were under strict instructions to rally behind the initiative, a large number expressed reservations. They said the amendments aimed to reinforce, rather than curtail, presidential powers, and provided the Shura Council with an unnecessarily large legislative role.

In a 58-page report the Assembly’s General Committee heaped praise on Mubarak’s initiative, arguing that it reflected “a keenness to improve the democratic climate and upgrade the constitutional backbone of Egypt’s political system”.

The report said the proposed amendments aimed to scrap the country’s 36-year-old socialist-democratic system based on “an alliance of the working masses” in favour of one based on national unity.

“National unity is the core of democracy because it allows every citizen, regardless of religion, sex and lineage, to exercise political rights,” the report said.

The report also explained that Mubarak’s proposal to ban parties based on religion does not conflict with Article 2 of the constitution which states that Islamic Sharia (law) is the main source of legislation in Egypt.

“It aims to rid the constitution of all socialist principles while refraining from imposing a specific economic system on the nation,” the report said.

Nor, the report continued, does President Mubarak’s initiative seek to impose a particular election system on the nation.

“The initiative allows the legislative authority freedom in choosing an election system without facing objections from the Supreme Constitutional Court.”

The report argued that Mubarak’s decision to re- amend Article 76 will make it easier for political parties to field candidates in presidential elections. “This could make the coming presidential elections very competitive and enable political parties to develop a greater foothold in political life.”

In the area of judicial supervision, the report said, Mubarak’s initiative draws on the experience of India in ensuring that parliamentary elections are marked with integrity and that large numbers of voters have easy access to polling stations.

The report also praised moves to scrap the emergency law in favour of anti-terror legislation.

“In the battle against terrorism most countries have enacted anti-terror laws,” said the report.

Acting on the orders of party leaders, NDP MPs were more than eager to rally behind Mubarak’s initiative. Their speeches, however, were high on rhetoric, low on facts.

NDP spokesman Abdel-Ahad Gamaleddin announced “the assembly is grateful to President Mubarak because his initiative shows that he is always loyal to the issue of constitutional reform.”

Kamal El-Shazli, a veteran NDP MP, said the initiative demonstrated Mubarak’s commitment to improving the political climate. Zakaria Azmi, President Mubarak’s chief of staff, claimed “this is the first time the president of the republic accepts his powers be curtailed.”

Mahmoud Abaza, leader of the liberal-oriented Wafd Party, surprised the Assembly when he gave his party’s provisional approval of the amendments. “However,” added Abaza, “the Wafd reserves the right to object to particular amendments when their final draft comes up for debate.”

Abaza said the Wafd believed the decision to amend constitutional articles, or even change the constitution as a whole, should not be left up to the president but should be determined through a debate by a constituent assembly charged with reflecting all political opinions.

Abaza called for Article 74, which provides the president with sweeping powers in the face of threats to national security, to be dropped. “This is too much power. The emergency law is quite enough for the president to face such threats,” argued Abaza. He also criticised the failure to amend Article 77 to restrict the president to two terms in office. And in forging the new anti-terror law, Abaza cautioned, public freedoms should not be compromised.

The Wafd, he said, supports ridding the constitution of socialist principles, reinforcing national unity, and strengthening the powers of the People’s Assembly and Shura Council.

Abaza and Mounir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, a Coptic businessman and the Wafd’s secretary-general, met last week with Gamal Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak’s 44-year-old son and chairman of the NDP’s influential Policy Committee.

Gamal Mubarak said the Wafd’s approval of the president’s initiative would be welcomed by the NDP. In return, he said, the NDP had promised consultations with the Wafd in shaping the new electoral system.

The meeting was followed by a statement in which the Wafd announced its support for most of Mubarak’s proposed amendments.

“The Wafd’s new position,” it said, “reflects its adoption of a third way philosophy mixing social justice with political reform.”

The deal, though, has caused rifts within the party, with Said El-Gammal, a constitutional law professor and veteran chairman of the Wafd’s constitutional affairs committee, resigning in protest.

“Instead of summoning the party’s legislative committee to meet and discuss the amendments, the party chairman choose to strike a deal with Mubarak’s son and issue a statement reflecting this deal,” said El-Gammal.

In contrast to the Wafd, the 34 proposed amendments did not go down so well with the leftist Tagammu Party. Mohamed Abdel-Aziz Shaaban, the Tagammu’s sole MP, said his party totally rejected Mubarak’s decisions to rid the constitution of socialist references and draft an anti-terror law. “Ridding the constitution of its socialist bent aims to strip guarantees of social justice from the poor,” he said, adding the Tagammu believed that the anti-terror law will give the regime license to crack down on human rights at anytime.

Responding to Abaza and Shaaban, Moufid Shehab, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, said the implementation of the proposed anti-terror law would be monitored by judges. Shehab also insisted on maintaining Article 74.

“This article is a license which the president is sanctioned to use if faced with threats to national security,” said Shehab. It is not enough, he argued, for the president to use the emergency law or the proposed anti- terror bill to confront such threats.

Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Sorour insisted “ridding the constitution of socialist doctrines means relieving the nation of the government’s control over the economy rather than eliminating social justice.”

The Muslim Brotherhood was the most vociferous parliamentary bloc opposed to Mubarak’s initiative. Brotherhood’s spokesman Saad El-Katatni said the amendments were clearly aimed to obliterate the Muslim Brothers from political life.

“Since 97 per cent of the Egyptian people are independents, that is, they belong to no political party, it is unfair to strip them of their political rights under the pretext of strengthening political parties,” said El-Katatni.

By running as independents, he added, the Brotherhood has been able to raise its quota in parliament from five to 20 per cent.

Brotherhood MP Sobhi Saleh alerted the attention of NDP leaders to the fact that the poor performance of political parties is a result of the 1977 political parties law.

“Why not change this law and remove the obstacles in the way of parties freely connecting with the public?” asked Saleh.

Hussein Ibrahim, another Brotherhood MP, said he feared the new anti-terror law will violate articles 41, 42, 43, 44, and 45 of the constitution.

“These articles uphold the inviolability of private life and protect citizens from wiretapping and other forms of police aggression on the private sphere,” said Ibrahim.

Gamal Zahran, an independent MP with nationalist sympathies, said the initiative aimed to eliminate gains made by the 1952 Revolution “although the regime’s legitimacy still derives from this revolution”.

Zahran and Mohamed El-Omda, the sole representative of the liberal Ghad, both objected to the amendments.

A large number of NDP members also criticised the amendments for authorising the president to dissolve parliament without referring the matter to a public referendum. They also objected to the setting of a fixed quota of seats in parliament for women and any expansion of the legislative powers of the consultative Shura Council. They warned, too, that the anti-terror law could give security forces sweeping powers at the expense of the public rights of ordinary citizens.

“This law could worsen the treatment citizens receive in police stations,” said NDP MP Mohamed Kiwita. Kiwita also fears the new election system will aim to remove independents from the political landscape.

“It is a big threat to NDP members.