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Article 229 of Egypt’s recently ratified constitution provides that preparations for the next parliamentary elections are required to begin within sixty days of the constitution coming into effect—though balloting itself may come later. With the passage of the new constitution on December 25, 2012 the countdown to Egypt’s next round of elections began. While no official date has been set, the vote is expected to be held as early as March 2013.
This will be Egypt’s sixth election since the January 25 revolution. As it nears, political parties will be gearing up for what is expected to be a highly contested electoral battle that could shape the balance of political power in the country for years to come.
A series of administrative and legal steps are needed before the parliamentary elections can proceed. First and foremost, a new elections law must be passed, reviewed by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC), and executed by the country’s electoral commission.
The current Parliamentary Elections Law of 1972 (law no. 38/1972) and the Law Regulating the Exercise of Political Rights (law no.73/1956) and their amendments will govern the upcoming parliamentary elections. Both laws were revised multiple times by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) prior to the 2011–2012 parliamentary elections.
The most significant SCAF revision made to the Parliamentary Elections Law was instituting a mixed electoral system. It allowed for two-thirds of the 498 elected members to be chosen by closed party lists in proportional representation districts and one-third by a first-past-the-post system in individual districts.
The mixed electoral system called for by many of Egypt’s political parties and approved by the SCAF barred independents from running in proportional representation districts, but allowed party members to compete in both proportional and individual districts. In its June 2012 ruling on the constitutionality of the SCAF revisions to the Parliamentary Elections Law, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court found that the law was unfair and thus unconstitutional due to the unequal treatment of party members and independents.
The constitutional basis for the current mixed electoral system that will be used in the March 2013 elections is enshrined in article 231 of the 2012 constitution. This provision sought to preempt the possibility that the SCC would find the elections law unconstitutional again, based on the two third-one third distribution of seats between proportional and individual districts. Despite this effort, the existing parliamentary elections law must still be amended to address issues raised in the June 2012 ruling.
Egypt’s Shura Council, the upper house of the parliament, has interim legislative authority and is the body that must pass the new law. The chamber is dominated by Islamists, in large part because they won most of the seats in the 2012 elections. But President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was also given the authority to appoint 90 members. While he reached out to opposition groups, his appointments showed a strong Islamist tilt.
The opposition continues to object to the composition of the Shura Council and maintains that the group is not legitimate as it represents the outcome of an election with a small voter turnout for a council that originally has weaker legislative powers. Nevertheless, the body’s role in passing the new law is enshrined in the new constitution and efforts to contest it are unlikely to yield results.
The presidency and cabinet drafted amendments to the elections law that they submitted to the Shura Council following a “national dialogue” aimed at reconciling political factions after polarizing protests against President Morsi in November 2012. But the dialogues have attracted limited participation from the opposition. The council is now set to pass the amended draft. The chief features are:
- Two-thirds of the 498 elected seats will be filled by closed party lists in proportional representation districts, and independents will be able to form their own lists or be on a party’s list. One-third of the seats will be filled by a first-past-the-post system in individual districts, and both independents and party members can run in these districts.
- Candidates must be at least twenty-five years of age to run for a seat in parliament. They also must have graduated from middle school and fulfilled their conscription duty or have paid the penalty for evading conscription. A candidate is disqualified from running for a seat in the legislative body if he/she is a member of the Shura Council, a cabinet minister, a governor, a mayor, or a member of a local council.
- Members of parliament are to be automatically stripped of their seats if they change their party affiliation or their parliamentarian status from “farmer”/”worker” to “professional.”
- Female candidates must be placed near the top of a list that has more than four candidates.
- A list must secure at least one-third of total votes in a district for its candidates to enter parliament.
- Votes will be counted and results will be announced in sub-polling stations in the presence of candidates’ representatives who will be provided with a copy of the official results. Media and civil society representatives will be allowed to monitor the elections.
- Presidential appointments to the People’s Assembly—Egypt’s lower legislative body—will no longer be permitted, and the body will be renamed the House of Representatives.
In addition to the parliamentary election law, the Shura Council is also considering changes to the Law Regulating the Exercise of Political Rights:
- Voting will last for twelve hours, starting at 9:00 a.m., and can be extended when necessary.
- Voters will only be required to sign their name in one registry as opposed to two, which will help reduce the number of voter fraud claims based on discrepancies between two registries.
Some of the proposed amendments have provoked controversy. Salafi parties and other conservative Islamists in the Shura Council object to requiring female candidates to be near the top of lists that have more than four candidates. The previous law required a female candidate to be placed on every list, yet some political parties, especially the Salafis, found a loophole and placed the female candidates at the bottom of the electoral list. They thus ensured the women would be excluded from parliament because only the top names from a winning list get parliamentary seats. Salafi parties have also rejected proposals to institute a quota for Christian candidates, contending that quotas are a form of affirmative action and do not guarantee fairness.
Egypt’s National Council for Women and some liberal political groups have criticized the proposed elections law as doing little to ensure female representation and point to the Salafi parties’ push to cut out a female quota amendment as proof of this. Nevertheless, some observers argue that the SCC may find any quota system unconstitutional on the basis of its unfairness toward citizens groups that are not afforded quotas.
The Egyptian military also expressed reservations about a proposed amendment that would allow those who have evaded conscription and paid their evasion penalty to run for office. Assistant Minister of Defense General Mamdouh Shahin formally objected to the amendment and argued that conscription evasion is a moral crime and that some of Egypt’s government institutions have decided to exclude anyone convicted of moral crimes from their ranks. The military argues that allowing those who have evaded conscription to run for parliament would amount to rewarding evasion. The Muslim Brotherhood’s critics also accuse the Shura Council of tailoring the amendment to allow some of the Brotherhood’s members who did not perform their military service because of their activism against the state to run for parliament.
Many opposition groups, including the umbrella National Salvation Front, have expressed their dissatisfaction with the amendments. They are also dissatisfied with the presidency’s and the Shura Council’s failures to address serious problems with the current parliamentary elections law. Critics point to what they believe is a failure to incorporate harsh penalties for those who abuse places of worship and public buildings for campaigning and for parties that may use a sectarian religious message in their campaigning as some of the Salafi parties do.
Opposition groups are also critical of the presidency’s failure to draft clear election finance regulations. They criticize the presidency’s decision to retain ambiguous language that they believe has thus far allowed the use of unmonitored and sometimes exorbitant campaign financing from Gulf donors sympathetic to some Islamist parties.
The 2012 constitution requires that the law be reviewed by the SCC. The court is expected to review the amended elections law sometime in late January or early February of this year. Although the court has almost no experience conducting prior reviews, it set a recent precedent with its quick review and minor comments on the 2012 presidential elections law that was passed by the SCAF.
The current political atmosphere, however, may lead to a slow review process by the court. The SCC was also recently restructured under articles in the 2012 constitution. Although it retained its most senior judges, some of the SCC’s most activist members were forced out, and they have vowed to challenge the recently ratified constitution in the courts. The SCC could also be forced to go on strike if protests and a sit-in by Islamists restart in front of the court building.However, the process is subject to a deadline. Article 177 of the 2012 constitution stipulates that a law under review comes into force if a decision is not reached by the court within forty-five days.
The High Elections Commission
The current High Elections Commission (HEC) that oversaw the December 2012 constitutional referendum will oversee the March 2013 parliamentary elections. The threats of judicial strikes and judge shortages that plagued the constitutional referendum may also haunt the upcoming parliamentary elections if judges’ grievances are not addressed by President Morsi.
There is a growing movement of state prosecutors and judges that are calling for the resignation of the Morsi-appointed general prosecutor. They accuse him of not being independent of the presidency and of abusing his powers. He allegedly punished a prosecutor for failing to detain a group of prisoners whose detention would have politically benefited the presidency.
Although the constitutional referendum was held despite a shortage in judges, it will be much harder to conduct parliamentary elections which are expected to have a much higher turnout and a more complex voting system with such a shortage in judges unless the vote is held in several stages. Because of the shortage, some polling stations had to be combined and there were not enough judges to monitor every ballot box. As a result, there were numerous allegations of voter fraud that diminished the legitimacy of the referendum and the ratified constitution in the eyes of the opposition.
The current HEC failed to provide sufficient time for Egyptian expatriates to register to vote for the recent constitutional referendum. Further, international observers felt that the lightning-fast referendum process did not allow them to play any meaningful role. Initial indications are that the HEC may work to overcome these problems. For instance, unregistered expatriates that did not hold the required national identification card for voting at the time of the last referendum were not given the chance to register. This time, a window for expatriate registration for the upcoming parliamentary elections was opened on January 8 and will be open until February 18.
This article will be periodically updated to reflect developments.