CAIRO – Egypt's newly elected parliament could be dissolved, thepresidential election may have to be abandoned and the country'snew constitution has yet to be drafted. Sixteen months after Hosni Mubarak was swept out of office by apopular uprising, Egypt's political future is tangled in a thickweb of court cases and bitter public squabbles. How everything isstraightened out will be the difference between an end to militaryrule by July 1 as scheduled or a return to square one of aturbulent transition, a prospect that is certain to unleash a freshwave of turmoil and bloodshed. "Court decisions will raise a million questions. What we are seeingnow is political messiness," said Sobhi Saleh, a lawmaker from theMuslim Brotherhood, the fundamentalist group that stands to losethe most if parliament is dissolved and a Mubarak-era primeminister is confirmed as the one going head-to-head against itsuninspiring candidate in a presidential runoff vote. |
The vexing mix of politics and law comes less than two weeks aheadof the presidential vote between Mubarak's last prime minister,Ahmed Shafiq, and the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi on June 16-17. Awinner will be declared June 21. Morsi and Shafiq were the topvote-getters in a field of 13 candidates from the first round ofvoting last month. Already, Egyptians living abroad have startedvoting in the runoff.
However a growing number of activists are embracing calls forcancelling the entire election, despairing of the prospect ofeither the Brotherhood or a diehard of the old regime ruling thecountry. Mohamed ElBaradei, the nation's top reform leader, is oneof them. "Egyptians are not ready for elections when they are divided," theNobel Peace Laureate and former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdogtold reporters on Tuesday.
"Elections should be the final stage ofdemocracy, which we don't yet have." Only two days before the election, the Supreme Constitutional Courtwill consider two cases that could potentially throw everythingtopsy-turvy once again. In one, it is reviewing a lower court's ruling that the laworganizing parliamentary elections late last year wasunconstitutional. If the court agrees, the current legislature— where the Brotherhood is the biggest party with nearly halfthe seats — would be disbanded and Egyptians would have to goback to the polls to choose a new one. The other case is whether Shafiq can stay in the race or not. Thecourt is to rule on the validity of a "political exclusion" lawpassed by parliament banning many former regime figures fromrunning for office.
If it backs the law, Shafiq would have to dropout and the presidential election might have to start all overagain from scratch. Thousands of protesters in Cairo's TahrirSquare every day this week demand the law be enacted to excludeShafiq. Egypt's transition to democratic rule has been tempestuous sincearmy generals, led by Mubarak's defense minister for 20 years, tookover from the ousted leader in February last year. The country hastaken one bad hit after another: deadly protests, a slidingeconomy, crime surge and alleged rights abuses by the military.
Adding another layer to the uncertainties is the 84-year-oldMubarak's sharply deteriorating health after his sentencing lastweek to life in prison along with his ex-security chief. Security officials at Torah Prison, where Mubarak is held, said theformer president was suffering from high blood pressure, breathingproblems and depression. He had to be given oxygen throughout thenight and until Thursday morning, said the officials, speaking oncondition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak tothe media. Mubarak had been held in military hospitals from the time of hisarrest in April last year up until his sentencing.
The security officials said doctors treating Mubarak were debatingwhether to transfer him to a better equipped hospital outside thepenal system, a move that would be seen by critics as anotherexample of the generals showing favoritism to their former mentor. One sign of political progress came Thursday when the generals and22 political parties, including the Brotherhood's, agreed on how toselect the 100-member panel to draw up a new constitution,resolving a three-month deadlock on the issue. On Tuesday, the military had threatened to issue its own blueprintfor the panel unless an agreement was reached within 48-hours— a step that would have further inflamed accusations thegenerals are trying to dominate the process. Earlier in the year, the parliament selected a panel that wasoverwhelmingly made up of Brotherhood members and other Islamists,who together make up 70 percent of the legislature. That prompted awalk-out by the few liberals and secular figures on the body, and acourt ruling disbanded the panel.
Under Thursday's agreement, Islamists will only take half of thepanel's seats, according to Mohammed Aboul Ghar, head of theliberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party. Just over a third of itsmembers would come from parliament, while the rest would be legalexperts and representatives of unions, ministries and religiousinstitutions, including the Coptic Church. Constitutional articles would only be accepted by a 67 percentsupermajority vote, preventing Islamists from pushing thoughanything unilaterally. Court rulings have since the ouster of Mubarak in February lastyear made significant contributions to the nation's reshaping after29 years of authoritarian rule. Along with the disbanding of theconstitutional panel, courts dissolved Mubarak's ruling party,reversed the privatization of several state-owned enterprises andconvicted and sent to jail members of the coteries of businessmenlinked to the regime and who supported Mubarak's succession by hisson Gamal.
The cases to be heard on June 14 by the Supreme ConstitutionalCourt could even more heavily shake the transition. According to leaks in the Egyptian media Thursday, a body of legalexperts recommended to the court that it rule the law governingparliamentary elections was illegal — meaning a new electionwould have to be held. The issue lies in the argument that it wasunfair for the law to allow parties to run candidates in the thirdof the seats set aside for independent candidates. The othertwo-thirds of the seats were earmarked for party lists. The same expert body recommended to the court that it rule the"political exclusion" law unconstitutional, meaning Shafiq canstill run for president.
The court is not required to follow the experts' recommendations. After parliament passed the law, the election commission referredit to the constitutional court, allowing Shafiq to stay in the racewhile the tribunal looked into it. Legal expert Mohammed Hassanein Abdel-Al said another option forthe court is to rule that the election commission acted improperlywhen it referred the law for a ruling, in which case Shafiq couldbe thrown out of the race. "It is very hard to predict what the judge would do," saidAbdel-Al, who lectures on constitutional law at Cairo University."There are no precedents related to the exclusion law.".
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