24 March 2007

Egypt constitutional change

On 19 March Egypt's parliament has approved a set of 34 constitutional amendments despite a boycott by the opposition, which calls the changes a blow to democracy. This coming Monday 26 March these amendments will go to vote by referendum, and this being Egypt, they will of course pass.

Among the controversial changes to our country’s constitution:

1.) If approved, the changes will allow the drafting of a new tight anti-terrorism law to replace the emergency legislation in place since 1981. Amended Article 179 is designed to allow the president to order civilians to be tried in military courts which is questionable on constitutional grounds; it violates the “natural judge” principle mentioned in Article 68. In addition to facilitating the trial of civilians in military courts, amended Article 179 stipulates that it is permissible, in prosecuting offenses related to terrorism, to bypass protections against arbitrary arrest, search without warrant, and violation of privacy contained in Articles 41, 44, and 45 of the Constitution.
(In my opinion this is a disgrace, and it is a step backwards instead of going forward)

2) Article 88 allow the adoption of a new election law and do away with the need for judicial supervision of every ballot box. Therefore a new government-appointed election commission to "certify" results, finally cutting out that pain of an independent judiciary.
(This change sucks as well, but to be fair in prevailing international practice judicial supervision of elections is rare; independent commissions are far more common).

3) Revised Article 5 ban the establishment of religious parties, theoretically outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood once and for all
(The new language forbids not only the formation of a party but also “any political activity,” and not only on a religious basis but “within any religious frame of reference.”, which I personally strongly support).

4.) Article 136 states that the President can dissolve parliament unilaterally, when he wants, a right he did not have before.
(This is dangerous cause the parliaments can be dissolved and we reamin that way for months or even years, exactly like in the GCC countries?)

5) Article 127 gives the parliament the right to give or withdraw confidence from the prime minister (appointed by the president) without having to submit the decision to public referendum.

6) Revised Article 115 stipulates that the government budget must be presented to parliament at least three months before the end of the fiscal year
(No comment, but we will see 3 months No bloody way, this is Egypt wake up!)

7) Amendments to articles 82, 84, 85, 138, and 141 introduce real changes to the role of the prime minister in the political system. These articles give the prime minister the powers of the vice president if there is none

8) A few articles (4, 12, 24, 30, 33, and 56) were amended to reflect the changed economic and social situation in Egypt since the 1970s. References to socialism, the alliance of the working forces, and the leading role of the public sector in development, all of which were inherited from the Nasserite era of the 1950s and 1960s, have been eliminated.

President Mubarak and other government officials say the changes will give a boost to democratic practice in the country.

But the opposition, which includes the illegal Muslim Brotherhood, says the changes will consolidate dictatorship.

They say that watering down judicial supervision of elections will make fraud easier.

They are also deeply uneasy about the wording of the articles on the new anti-terrorism law because it will be possible to bypass the constitutional guarantees protecting basic freedoms.

Human rights group Amnesty International has called the changes of Article 179 the greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years.

President Hosni Mubarak, who had resisted any constitutional changes until very recently, proposed the amendments in late December 2006, heralding them as an important step toward democratization.

In addition to the content of the amendments, the rushed process by which they were passed has raised questions. Although the amendments were first discussed publicly during the September 2006 conference of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and then officially proposed by Mubarak in December, the actual drafts were prepared out of public view, with the full text only emerging in late January 2007. Parliament debated the drafts for several weeks, and then approved all thirty four articles in a single vote on March 19. Opposition deputies, who constitute about 20 percent of the parliament, boycotted the vote and final debate sessions because they said that their input had been ignored. In response to criticism, the country’s leadership decided to rush rather than delay the process, calling for a referendum confirming the amendments less than a week after they were passed, rather than in early- to mid-April, as had been expected.
(I personally don’t understand why the rush?)

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