Commission announces proposed changes to Egyptian Constitution

An army-appointed legal commission announced Saturday a package of proposed constitutional amendments that eased restrictions on eligibility conditions for presidential elections, limited the number of presidential terms to two four-year periods and ensured full judicial monitoring of elections.

To satisfy political forces calling for the promulgation of a new constitution, the commission made it compulsory for the next parliament to draft one.

After nearly ten days of deliberation, the eight-member commission unveiled modifications introduced to eight constitutional articles that should ensure fair and free presidential and parliamentary elections.

Two articles dealt specifically with the presidential poll. With nationalist motives, article 75 was modified to guarantee that Egypt’s next president is born to two Egyptians parents and cannot marry a non-Egyptian. The old version did not include any conditions pertaining to the president’s wife.

Meanwhile, article 76 was modified to ease draconian restrictions on presidential nominations. The commission set three methods for candidacy: a presidential hopeful should either be endorsed by 30 members from one of the parliament’s two chambers or both, garner 30,000 signatures from Egyptians living in 15 provinces or belong to a party that has at least one seat in the People’s Assembly or Shura Council.

These modifications could be seen as a significant leap from the restrictions of the existing Constitution. Mubarak’s regime set defeating conditions requiring a candidate to either secure at least 250 signatures from the parliament and municipal councils or belong to a five-year-old party holding at least 3 percent of contested parliamentary seats. As an exception to this provision parties holding one parliamentary seat could field a candidate until 2017.

Given the concentration of power in the hands of Mubarak’s formerly ruling National Democratic Party, these conditions were not seen as conducive to genuine multi-party presidential elections.

“I am very satisfied, it is a historic achievement,” Sobhi Saleh, a lawyer and commission member, told Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Last week representatives from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is in charge of running the country during the interim period, said in a televised interview that the commission’s suggested amendments would be subject to a public debate before being finalized.

In the meantime, the commission proposed an end to Egypt's legacy of eternal rulers. By amending article 77 to limit presidential terms, the commission did away with a constitutional order that gave the president the right to run for indefinite consecutive 6-year terms.

What's more, the proposed changes mean article 139 would make it obligatory for the next president to appoint a deputy within the first two months of coming to power. If the deputy is sacked, a substitute must be appointed. For thirty years, Mubarak resisted appointing a deputy, which enraged the opposition.

“He used to run the country while lying in hospitals inside and outside Egypt; he had no deputy. Could that be acceptable?” asked Atef El-Banna, professor of constitutional law at Cairo University and also on the commission. “He did not want to appoint a vice president and many people saw that as a sign ensuring hereditary succession.”

To guarantee the integrity of upcoming polls, the commission modified article 88 making full judicial oversight necessary from start to finish.

“The changes ensure complete judicial monitoring, from voter lists to the announcement of results,” said Saleh, adding that the commission also suggested changes that would allow voters to use national identity cards rather than voting cards. For decades, the opposition has complained that voting cards facilitate the falsification of polls.

Before 2007, the Constitution guaranteed full judicial oversight. But in a move widely dismissed as an attempt to make electoral fraud easy, the Mubarak regime changed article 88 to delegate electoral oversight to a government-appointed judicial commission.

The commission also appeased those who demanded the abrogation rather than the amendment of the existing Constitution. Article 189 on mechanisms to amend the document itself was modified to ensure that the next elected parliament use a 100-member elected commission to draft a new Constitution in the first six months after its election. The commission, furthermore, will be expected to complete its mission within another six months.

“We added this amendment in order to be able to change flaws that we could not fix this time,” said Saleh.

The army is reluctant to abolish the Constitution during the six-month transitional period and asked the commission to modify only provisions dealing with the nitty-gritty details of elections.

Some opposition members expected more changes to limit the president's sweeping powers. But commission members believe they achieved this to some extent.

“We limited some of the president’s authority over critical matters including the right to declare a state of emergency,” said El-Banna.

El-Banna and his peers proposed changes to article 148 which deals with this matter. The modified article makes the declaration of a state of emergency contingent upon the approval of the People’s Assembly. If the president decides to apply Emergency Law for longer than six months, a public referendum will be held. The old version failed to set a time limit, which gave Mubarak leeway to renew Emergency Law for 30 years. This allowed his regime to perpetrate notorious human rights abuses.

By the same token, the commission proposed the abrogation of the unpopular article 179, which granted the government the right to infringe upon human and personal rights under the pretext of combating terror. 

Moreover, the commission changed article 93, which granted the People’s Assembly the exclusive right to decide upon the validity of parliamentary membership and ignore court verdicts that deemed thousands of memberships null in the past. The new version makes the Supreme Constitutional Court the ultimate arbitrator on contested memberships.

“We are putting them (amendments) to public debate now,” Saleh said. “If there is a substantive challenge, we will take it into consideration.”

A national referendum on the final changes is expected to be held within a few weeks.

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