Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- Dr Mufid Shihab, Egypt’s minister of legal and parliamentary affairs and a leading member of the ruling party, has ruled out the possibility of amendments being introduced to the Egyptian constitution. Dr Shihab said that an amendment to the constitution is not in the cards at the current time, and that the party is focusing on the parliamentary elections that are set to take place later this year, rather than on the presidential elections that are scheduled for next year.
In his reply to questions by Asharq Al-Awsat about the criticism that the ruling party monopolizes power, Dr Shihab, who occupies the post of assistant secretary general of parliamentary affairs in the National Democratic Party [NDP], said that the NDP does not want to monopolize power in Egypt through a large [parliamentary] majority, and that the opposition parties ought to work and be active in order to win more representation in parliament and in the local councils. Shihab also pointed out that Egypt’s state of emergency will only end after the anti-terrorism law is enacted.
This year Egypt is witnessing growing political activity as the Shura Council elections are set to take place next month, and the People’s Assembly elections will take place in October. Moreover, opposition voices are calling loudly for amending the Constitution in order to facilitate submitting candidates to the presidential elections scheduled for autumn 2011, the most prominent of which is former Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] Dr Mohamed ElBaradei who has linked his presidential candidacy to the introduction of amendments to the Constitution.
With regard to whether or not the issue of constitutional amendments is now on the cards, Dr Shihab says: “No, it is not on the cards now for a simple reason, namely that the last constitutional amendments were carried out only three years ago, and since constitutions enjoy stability it would be inconceivable to amend the Constitution every two or three years. The Constitution cannot be amended except after long period…this is because the Constitution includes only general principles and directions, and these principles do not change every year. Therefore, in order to review them, major social or political changes must first have taken place and require revision of these principles [before the constitution can be amended].”
In 2005 and 2007, the Egyptian Parliament approved two proposals by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to amend the Constitution. The first amendment was of Article 76 that allowed the Egyptians to choose their president in a public referendum from more than one candidate for the first time, rather than voting on one name proposed by Parliament. As for the second amendment, this included 34 articles of the Constitution, including Article 76. The majority of the opposition objected to these amendments, and considered them to serve the interests of the ruling party. However, the amendments were ratified after a majority of the people voted in favor of them in a public referendum.
Dr Shihab explains that the Egyptian Constitution was amended twice within the last five years, and “the second amendment in 2007 took place after a long dialogue that included discussion on all the articles of the Constitution that required amending.” He points out that it is possible that some people might have different viewpoints towards some other articles of the Constitution, “Everyone has the right to think and propose, and everyone has the right to discuss and to have a viewpoint, but it is the responsibility of the state to preserve the stability (of the Constitution). When major changes that require a revision of the articles of the Constitution occur, all these ideas will be presented.”
Minister Shihab explained that one of the general principles is for the Constitution to enjoy stability: “It is not possible that whenever a group of 10, 15, 20, 100, or 1,000 (people) come and say we want to amend the Constitution that we do so; because this way the Constitution is liable to be amended every five or six months.”
The opposition forces accuse the ruling party of monopolizing power. These forces range between small parties and protest movements, and elite groups such as the group founded by Dr ElBaradei two months ago after he retired from his post at the IAEA, which he named The National Front for Change. With the parliamentary and presidential elections set to take place in the near future, such accusations have become a fertile subject for talk about Egypt in western circles.
With regard to the rising commotion claiming that the ruling party in Egypt monopolizes power, and that the majority of the members of parliament and the local councils are from the ruling party, Dr Mufid Shihab explains: “We are the majority party. If every time the people choose to keep us as the majority party, this is their assessment. What concerns me is whether the majority obtained by the party it deserved or not, and whether the party achieves it through the quality of its members, or through illegal means. Therefore, the confidence in the majority party stems from the people.”
However, Dr Shihab expresses his hope that the other parties would be more effective, and have a larger presence, he said: “We do not want to remain as a party that monopolizes power with a large majority, but we respond to the will of the electorate. As an [Egyptian] citizen regardless of my position in the party, I hope that the partisan presence will be in a better shape than it is now, along with my desire to see the NDP continue as the majority party. I would like the other parties to have a stronger presence on the [political] arena, and a presence within the two houses and the local councils than their current presence. This is due to my belief in genuine democracy that requires the presence of opinions and contrary opinions.”
Local and foreign human rights organizations say that the state of emergency, which has been imposed on the country since hard-line Islamists assassinated Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981, restricts political movement in the country that has the largest population (80 million) in the Middle East, and that the intention to extend this for another two years before the end of the month is not compatible with the intentions of holding parliamentary and presidential elections in the country.
The government says that it cannot abolish the state of emergency except after the issuance of the anti-terrorism law. Last week the General-Secretary of the NDP Policies Committee and son of the Egyptian President, Jamal Mubarak, said that it was apparent that there was a need for more discussions on the draft anti-terrorism law, and if there was an urgent need to extend the term of the state of emergency, “the party calls for additional controls, and the government should only apply the state of emergency to terrorism and its dangers.”
In his reply to Asharq Al-Awsat’s questions about how ready the anti-terrorism law that is set to replace the state of emergency is, Minister Shihab said: “Ending the state of emergency is linked to completing the anti-terrorism law and agreement on its articles. Despite the fact that the government started to prepare this law a long time ago, some of its issues still require deeper discussion, and therefore it has not yet reached its final draft which would allow it to be submitted to parliament.” Shihab pointed out that the aim of extending the state of emergency “is not for this to be applied generally” but rather the aim “is to utilize its rulings solely upon terrorist operations,” and through “specific measures that are consistent with the nature of the crime of terrorism.”
Observers have noticed that the leadership meetings of the ruling party that is led by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have recently been focusing on the parliamentary elections scheduled for this year, and have not been concerned with the presidential elections that are scheduled for 2011. This is despite the fact that the Egyptian presidential elections attract attention on both the domestic and external fronts for a number of reasons. These reasons include the fact that President Mubarak, 82, has not appointed a vice president, and he has also not explicitly announced that he intends to stand at the upcoming elections, and there are those who predict that his son Jamal, 46, will stand [for the NDP] at the presidential elections.
Asharq Al-Awsat asked Dr Shihab about the stance of the NDP towards the opposition parties that place the presidential election agenda above the parliamentary election agenda, which is scheduled to take place first; Shihab said “Every party has the right to talk about the elections that concern it. The NDP has announced that it is now concerned with the parliamentary elections, and is focusing on selecting the best candidates for these elections. When we finish with the legislative elections, we will talk about the presidential elections.”
Shihab added that the NDP does not intend for all other parties to prioritize things in this manner, he said “It is possible that the (opposition) Al-Wafd Party might say that its presidential candidate is such-and-such. It can say this now, tomorrow, or next year. Every party has its own assessment of the situation.”