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International
Last Updated: June 15, 2012
Egypt’s Transition to Democracy: Back to Square One?
By A U Asif

Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court, made up of judges appointed by Hosni Mubarak before his ouster in early 2011, has on June 14, 2012 declared invalid one-third seats of People’s Assembly, lower house of Parliament and thrown out the "Political Exclusion Law" passed on April 12 by the pro-January 25, 2011 Revolution-and-Islamist-dominated People’s Assembly barring from running for office anyone who served in senior posts in Mubarak's regime during the last 10 years.

The two rulings came only two days before the start of June 16-17 run-off election between Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister and remnant known as ‘Feloul’ and Er Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of Ikhwanul Muslemeen’s Al Horreya Wal Adala (Freedom and Justice Party). The first ruling leads to the dissolving of People’s Assembly as a whole while the second ruling upholds the right of Mubarak's last Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq to run for the post-Revolution first President of Egypt.

The simple meaning of the highest court’s rulings is to effectively throw back Egypt's transition to democracy to square one where it was 16 months ago after Mubarak fell and the military took power and hold new elections to choose a lower house of Parliament to replace the now dissolved one, which was primarily tasked with writing a new Constitution. It is to point out that the two houses of Parliament had during a joint session of session on June 12 again constituted the 100-member Constituent Assembly to draft country’s new Constitution and had yet to start its work.
For now, the ruling generals will be in charge of legislation, taking back an authority they handed in January to the then-freshly elected Parliament. Depending on who wins, they may hand over both executive and legislative powers to the new President. The generals are also likely to step in to form the constituent assembly in charge of drafting the country's new Constitution, now that the Parliament’s lower house is dissolved.

Controversial Rulings

The first ruling upheld a lower court's ruling that the law governing the way parliamentary elections were held was invalid. Under the law, the 498 contested seats (the other 10 are appointed by the head of state) were chosen as follows: Two-thirds of them went to candidates running on party lists, while the other one-third were contested by individual candidates, in which party members were also allowed to run. The Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that allowing party members to compete on the individual lists violates the principles of equal opportunity because it gives party members two chances to compete for all the seats while independent candidates don't have the same opportunity. It is to point out that similar situation had arisen in 1987 and 1990 during Mubarak’s rule when elections to the one-third seats had been declared invalid and polls for entire Parliament had to be held.

The second ruling threw out the "Political Exclusion Law" passed by the Parliament on April 12 which barred from running for office anyone who served in senior posts in Mubarak's regime during the last 10 years. The court said the law violates the right of equality before the law and excludes people on the basis of profession not a crime. The parliament passed the law after Shafiq and other former Mubarak regime strongmen applied to run, arguing that after a revolution that toppled Mubarak, his aides should not be allowed to run for office.

Political Impact

The decision of the country’s highest court is a blow to the pro-revolution and democracy forces led by Ikhwan in its struggle for power with the military establishment, which has been the behind-the-scenes power in Egypt since 1952 following the overthrow of monarchy headed by King Farouq. After Mubarak's fall, the Ikhwan banned since 1954 rose to become Egypt's most powerful political movement, winning 47 percent of Parliament's seats alongside other Islamic group Salafi’s Nour Party who took another 25 percent. But the dissolving of Parliament robs it of its main concrete gain since the uprising against Mubarak and its foothold in governing.

The pro-revolution forces, including the Ikhwanis and Salafis as well as many leftist and secular activists and rights monitors, say the verdicts amount to a coup by the military by tightening the generals' grips on the levers of rule in the country. As the new Constitution is yet to be written, the powers of the coming president are not known, giving the military enormous sway over his authorities. Forming a new Parliament would likely take months and may not come until after a new Constitution. Only a day earlier, the military-appointed government gave military police and intelligence the power to arrest civilians to enforce order, a power likely to last even beyond June 30, when the army said it would hand over authority to the President and go "back to the barracks."

The pro-revolution forces-military power struggle is not finished. Er Morsi is still in the race, backed by the most powerful Ikhwan electoral machine. Anti-military protests by pro-revolution secular and youth groups that have raged over the past year are likely to continue.

The decision has been denounced as a ‘coup’ by Opposition leaders of all kinds, including Ikhwan, Al Horreya Wal Adala and Salafi Nour Party. The ruling by the supreme constitutional court – whose judges were appointed by Mubarak – brought into sharp focus the power struggle between the Ikhwan and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military council that took up the reins of power after Mubarak's fall.

The Ikhwan has now lost its power base in Parliament, at the same time as seeing the military-backed candidate, Ahmad Shafiq, the last president to serve under Mubarak, receive a boost. Supporters of the Ikhwan, liberals and leftwing activists in particular and the pro-revolution forces in general are united in their outrage at what they see as a carefully engineered move by SCAF to keep a hold on power. Several hundred people gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square after the rulings to denounce the action and protest against Shafiq, who is seen by critics as a symbol of Mubarak's autocratic rule.

Meanwhile US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged Egypt's military authorities to fully transfer power to a democratically elected government. "There can be no going back on the democratic transition called for by the Egyptian people," Clinton told reporters. She refused to comment specifically on the court ruling, however.

It was denounced by senior Ikhwan MP Mohamed El Beltagy as a "Full-Fledged Coup". Dr Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former presidential candidate, echoed that sentiment. "Keeping the military candidate [in the race] and overturning the elected Parliament after granting the military police the right to arrest is a complete coup and whoever thinks that millions of youth will let it pass is deluding themselves," he said in a statement on his Facebook page.

Saad Aboud of the Karama (Dignity) party said in an interview to The Guardian: "This is a politicized verdict that constitutes a coup in political life. With the other verdict allowing Shafiq to continue in the race, today means the death of the revolution, and it is now imperative that we reconstruct it."

Mohamed ElBaradei, a former head of the United Nations nuclear agency, warned: "The election of a President in the absence of a Constitution and a Parliament is the election of a President with powers that not even the most entrenched dictatorships have known."

Al Horreya Wal Adala's presidential candidate Er Mohammed Morsi, cautiously said that the court's decision must be respected, but later told a news conference that it indicated some in Egypt "plan ill against the people". While the official Ikhwan line is to respect the decision, leading voices within it denounced the ruling. One top politician from Ikhwan, Issam el-Erian, went public. "If Parliament is dissolved, the country will enter a dark tunnel – the coming President will face neither a Parliament nor a Constitution," he said. "There is a state of confusion and many questions."

It’s true that the ruling takes away the power base of pro-democracy and revolution forces and boosts Shafiq who widely seen as a remnant of the old regime set the tone moments after the ruling with what sounded like a victory speech in which he praised the military. "The message of this historic verdict is that the era of political score-settling has ended," he declared triumphantly.

The decision means legislative authority reverts to SCAF. The military already holds executive authority until a President is elected and it is now up to SCAF to decide when new elections should be held.

The decision did not come out of the blue. On June 13 a decree by the justice ministry gave members of the military police and intelligence services the right to arrest and detain civilians, an order perilously close to the conditions of emergency law which Egypt has just shed. The court's ruling throws Egypt into a period of further political instability and uncertainty after nearly a year and a half of troubled transition under the eyes of SCAF's military rulers.

Now everybody’s eyes are pinned on the outcome of the presidential election scheduled for June 16-17. It is hoped the cautious response particularly of the Ikhwan that has suffered heavily in the more or less similar situation in 1952-54 leading to ban imposed upon it by Col Gamal Abdel Nasser till 2011 to the Supreme Constitutional rulings would help in dealing with the military junta. The cautious approach is the only way-out.    

 ---A U Asif, Editor, www.fanawatch.com, can be reached at auasif@in.com

 


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