Voters in Egypt will go to the polls on Saturday to decide on a package of reforms to the country’s constitution.
The military junta suspended the constitution on February 15, shortly after former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down. That places Egyptians in a somewhat odd position: voting to amend a constitution which is currently not in effect.
Most of the amendments deal with elections and the powers of the presidency. The current constitution, which was amended in early 2007, is heavily skewed in favor of Mubarak and his National Democratic Party.
Voters will decide on the amendments as a bloc: Either all of them will be approved, or none of them.
The changes were proposed by an eight-man constitutional committee, appointed by the junta, which was given ten days to offer suggestions. And they have been deeply unpopular with many youth activists in Egypt, who want to write a new constitution rather than simply amending the old one.
Below is a list of the proposed amendments.
What it says now: The president should be an Egyptian, born to Egyptian parents, who “enjoys civil and political rights” and is not less than 40 years old.
Proposed changes: The revised article would preserve all of the existing requirements, but add two more: First, the president’s parents cannot be dual citizens of another state; and second, the president may not be married to a non-Egyptian.
What it says now: Article 76 establishes the requirements for presidential candidates, and its current wording makes it nearly impossible for independent candidates to run for office.
The article, amended in 2007, allows established political parties with at least one representative in parliament to field their own candidates. This would include four parties: the National Democratic Party, al-Ghad, al-Wafd, and Taggamu.
Independent candidates, on the other hand, must receive signatures from at least 250 elected government officials, including 65 members of the lower house of parliament; 25 from the upper house; and ten members of local councils from at least 14 governorates (for a total of 140 local council members nationwide).
Most of these bodies are dominated by the National Democratic Party, making it extremely unlikely that an independent candidate could secure enough signatures to run.
Proposed changes: The revised article 76 would preserve the language allowing established parties to field candidates. Independents would have to fulfill one of two requirements: either receiving endorsements from 30 members of parliament, or signatures from 30,000 eligible voters living in 15 governorates.
What it says now: It establishes a six-year term for the president, and allows the president to run for an unlimited number of terms.
Proposed changes: A four-year term in office, with a maximum of two terms for any one individual.
What it says now: This article was amended in 2007 to remove judicial supervision of elections. They are instead overseen by a committee, which is required to include “current and former members of judicial bodies” but also includes other public figures.
Most of the committee’s members are chosen by parliament, allowing Egyptian legislators to choose who will oversee their elections.
The committee, not surprisingly, has been ineffective: Egypt’s parliamentary elections last year were marred by widespread complaints of fraud, with opposition parties calling the results “a scandal” and demanding that they be annulled.
Proposed changes: Full judicial oversight for the entire electoral process, from voter registration to the announcement of results.
What it says now: It states that “the People’s Assembly shall be the only authority competent to decide upon the validity of membership of its members.”
In other words, if a court declares a candidate ineligible to take office because of voter fraud or other irregularities, the parliament can ignore that ruling and seat him anyway. The National Democratic Party used this provision to ignore dozens of court rulings.
Proposed changes: The supreme constitutional court, rather than the parliament, would decide who is eligible to take office.
What it says now: It states that “the president may appoint one or more vice presidents, define their mandates and relieve them of their posts.”
Mubarak, of course, refused to appoint a vice president until the last two weeks of his three-decade rule. He was within his rights, since the constitution only says that the president may appoint a deputy, not that he must.
Proposed changes: The president would be required to appoint a vice president within 60 days of taking office. If the vice president’s job becomes vacant, the president must “immediately” appoint a replacement.
What it says now: It gives the president wide-ranging power to declare a state of emergency. The declaration is subject to review by the lower house of parliament, but – because the National Democratic Party dominates the legislature – it would inevitably endorse the president’s decision.
The article states that the state of emergency “shall be for a limited period, which may not be extended unless by approval of the assembly.” Again, though, a rubber-stamp parliament rendered this provision meaningless.
Proposed changes: The president can still declare a state of emergency, but the constitutional committee proposed two changes. A parliamentary majority would have to approve the declaration within seven days; and, if the president seeks to extend it beyond six months, it would be subject to a public referendum.
What it says now: This provision, approved in 2007, gives the government practically unlimited power to “counter the dangers of terror.” It was used to justify arrests and interrogations conducted without any judicial oversight.
The article also states that “the president may refer any terror crime to any judiciary body,” which allowed Mubarak to bypass civilian courts and try “terrorism suspects” in front of military or emergency courts.
Proposed changes: The article would be abolished.
What it says now: Constitutional amendments may be proposed either by the president or the lower house of parliament, and will then be referred for a parliamentary vote and a public referendum.
Proposed changes: Changes requested by the president must have cabinet approval; changes requested by the parliament must be endorsed by at least half of the members in both houses.
The revised article 189 would also require the new parliament to appoint a constitutional assembly within six months of taking office. That assembly would draft a new constitution, which would then be submitted to a public referendum.