Egypt's council of military rulers will not allow international monitors to observe upcoming parliamentary elections designed to move the country back toward civilian rule, a council member said Wednesday.
The decision, which is part of a new election law approved by the country's ruling generals, was swiftly criticized by activists who said it raises questions about the transparency of the first elections after the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and urged the military to reconsider.
Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, who presented the new law to reporters Wednesday, said barring foreign monitors was a necessary step to protect Egypt's sovereignty. "We have nothing to hide," he said, adding that "we reject anything that affects our sovereignty."
Egyptian election monitors will observe the process instead, he said.
Hafez Abou Saada, a member of the National Council for Human Rights, said promises of free and fair elections from the military are not enough, and noted that denying international monitors mirrors the line adopted by Mubarak's regime.
"International monitors are part of any modern elections," he said. "Many countries are watching what is happening in Egypt. This is not a very positive signal."
The new law also lowers the minimum age for candidacy for the lower house from 30 to 25, apparently to allow youth who led the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak to run. Rules for the upper house remain the same: Candidates must be at least 35 years old, and a newly elected president will appoint 100 of the body's 390 members.
The judiciary, Shaheen said, will oversee the whole electoral process, limiting the role of the Interior Ministry, which many Egyptians say remains tainted by its many years as the Mubarak regime's enforcer, and was responsible for much of the rigging in previous elections.
The voting itself, which will be for the upper and lower houses of parliament at the same time, will be spread over a month before the end of 2011, and the army will set their date by decree before the end of next month, Shaheen said.
The final election law has also brushed aside demands by political groups that aimed to shield the electoral system against vote buying, rampant under the previous regime, and the return of former regime officials by barring individual candidates.
Instead, the law allows for half of the 504 seats up for grabs to be contested by individual candidates instead of party lists.
The law comes amid a fierce debate in Egypt about the military's place in public life, with some viewing the army as a bulwark against Islamists rising to power and others as a pernicious force protecting its own deep-seated interests and those of Mubarak's ousted regime.
Many suspect that the generals now ruling Egypt are trying to enshrine a future role for themselves, possibly with the authority to intervene in politics. Their push appears to be driven by the military's fear of losing the near-autonomous power it has enjoyed for almost 60 years.
A key member of a panel drafting guidelines for Egypt's next constitution said Wednesday that most of the group's 50 members object to giving the military a future role in politics.
Legal expert Tahany el-Gibali said the binding principles will have enough guarantees to protect the rights of all Egyptians while also safeguarding the civilian character of the state.
Another legal expert and panel member, Mohammed Nour Farahat, said the panel would submit the draft to the military, but that it would be up to the generals sitting on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to decide what to do with the document — adopt it without change, amend it, issue it by decree or put it up for a referendum.
They said the draft is likely to be ready in a matter of days and that it would represent a compromise that bridges the gap between Islamists and the rest of the country's political forces over the selection of those to be mandated to draft the constitution and the nature of the charter wanted by most Egyptians.
Many in Egypt fear that the Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood — the country's largest and best organized political group — will dominate parliamentary elections expected later this year. The next legislature will be mandated with selecting a 100-member constituent assembly to draft the new constitution, a privilege that could mean a document with an Islamist slant if the Brotherhood and other Islamists sweep the polls.
Military leaders themselves have suggested they retain a special role. Shaheen, the general who announced the election law, said in comments published recently that the country's next constitution should safeguard the armed forces against the "whims" of any future president, practically asking for the armed forces to be given virtually complete independence.
He took a softer line on Wednesday, saying the military has not produced its own guidelines, and that these would have to be defined and agreed upon by "the political forces."
One of the legal experts the military is consulting in the process, Hisham Bastawisi, has gone further, proposing that the army in the future have the role of "guaranteeing supra-constitutional principles." In his formulation, that would appear to mean powers to intervene to protect basic democratic rights.
But some fear that could give the generals a tool for imposing its will at a time when the country is trying to move toward democratic rule with civilians at the helm.
Bastawisi, who has announced his intention to run for president, also proposed extensive independence for the military, including immunity from parliamentary scrutiny of its budgets and prohibitions on passing laws affecting the military without the generals' approval.