New coalition: ElBaradei or not, constitution reform needed

A conference on constitutional reform gathered opposition parties Saturday in Cairo to debate guarantees on the electoral process, the restoration of balance between different powers, and the consolidation of the republican regime.

The conference was organized by a new front calling itself The Parties of the Democratic Coalition, which includes the leftist Tagammu Party, the Nasserist Party, and the liberal Wafd and Democratic Front Parties.

Titled “The Safe Alternative for the Nation,” the conference’s approach is that constitutional reforms should precede any political change. Participants discussed how their parties can assert their political positions, especially after former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei formed the National Association for Change, a loose coalition of academics, activists and opposition parties calling for reform.

No direct reference was made to the association during the conference, but various declarations showcased the coalition’s interest in cooperating with all opposition forces. “We do not pretend to monopolize the current situation. We present the beginning of a patriotic dialogue that is much needed,” said Mahmoud Abaza, head of the Wafd Party.

Tagammu Party head Refaat el-Said reiterated that the new coalition has no interest in monopolizing the opposition. “We do not monopolize the call for change. We only seek agreement on the kind of change we want and the kind of constitutional reform we need. We open our hands to everyone who accepts the call for national and progressive change based on a civil state and a proper constitution.”

Osama el-Ghazali Harb, head of the Democratic Front Party which has supported ElBaradei since his arrival in Egypt on 19 February, also acknowledged the coalition’s role as part of an larger movement for change. “This conference complements important efforts undertaken by other parties, political movements and notable figures and strengthens the opposition in order to attain comprehensive democratic reforms,” Harb said.

Tagammu Party Secretary General Hussein Abdel Razek said the coalition is open to dialogue and is prepared to work closely with ElBaradei.

An organizer with the Wafd Party, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that conference organizers intended to invite ElBaradei, but the 67-year-old Nobel Peace Prize winner is traveling. The source added that there are divisions within the ranks of the Wafd Party and the Tagammu Party over whether or not to lend support to ElBaradei.

The coalition’s propositions for reform are similar to those of ElBaradei’s National Association for Change.

The Wafd Party presented a background paper, articulating its vision for constitutional change with regards to the electoral process. Echoing past opposition demands, the Wafd Party called for supervisory responsibilities over elections to be removed completely from the executive branch and transferred to a higher judicial authority. The paper provided details about the composition of this authority and its functions. For example, it suggested the electoral authority include members from the Court of Cassation, the State Council and the Appeals Court.

The paper also suggested that this authority revise electoral lists and remove the names of ineligible voters and the deceased. The electoral authority should also arbiter complaints submitted by candidates and supervise the overall election process, ensuring that all candidates have equal opportunities.

The Tagammu Party background paper, drafted by Abdel Razek, focused on particular articles in the constitution that it says need to be changed. Article 88, amended in 2007 to revoke judicial supervision over parliamentary elections, needs to be amended to entrust a higher committee with electoral supervision while ensuring that voting takes place under direct judicial monitoring, Abdel Razek wrote.

He also said that Article 148, pertaining to the Emergency Law, needs to be modified with new limitations and conditions. “For 28 years, all elections in Egypt have taken place under the Emergency Law and its associated practices. There needs to be true limits on the declaration of Emergency Law and on its perpetuation,” Abdel Razek said during the conference.

The coalition’s propositions prompted a series of reactions from conference attendees. Ibrahim el-Issawy, a Tagammy Party member, questioned the timing and the content of the coalition’s pitch for change.

“I wonder why it took the coalition so long to make this move? A lot of the broader opposition’s demands are not included in the background papers," el-Issawy said. "Do we want real change or cosmetic change?"

El-Issawy the coalition needs to announce its stance vis-a-vis elections and whether or not it will boycott them. He also called for more acts of defiance to pressure the regime.

Elaborating on the need for action over words, George Ishaq, an activist with the Kefaya opposition movement, charged that the government in uninterested in cleaning up electoral lists. “We went to the Ministry of Administrative Development and asked how long it would take to issue new electoral lists based on national identity cards and they told us in a matter of days. But there is no political will to do it,” he said.

Ishaq also urged the coalition to announce its plans for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

Both El-Issawy and Ishaq, alongside others, reiterated that the coalition must build a popular grassroots base to ensure that change is driven by people.

“The conditions today are different from those in 1995 and 2005. The regime is defeated and our people are striving for change and for a solid opposition to lead this change,” said Salah Adly, a spokesperson for the Communist Party. He added that there is now a handful of calls for change based on different visions.

“We need to formulate a set of mechanisms to realize those demands,” Adly said..

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