April 4, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 217

Egyptian Press Reactions to Change in Egypt's Presidential Electoral System

April 4, 2005 | By A. Shefa*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 217

On February 26, 2005, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that the Egyptian electoral system would be reformed to allow more than a single candidate to run in the upcoming presidential election and for an election by direct secret ballot instead of by the current national referendum on one candidate nominated by the parliament. [1] In order to implement this reform, in March the Shura Council and the People's Council amended Article 76 of the constitution. The draft of the amendment was then referred to the Egyptian Parliament's Legislative and Constitutional Committee, which is to hammer out the final formulation within two months. [2]

Since the rules and regulations regarding the upcoming presidential election, scheduled for September, have not yet been finalized, a public debate is now raging in Egypt over questions such as: Who will be qualified to run for president? Will the candidates require the approval of the parliament and the local councils? How can equal chances for media exposure be ensured for all candidates? Will the electoral change be limited to the amendment to Article 76, or is broader reform necessary – such as an amendment to Article 77, which currently permits unlimited extension of the president's term in office?

This public debate is being reflected in the Egyptian media. While the government press welcomed Mubarak's move, viewing it as a "direct continuation of his reform policy," the opposition claimed that this measure does not constitute true reform unless it is accompanied by other constitutional and legal changes.

The following are excerpts from articles on the debate:

Mubarak: The Decision was Under Consideration for Two Years

In an interview with the French daily Le Figaro, which appeared in full in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, President Hosni Mubarak explained his decision to amend Article 76 of the constitution: "We began the process of reform twenty years ago. It was necessary to embark upon economic [reform] in order to meet the needs of the [Egyptian] people. We have introduced gradual reforms in order to avoid the anarchy that we have witnessed in other countries; we have introduced parliamentary elections; and, finally, we will hold presidential elections by direct ballot of the people."

Regarding the question of whether the U.S. had influenced his decision, Mubarak said: "Some claim that we were under pressure, but this is a mistake. After all, the decision I announced surprised everybody in Egypt and outside it. [In addition,] the decision was under consideration for two years, and I had intended to announce it in February 2004, but we decided to postpone the announcement since we had to complete some of the economic reforms."

On the subject of his own and his son Gamal's candidacy for the presidency, Mubarak said: "This is a difficult mission, and I have not yet made a decision about it... Some people have talked about my son's proposed candidacy, but there is no truth whatsoever in these rumors. Who is talking about an inherited republic?! I encourage the youth to participate in political life, and a few years ago I wanted to appoint a vice president, but some people advised me not to do so, as it might have been interpreted as a desire to appoint myself a successor..." [3]

Egyptian Government Press: Reform Not a Result of External Pressure; Mubarak is "The Father of Democracy"

Egypt's government press saw Mubarak's decision as an historic decision and a great achievement. The editor of the government daily Al-Gumhuriya, Samir Ragab, called Mubarak "the father of democracy": "It would not be [mere] flattery to Hosni Mubarak... if I reiterate that he is 'the father of democracy' in the true sense of the word. All the political parties [in Egypt] are unanimous in their belief that constitutional change will take place [only] after the election of the president of the republic for another term in office through a referendum, but Hosni Mubarak is one step ahead. Moreover, in the initiative, announced by the president at the right time, he sent a message to the people [to the effect that] 'It is our free will to choose our life [course] and to determine our destiny. It is an internal desire, through which we determine our present and our future.' [4]

The editor of the government evening daily Al-Ahram Al-Masai, Mursi 'Atallah, wrote: "This is an historic decision in the true sense of the word! Moreover, this is a political and reformist revolution that constitutes the start of a new history for Egypt, and perhaps even for the entire region! Even though this is nothing new for President Mubarak, who has managed to overcome the extremely severe economic, social and political problems of Egypt... Mubarak has already understood that this is the moment to realize the dream of Egypt becoming a full democracy, with no complications and sensitivities..." [5]

Columnist Dr. Fathi Abd Al-Fattah wrote in Al-Gumhuriya: "It appears that Mubarak has chosen to enter history through the main gate, which remained locked in previous years. This is the gate of democracy, the most important and distinguished gate, or the gate of gates. The latest decision to continue the democratic reforms and to amend the constitution... underscores [the fact] that democracy is the motto of the present period." [6]

Many columnists said that Mubarak's decision was neither a surprise nor capitulation to external pressures, but rather a direct continuation of his reform policy. Ibrahim Nafi', editor of the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram, wrote: "There is no doubt that this historic, unprecedented decision of President Hosni Mubarak will go down in history and that it came as a great surprise for most politicians and analysts... Whoever has been following the process of reform and change in Egypt over the past years and whoever has read President Mubarak's statements carefully and has analyzed his outlook meticulously could have anticipated such a step. It may be that the [only] surprise was the timing of the announcement of the decision.

"In terms of the content [of Mubarak's statement], I don't think there was any surprise. After all, President Mubarak has already emphasized that this step has come at the right time, after we underwent certain economic and social reforms. [In addition,] President Mubarak reminded the citizens that this step is just one link in the process of reform and change...

"... President Mubarak's step is part of a comprehensive national perspective toward national revival and is based on purely Egyptian considerations, devoid of external pressures and of the cries of some of the internal forces... If at the beginning of his presidency [Mubarak] focused on the development of the infrastructure and on the expansion of projects of development and reconstruction, in recent years he has begun to implement a general perspective of change and reform, which has put Egypt on the path to comprehensive revival." [7]

According to an op-ed in the government daily Al-Akhbar: "President Mubarak's amendment of the constitution is a new achievement added to his many other achievements. President Mubarak is at the head of the pyramid of reforms in Egypt, and his rule is characterized by wisdom, responsibility, patience, and an ability to overcome many economic problems. [Mubarak's] initiative was welcomed both internally and externally. This step underscores the importance of reform which comes from within and is not imposed from without..." [8]

In the government evening daily Al-Masaa, columnist Muhsin Muhammad called upon the ruling party to implement further reforms to complement Mubarak's move: "Those familiar with Egyptian history and with the development of democracy in the world knew that this was a necessary and inevitable step. When [a candidate] is permitted to run for the presidential office, the other democratic steps become secondary, or of lesser importance. Therefore, the National Democratic Party [NDP] is required not to wait for the president's initiatives, but to carry out steps simultaneously or steps that will complement [the president's initiative].

"A dialogue within the party must be allowed, in order to discuss the issue of democracy and to complete the process. Afterwards, the party must present the president with a complete overview...

"...Seeing President Mubarak's actions, we want the NDP to know that democracy in Egypt has taken a new path, completely different from the previous one and from what has been prevalent since July 23, 1952. We want the party to shape a comprehensive democratic approach for Egypt in the 21st century." [9]

The Opposition Press: The Amendment of Article 76 Must Be Accompanied by Other Constitutional Changes

Opposition paper columnists warned that the amendment to Article 76 would have little significance without comprehensive constitutional reform that would ensure equal chances for all candidates and limit the president-elect's term in office. Moreover, they warned that this was a tactical move aimed at ensuring the continuation of Mubarak's presidency, or the election of his son Gamal Mubarak as president.

Bahi Al-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, wrote in the reformist magazine Nahdhat Misr: "As long as the amendment to the constitution does not allow freedom of expression and equal chances on TV and radio for all candidates, this amendment loses much of its value... because of the NDP's monopoly of the media." According to him, civil society is still demanding a comprehensive constitutional reform, not merely the amendment of a few articles. These changes must be in line with the times and with Egypt's future needs. [Therefore,] it is necessary not only to change the text [of the constitution] on paper, but to give equal chances to the other presidential candidates. In addition, it is imperative for the amendment [to ensure] that candidacy should not be restricted to the [representatives] of parties, but that it should be the right of every Egyptian citizen." [10]

Dr. Al-Shaf'i Bashir, lecturer on law at Al-Mansura University, wrote in the opposition daily Al-Wafd that since presidential candidates need the support of the members of the People's Council and the Shura Council, only the NDP candidate – particularly Gamal Mubarak – is guaranteed such support. Al-Shaf''i said that according to Hosni Mubarak's speech, "whoever wants to be a candidate for the presidential office must request the support of the People's Council members and the regional councils, the municipalities and the villages. [A candidate] who does not belong to the NDP leadership will never get the support of these council members, whereas President Mubarak and the NDP leaders are ensured the enlisting of the necessary support for their candidacy, particularly if Mr. Gamal Mubarak presents his candidacy..."

Al-Shaf'i also called for amending Article 77 in order to limit the number of presidential terms: "...Why didn't the president call for an amendment of Article 77, which allows the president to be reelected for additional terms? The original text of the [1971] constitution before [the amendment of] May 1980, limited the renewal of [the presidency] to [only] one additional term, like the U.S. constitution. Why shouldn't this article [which now permits an unlimited number of terms] be amended as well, in order [to ensure] orderly democratic life in Egypt?" [11]

Ahmad Abu Al-Ma'ati, a member of the editorial board of the Nasserite opposition weekly Al-'Arabi, wrote: "The scenario of bequeathing [the rule] democratically to the president's son is considered to be the worst case scenario by many analysts who view Mubarak's latest initiative pessimistically and believe it might be a step toward the democratic appointment of Gamal Mubarak [as president]." He also said that the most likely scenario was "that everything that happened is no more than political tactics, by means of which the Egyptian regime is trying to escape the recent onslaught of U.S. criticism, by means of a meaningless amendment, with a series of steps that thwart true political participation in the next presidential elections – giving President Mubarak a new presidential term in a totally democratic manner." [12]

The Muslim Brotherhood movement welcomed Mubarak's speech, but stated that a number of additional steps were necessary to complete the reform process. Movement spiritual leader Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef issued a communiqué which read: "We believe that this is a positive step toward the desired political reform, which requires allowing liberties, such as the freedom to establish parties, to publish newspapers, and to [abolish] the Emergency Law." [13]

'Akef's deputy, Dr. Muhammad Habib, told the Muslim Brotherhood's website "The President's consent to amend Article 76 is considered a positive step toward political reform, which [also] requires... allowing comprehensive liberties; abolishing the [emergency] courts and laws that restrict liberties; amending Law [No. 73 (1956), concerning the procedure for parliamentary elections; holding] elections for the People's Council in a manner ensuring free and fair elections that honestly and justly reflect the people's will, under the supervision of an independent national committee; and releasing all the political prisoners."

According to Habib, Mubarak's statement that "the presidential candidate must obtain the support of the MPs and the popular local councils... empties the necessary amendment of all content... It is imperative that the support for or election of [the presidential candidate] be by the people." [14]

Other Presidential Candidates' Reactions

Egyptian feminist and author Dr. Nawal Al-Sa'dawi, who has declared her intention to run for the presidency, announced that she would establish a political party if the Egyptian parliament decided that a candidate must be the representative or leader of a political party. [15]

According to the London daily Al-Hayat Al-Sa'dawi said: "I will run against Mubarak or against any candidate chosen by the opposition parties... I was jailed [in the past] because of an article [I published] titled 'The People, Not [former Egyptian President] Anwar Al-Sadat, Puts Together the Parties.' Therefore, I cannot support the candidates of parties which abandoned the citizens and agreed to postpone discussion of the constitutional amendment. [It was] only after [their agreement] that President Mubarak declared his decision to amend Article 76." [16]

Human rights activist Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim, who is the director of the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo and who had announced previously that he would run for president, wrote a communiqué stating that "in order to ensure a true contest in the election, there must be equal chances for [all] the candidates so they can reach public opinion via all the channels of communication: TV, radio, and press... [In addition,] there must be an amendment to Article 76 of the constitution so that it will restrict the presidential term to five years and to at most two consecutive terms in office, which will not exceed ten years." [17]

Egyptian Clerics: Mubarak's Declaration is in Line with Islamic Values

Dr. Muhammad Shamah, a lecturer at Al-Azhar University, said: "Democracy is an important value in Islamic thought and a modern interpretation of the concept of the shura because Islamic Shari'a believes in regime change, in free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections, in the independence of the legislative system, in making the nation a source [of authority] of the regime, and in political, ideological, and religious pluralism... [The amendment] is an unprecedented move in Egypt's politics, which is now marking a new era in history, characterized by openness, pluralism, and promotion of the process of democracy and reform." [18]

Islamic researcher Dr. Nagi Abd Al-'Alim said, "Electing the president of the republic by direct, secret and general ballot is an important step, in line with the principles of Islam that call for political pluralism and for electing the leader by direct elections from among more than one candidate." According to Dr. Abd Al-'Alim, "the amendment to Article 76 of the constitution and the addition of a sub-clause to Article 192, calling for elections instead of a referendum, will both contribute to the expansion of the liberties called for by the Islamic religion... The noble Koran, which is the only constitution of Islam, has called to honor political, ideological, and religious pluralism, just as it called for a shura. Allah said: 'And their rule is to take counsel among themselves' [Koran 42:38], and 'Consult with them upon the conduct of affairs. And when you have decided, place your trust in Allah' [Koran 3:159]." [19]

*A. Shefa is a MEMRI Research Fellow


[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 27, 2005.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 10, 2005.

[3] The interview in Le Figaro was quoted in Al-Ahram (Egypt), March 25, 2005.

[4] Al-Gumhuriya (Egypt), February 27, 2005.

[5] Al-Ahram Al-Masai (Egypt), February 27, 2005.

[6] Al-Gumhuriya (Egypt), February 28, 2005.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), February 28, 2005.

[8] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), March 3, 2005.

[9] Al-Masaa (Egypt), February 28, 2005.

[10] The article was quoted in the Arabic-languge London daily Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), February 27, 2005.

[11] Al-Wafd (Egypt), March 2, 2005.

[12] Al-'Arabi (Egypt), March 6, 2005.

[13], February 26, 2005.

[14], February 26, 2005.

[15] See MEMRI Special Dispatch 876, "Egyptian Feminist Dr. Nawal Al-Sa'dawi Announces Candidacy for Presidency; Explains Women Can Lead Countries; Calls on 70 Million Egyptians to Fight the U.S. and Israel" March 10, 2005 Egyptian Feminist Dr. Nawal Al-Sa'dawi Announces Candidacy for Presidency; Explains Women Can Lead Countries; Calls on 70 Million Egyptians to Fight the U.S. and Israel.

[16] Al-Hayat (London), March 1, 2005.

[17], February 26, 2005.

[18] Al-Ahram Al-Masai (Egypt), March 10, 2005.

[19] Al-Ahram Al-Masai (Egypt), March 10, 2005.

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