In Translation: Ziad Bahaa-Eldin on the "legal chaos" of the elections

In the last few weeks, we at The Arabist have been sharing our dismay over the slap-dash preparation of the Egyptian parliamentary elections, and our fears that they are so poorly and confusingly organized as to seriously undermine the democratic process. After the violence in Tahrir in the last 24 hours, we're not even sure if they will happen. If they do go ahead, they will take place among great logistical, security and legal shortcomings and confusion.

For this week's translation -- courtesy our friends at Industry Arabic, as usual -- we have selected a column by legal expert, economic and political analyst and parliamentary candidate Ziad Bahaa-Eldin that appeared in the November 15 issue of the privately owned El Shorouk newspaper that clearly sets out some of the problems:

How Will the Elections Be Held Amid This Legal Chaos?

My enthusiasm for the elections and for holding them on time has not yet died, due to my firm belief that they are the only means to emerge from this transitional period we are going through. Otherwise, the alternative is for the current chaos to continue and for people to become reluctant to continue the transition to democracy. Although there is a security vacuum, unstable economic situation and a serious disruption in basic materials and supplies, the only way to get out of this bind and achieve even incremental progress is to persevere and hold elections as scheduled.

Despite my enthusiasm, I find it hard to comprehend the legal chaos that has begun to envelop this whole matter and threaten its entire legitimacy. I will not reiterate the defects and shortcomings of the election law, which was issued piecemeal and with numerous modifications over the course of a few weeks, and which is as flimsy and confused as can be, since it has already gotten its fair share of criticism from a number of legal experts and politicians -- we just have to deal with it. The problem now is that the legal chaos is not limited to the election law, but continues to spread even though we are only two weeks away from the first round of voting. Four major problems exacerbate this chaos:

The first is that the performance of the Supreme Committee for Elections and its branches in the governorates has been extremely mediocre. The party lists and party symbols [ed. that allow illiterate voters to identify candidates and parties] were only determined at the last minute; the paperwork required of candidates differs from one governorate to another; the decisions of the subcommittees in the governorates contradict each other; criteria are unclear and the vacations taken by the committees are too long. In short, the situation is critical and does not reflect the seriousness of the issue, even though we are only a few days away from the most important elections in the history of modern Egypt.

The second problem is that the government has kept saying it would review the [ed. anti-corruption] Treachery Law and the Political Isolation Law [ed. banning political participation of former regime members], and then in the end did nothing until a ruling came down from the Administrative Judiciary Court in Mansoura banning some candidates from standing for election. Yet no one knows what effects this will have on the rest of the electoral districts in Egypt. Does this ruling have authority outside of the case in which it was issued? Will other similar rulings be issued, and what will we do if other rulings come down in other electoral districts in contradiction with this one? [ed. This has already happened, and the Mansoura ruling has been overturned] If the ruling is applied to all of Egypt, does this mean that there will be incomplete election lists, or that the registration window will be reopened to fill them? I expect that all these are legitimate, crucial questions that will have an impact on the elections that will take place in two weeks’ time. All this chaos is because the government decided to be content with merely studying the various laws and did not take the trouble to issue a law determining who is allowed to run in the elections and who cannot, and so left us scratching our heads in confusion. How can there be an election law that does not include provisions concerning who is allowed to run or not? Why didn’t the government settle this matter by drafting a law to settle the issue of political isolation in a clear and decisive manner from the start?

The third problem is that the government has not taken seriously the right of Egyptians abroad to participate in elections, as it decided to completely disregard and ignore this issue when national and political forces were raising it and when there was still time to put in place the necessary arrangements. Then the government was taken by surprise by a ruling handed down from the Administrative Judiciary granting Egyptians abroad the right to vote in elections, so it began to take measures that superficially appear to be enough. However, I doubt that they are applicable in practice or that they will really allow millions of Egyptians to participate in elections set to take place several days from now. Will several million Egyptians in dozens of countries really be able to participate in a vote on dozens of party lists and electoral districts, and on thousands of candidates? Have diplomats been granted proper judicial authority from a legal standpoint? Will Arab countries – where most Egyptian expatriates reside – agree to cooperate in organizing elections even as they deny their own citizens the right to vote?

Finally, the fourth problem lies in the basic constitutional principles document, which has been under consideration for months and was supposed to be a document that national forces agree upon and which paves the way for the drafting of a consensus constitution. Now here it is in a form acceptable to no one (while it has gone from a national consensus document to a document of national discord), it has come at an unreasonable time, and in a form that is legally ambiguous, where it is unclear whether these are just general ideas or if they are binding on the signatories -- or if this is merely the latest waste of time. All of this creates more legal uncertainty and confusion.

Why is organizing elections straightforward, simple and easy in Tunisia, while here in the country of legal heritage and legislative experience we are unable to succeed at the same task? The issue is not that complicated, and organizing elections doesn’t require us to reinvent the wheel. I ask you, the government and the Elections Committee, to do what is necessary to save the legitimacy and credibility of the upcoming elections. There are four things that need to be done before the end of the week: the government and the Military Council must decide the legal repercussions of the ruling to bar candidates in Mansoura by issuing immediate legislation specifying who may run and who is excluded; the Supreme Elections Committee has to settle the remaining challenges, complaints and requests regarding the candidates and party lists; the Ministry of Justice has to honestly admit what can and cannot be done in terms of granting the vote to Egyptians abroad; and I ask you, Dr. Ali al-Selmi, to forget the document and let the people elect and decide what they want, because the proposed document is inappropriate both in content and timing.

It is not important who will win and who will lose the upcoming elections; the important thing is for Egypt to succeed in holding fair, safe and legal elections, just as all the other nations who have gone through similar experiences have done. So work together to salvage the credibility of the upcoming elections. Otherwise, the damage will be serious.