By Jailan Zayan / AFP
CAIRO: Egypt’s premier has said delaying a September parliamentary election would give parties more time to prepare, as the nation debates its political future with early polls seen likely to benefit Islamists.
“Postponing the election would give the chance for a larger number of new political parties to develop,” said Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, quoted by state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram on Sunday.
However, “whatever the time of the election, we will exert all efforts to make it a success,” Sharaf said, in answer to questions at an event hosted by tycoon and politician Naguib Sawiris.
His comments come at a time of mounting calls by liberal and secular groups to delay the election until a new constitution is drafted.
The “Constitution First” campaign has sparked intense debate, with critics arguing that a delay to the poll would keep the ruling military in place for longer.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took power on February 11, after three weeks of nationwide anti-government protests forced president Hosni Mubarak out of office.
In March, 77 percent of Egyptians voted in favor of holding an election first and having the new parliament draft a fresh constitution.
A September election is expected to boost Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, which has formed a party to contest roughly half of parliament’s elected seats.
Some groups have expressed concern that having the poll first would result in the Islamist group having too much influence over the constitution.
Last week, authorities approved the first Salafi (adhering to a strict interpretation of Islam) political party — the Noor Party — which, like the Brotherhood, wants the election held on time.
“Our strength will not go away if the elections are delayed. On the contrary, it will increase with the time,” Noor spokesman Mohammed Yussri told the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Salafi popularity is difficult to gauge but its increasing assertiveness worries many Egyptians including the country’s Coptic Christian minority estimated at about 10 percent of the population.
But the debate is far from clear cut.
Some non-Islamist and liberal opposition groups want to push ahead with elections to have the ruling military council — which they see as an extension of the old regime — out of power as soon as possible.
They also do not want to reduce the national debate to Islamist versus secular, preferring instead to focus on the mechanisms of democratic reform.
Last week, more than 20 human rights groups said having elections before drawing up the new charter would be “like putting the cart before the horse.”
“A new regime must take its place, and its institutions and the relationships between them must be based on a new constitution,” the groups said in a statement.
“This constitution must be drafted first, rather than building the institutions of the new order in accordance with the constitutional rules of the old regime.”
Arab League chief and presidential hopeful Amr Moussa has also thrown his weight behind calls to delay the vote but is more cautious.
“I am not for a postponement in the democratic process, and I believe it should start before the end of the year, but I think September is too early to hold a parliamentary election,” he said.
“It’s better to start either with the election of a people’s founding committee to put in place a new constitution or to hold a presidential election,” he said at a government-organized “national consensus” conference.
The military has said the parliamentary poll will be held on schedule in September, followed by a new constitution and then a presidential vote.