Egypt’s long-awaited parliament comes to life

Friday 15/01/2016
Dominated by loyalists of Egyptian President

CAIRO - Egypt’s new parliament, which had its maiden ses­sion January 10th, faces the tough mission of fol­lowing the country’s new constitution to craft legislation, bringing its rocky transition to an end and stabilising the legislative process, observers say.
The 596-member legislature, the first in three years, was formed after elections in October and No­vember to fill a void created by the dissolution in June 2012 of the Islamist-dominated parliament.
The new parliament is, however, dominated by loyalists of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the Is­lamist organisation that gave Egypt its first president, after the 2011 popular uprising, is largely absent from parliament, having boycotted the elections after becoming the focus of a fierce crackdown by au­thorities.
Egypt’s legislative power has been in the hands of the country’s president since the dissolution of the Islamist-dominated Senate, which became responsible for leg­islation after the dissolution of the parliament in June 2013.
“The presence of a parliament that assumes its legislative duties means a lot in fact,” said Youssri al-Ezbawi, a researcher at the Al- Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies think-tank. “It means a lot for Egypt’s internation­al standing and also for its political system.”
In the course of the two-and-a-half years during which the presi­dents held the legislative power, more than 400 laws were issued. These laws need to be debated and approved by parliament, yet anoth­er challenge.
In a session January 10th that lasted more than 15 hours, legis­lators — some political newcom­ers and other figures of the party of longstanding president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in 2011 — elected a professor of constitu­tional law, Ali Abdel A’al, to be the parliament speaker.
Legislators verbally quarrelled during the session, stumbled as they elected the parliament speak­er and also at times acted without appropriate decorum.
As he swore the oath of alle­giance, one legislator said he did not recognise a part in the new constitution, that describes the anti-Mubarak uprising as a “revo­lution”.
A member of the ultra-orthodox Salafist Al-Nour Party, which con­trols only 12 seats, refused to read the oath from a piece of paper as his colleagues did. He held a copy of the Quran in his two hands as he read the oath, showing contempt for the oath itself.
The last time Egyptians saw the members of Al-Nour in parliament was in 2012 when they refused to stand while the national anthem was played, expressed scorn for de­mocracy and poked fun at the revo­lutionaries who brought Mubarak down.
Rami Mohsen, a researcher who has been closely following the for­mation of the new parliament, said the fact that there is not a party with an absolute majority in the legisla­ture will render this body incapable of making legislation and holding the government accountable.
“The fact that most of the mem­bers are independents with no spe­cific political agenda will result in the presence of an entity where too many fragmented poles are facing each other,” Mohsen said. “This will render parliament ineffective.”
Almost two-thirds of the mem­bers of parliament are independ­ents. Nevertheless, a coalition staunchly supporting Sisi controls the remaining third of seats, which was originally dedicated to politi­cal parties, and has leverage over a large number of independent MPs, according to analysts.
A fragmented and weak parlia­ment, Mohsen said, is the last thing Egypt needs as it works to move be­yond the turmoil since Mubarak’s ouster.
Militancy in the Sinai peninsula near the border with Israel — where a home-grown group linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) is active — is one of the challenges the new parlia­ment faces.
Egypt’s economy also needs to grow to create jobs for millions of unemployed youths and offer op­portunities for millions of impover­ished families.
Despite all these grim realities, Ezbawi said, there are clear winners in the new parliament.
“Women are part of the winners,” he said. “We have never had such a high number of female representa­tives in the legislature before.”
Eighty-seven seats (about 15%) are held by women, the highest such representation in Egypt’s po­litical history.
Christians, who make up almost 10% of Egypt’s population of 90 million, control 38 seats. Almost 40% of the seats of parliament are held by people under 45 years of age.
The formation of a parliament is also a prerequisite for Egypt’s eco­nomic recovery, analysts said. They said a functional parliament is usu­ally viewed by foreign investors as a measure of legal and political sta­bility.
“The parliament is also necessary for the finalisation of deals with foreign organisations and govern­ments,” Mohsen said.
Egypt is in talks with the World Bank for a loan of $3 billion. Mohs­en said a deal such as this cannot be finalised without parliament’s ap­proval.