Egypt’s long-awaited parliament comes to life
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.