Hope and doubts over Egypt’s new parliament

Friday 22/01/2016
Members of Egypt’s parliament attend the inaugural session, in Cairo, on January 10th.

Washington - After a long absence, Egypt’s parliament con­vened on January 10th. It is the first parliament since the 1950s without a dominant political party to con­trol the agenda, though various factions and independent mem­bers are pledging loyalty to the administration of Abdel Fattah al- Sisi.

The new parliament has the po­tential to stake out an independ­ent course from the government by passing legislation and abolish­ing old laws in line with Egypt’s progressive constitution. How­ever, the authoritarian nature of the government is likely to work against that potential.

Egyptians are proud that their country was the first in the Arab world to create a parliament, an event that occurred in the 1870s. During the interwar period after Egypt achieved nominal inde­pendence from Britain in 1922, parliament did have some teeth. Although the monarchy and the British attempted to manipulate the legislative body, it occasionally exercised independence, especial­ly under the Wafd, the pro-inde­pendence party that advocated a national-liberal platform.

Soon after Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow Free Officers seized power in 1952, they abolished po­litical parties and created a one-party state system that essentially lasted until Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011 (though some small opposition parties were al­lowed to exist under Anwar Sadat and Mubarak). The first of the re­gime parties was the Liberation Rally, then the National Union, then the Arab Socialist Union and, finally, the National Democratic Party.

In the year after the 2011 revolu­tion, the Muslim Brotherhood won control of parliament but its rule was short-lived, as courts nullified the parliament over a technicality in June 2012. Muslin Brotherhood President Muhammad Morsi ruled by decree until he was overthrown in 2013.

Since that time, Egypt’s acting president, Adly Mansour and later Sisi, as elected president, promul­gated more than 300 laws. Under the constitution passed by referen­dum in January 2014, parliament has just 15 days to review and ap­prove those laws or they become void.

This provision made the open­ing days of parliament quite ram­bunctious. With no single party controlling the agenda, there have been arguments over how many committees should be formed and what their jurisdiction would be.

Ali Abdel-al, a respected con­stitutional law professor who helped draft the new constitu­tion, was elected speaker and he spoke eloquently about the ideals of the January 25th and June 30th revolutions — the first overthrew Mubarak, the second ousted Morsi.

But the key challenge for pro­gressive-minded Egyptians is whether parliament is going to re­view the draconian laws, such as the protest law and the counterter­rorism law that work against basic democratic rights such as freedom of assembly and dissent, that were put in place after Morsi was over­thrown.

The signs are not encouraging. Some parliamentarians claim the protest law does not need to be reviewed because it was issued be­fore the constitution was enacted; hence, it should remain in place.

Meanwhile, the government, gearing up for demonstrations marking the January 25th anniver­sary, recently issued a decree that levies prison sentences and large fines on those found guilty of dis­playing “anti-state” symbols. It has continued to arrest journalists the government claims are affiliated with the banned Muslim Brother­hood.

In the likely event that the new parliament will not have time to review the decree laws within the 15-day limit, it will probably pass them en masse by the deadline, al­lowing for later review.

The new parliament also has the responsibility to examine old laws — some on the books since the Nasser period — to determine whether they conform with the new constitution. If they do not, parliament is obliged to change or remove them.

Whether parliament will act in­dependently or take its cues from Sisi is the key question. The largest pro-regime party in parliament, For the Love of Egypt, is headed by a former intelligence officer who is trying to muster a majority of the 596 parliamentary members (most of whom are independents) to form a large pro-regime bloc. This effort does not inspire confi­dence in an independent legisla­tive branch of government.

Independents in parliament have the chance to be more than yes-men (and yes-women) to the government. The parliament that they have been elected to enjoys much more constitutional power — such as approving a prime minister and impeaching a president — than in the past.

However, as many members of parliament are part of the old elite, such as former National Democrat­ic Party members, their inclination is to be pro-government so as to retain clout and deliver benefits to their constituents. Old habits die hard.