New legislation aims to revive Egyptian political parties

Egyptian law reserves 120 seats in the 596-seat legislature for political parties, which must put forward lists of candidates that include stringent quotas.
Sunday 07/10/2018
A 2015 file picture shows a young man walking past electoral banners in the Heliopolis area. (Reuters)
Political disarray. A 2015 file picture shows a young man walking past electoral banners in the Heliopolis area. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Egypt’s political map could undergo a significant shift in its next parliamentary session with members preparing to debate legislation that would determine the political affiliations of future lawmakers.

The measure, submitted by dozens of lawmakers in the previous parliamentary session, would amend the House of Deputies Law, which regulates the makeup of the legislature. The changes would allow the country’s 106 political parties to field more candidates in elections, potentially giving them greater representation in parliament.

This, lawmakers backing the bill said, would breathe new life into Egypt’s moribund parliament.

“The political parties need to make their presence felt more inside parliament,” said Tarek al-Kholi, one of the lawmakers supporting the bill. “The current parliament law does not allow this to happen.”

Egyptian law reserves 120 seats in the 596-seat legislature for political parties, which must put forward lists of candidates that include stringent quotas for youth, women, Christians, farmers and people with disabilities and Egyptians residing abroad.

An additional 448 MPs are elected through an individual candidacy system and the president directly selects 28 lawmakers.  Those elected as part of the “individual-seat” system must be independents even if they are from Egypt’s political party system. Once in parliament, those members cannot declare any party affiliation or change their status.

The new bill would ensure a 50/50 split between members elected as part of a party list and nominal “independents” and would allow members to join or change party affiliation.

The current system was drafted in 2014, a time of political transition and unrest when many questioned the strength of Egypt’s political parties, most of which had been founded after the 2011 revolution that ended Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule.

“Those who drafted the law were hopeful that, in the years following the 2015 parliamentary elections, the political parties will gain strength and popularity,” said Tarek Fahmi, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Sorry to say, the political parties could not gain either strength or popularity at that time.”

While most Egyptian political parties have little presence on the street, even more established parties, such as the liberal Wafd Party, are in disarray. Leaders of various parties complain of a lack of state support, at the political and financial level, and limited freedoms granted parties.

Egypt’s political parties are divided between staunch backers of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and those who oppose the president. Most parties that oppose Sisi have little presence in parliament and hardly any popular support.

Sisi, citing the weaknesses of the political parties, called on smaller parties to form coalitions that would create stronger political entities.

The weakness of Egypt’s political parties became an embarrassment this year when no group could field a competitive candidate to go against Sisi in the presidential election. Sisi ultimately competed against only Moussa Mostafa Moussa, head of the centrist El-Ghad Party. Moussa, who backed Sisi’s re-election bid before deciding to run on his own, took less than 3% of the vote. Some analysts said more Egyptians spoiled their ballots than voted for Moussa.

Proposed amendments would ease party mergers, which, Kholi said, would encourage groups and coalitions with similar agendas to form larger and stronger political entities. “The political scene is fragmented because of the presence of too many parties,” Kholi said. “This fragmentation renders our political life very weak.”

The amendment would legalise some mergers that happened in recent months, including that of the centre-leftist Nation’s Future Party and the Together for Egypt Coalition, which has mainly included independents. The merger allowed the pro-Sisi Nation’s Future Party to control almost two-thirds of the seats of parliament.

Nation’s Future Party, which was founded in 2014 by Sisi supporters, is acting as a role model for other parties. Mindful of the disconnect between the parties and Egyptian citizens, party members are being encouraged to interact directly with the electorate. The party has promoted a programme of free food and medical treatment to poor villages in the rural areas.

The party said it hoped to score big at the municipal elections, whose date has not been set, and aspires to spearhead Sisi’s plans in parliament. Observers are also looking to the next general and presidential elections, particularly with Sisi serving his second term in office.

How parties compete will dictate Egypt’s future, with many voters hoping to see a revival of a political scene that is often derided as stodgy and stolid.

“Mergers will ensure that the resultant political entities are strong enough to reach people on the streets,” said Amr Hashem Rabie, the deputy head of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies think-tank. “Strong political entities are a must if we want to have a healthy political environment.”