Populism in Egypt’s parliament reveals decline in political awareness

A number of MPs have been dealing with sensitive matters in an amateurish way.
Thursday 15/07/2021
Egyptian parliament members attend a general session in the capital Cairo. (AFP)
Egyptian parliament members attend a general session in the capital Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO – Egyptians have recently been complaining about the weak level of awareness among parliamentarians, especially when it comes to dealing with Egypt’s national and international files. According to these Egyptians, the MPs have been endorsing some highly controversial positions in a populist approach to some social issues.

A session held by Parliament last Sunday witnessed a tumultuous debate that accompanied a discussion of a draft law on sexual harassment. One of the MPs engaged in blaming women and the way they dress for the high rates of harassment in the country, provoking an outcry among other MPs who condemned the statements of their colleague.

The situation escalated after statements by MP Muhammad Abdul Hamid Hashem, in which he called on women to observe their behaviour while walking in public, and blamed them for the increase in harassment rates, saying, “If a man is a harasser, then the woman is also responsible for the harassment.”

Hashem’s comments provoked an angry reaction among female MPS and the Speaker of Parliament Hanafi Jabali demanded the removal of the MP’s statements from the session’s proceedings, in a move that was met by applause.

Observers say that Egypt’s parliament is suffering from a decline in political culture and the MPs’ limited knowledge of key issues and challenges. The political situation in Egypt, the observers said, created some sort of stagnation that led to a failure to produce a conscious elite. This reality has reflected on members of Parliament, who were picked according to a formula that takes into account balances in formal representation but disregards the political awareness of each MP.

Observers drew attention to the fact that some MPs in the current parliament lack the minimum level of political awareness.  Few MPS, generally close to the opposition, have proved their worth and demonstrated a good understanding of realities at hand, the observers said, noting that the majority of MPs, close to the government, have failed to do so.

Amr Hashem Rabie, a researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies, stressed that aspiring parliamentarians should work on their political awareness before filing their candidacy. Each candidate is supposed to have a political background that qualifies them to work in the public sphere, Rabie said, noting that there is need for the respect of the principles of dialogue and for the organisation of ideas and priorities.

“If a candidate reaches Parliament, the task is then within the hands of the parliamentary training body, but what happens is that there is no interest in that at the present time, and there is no longer any consultation with experts on parliamentary work, so as to examine and evaluate the contributions of MPs with the aim of ensuring the development of their performance,” Rabie added in a statement to The Arab Weekly.

He noted that the electoral system in place has affected the process of learning and awareness.

“In the presence of an overwhelming majority and a weak minority, there is no room for competition or a quality political debate. There is only one party that controls the work of Parliament,” he explained.

Although parliament approved a package of important draft laws and discussed many key issues in the past period, a number of MPs have been dealing with sensitive matters in an amateurish way.

During a discussion of the general budget and the economic development plan, in the presence of Finance Minister Mohamed Maait, Egyptian PM Hamada Zuhair said, “I swear on my own marriage that you are the best minister in Egypt, and that you came to our aid during such a critical juncture, just (like) God’s messenger Youssef did before.”

Some MPs hailed Zuhair’s statements and the minister laughed in a way that showed he was somewhat pleased with the analogy.

Zuhair made his statements in a humorous way and insisted on repeating the analogy in a theatrical manner, which eventually affected the formality of Parliament and the credibility of MPs,who are supposed to question ministers, not praise them.

Zuhair did not realise that his statements would undermine the image of Parliament among Egyptians, downplaying the seriousness of the role that the legislative body plays in holding government members accountable. Most dangerously, Zuhair‘s statement almost caused religious conflict.

Deputies of the Nour Party, the political arm of the Salafist movement, objected to Zuhair’s analogy, causing disorder during the parliamentary session. The Speaker of Parliament then intervened by removing the oath of divorce and the comparison to the Prophet Yusuf from the proceedings of the session. The Speaker also stressed the analogy made by the MP came as a metaphor.

Former MP Yousri al-Assiouty said that some MPs are usually overwhelmed by their emotions or their relations with some ministers, failing to focus on their main task which consists in assessing the performance of the government.

He stressed that MPs’ mistakes can affect the credibility of Parliament.

“These mistakes could be exploited in many ways,” he warned.