Does a New Parliament Signal a Shift for Egypt?

Does a New Parliament Signal a Shift for Egypt?

Last Sunday, Egypt’s newly-elected parliament held its first meeting since the 2012 expulsion of former President Mohammed Morsi. But the new class of legislators have little chance of serving as a genuine check on President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s power.

Egypt’s parliament was sworn in last Sunday, the first meeting of the legislature since 2012 when the Constitutional Court dissolved the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament. Shortly thereafter, then-President Mohammed Morsi was ousted from power and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi began his rise to eventually dominate Egypt’s political scene.

A new beginning or more of the same for Egypt?

The new unicameral parliament is a product of Egypt’s 2014 constitution, drafted by a committee of legal experts. In its absence, legislation was issued by President Sisi and the Supreme Committee for Legislative Reform, made up of unelected Sisi appointees. The current legislature consists of 568 representatives elected in November and December 2015, nearly all of whom are supporters of Sisi’s regime.

This fact should alarm observers who were hoping that the new parliament would provide a genuine check on the regime’s power. Writing for Ahram Online that, while the new constitution nominally gives parliament “unprecedented powers” such as the ability to reshuffle the government and amend the budget, in reality the executive retains extensive influence over Egypt’s legislature.

28 legislators were directly appointed by President Sisi himself. Of the remaining members, the largest bloc come from the “For the Love of Egypt” voting list, made up of independent candidates who are vocal supporters of Sisi’s regime and led by former intelligence official Sameh Seif al-Yazal. Many other members of the bloc are retired state officials and ex-members of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the political party of former President Hosni Mubarak. At least 75 legislators are former police and army officers. There is no meaningful opposition.


Newly elected Speaker of Parliament Ali Abdelaal salutes parliamentarians

For their Speaker of Parliament, the members elected Ali Abdelaal (pictured), a constitutional scholar from Ain Shams University. Abdelaal served on the 10-member committee that drafted Egypt’s 2014 constitution and held variety of official and advisory roles prior to the January 2011 Revolution.

Mahmoud El-Sharif and Soliman Wahdan, both former NDP members, were also elected to serve as his deputies.

The current orientation and outlook of the parliament was made clear by one member from Ismailia, Talaat el-Sewedy, who the New York Times: “People call us felool [a disdainful term toward holdovers from the Mubarak regime] … But I am proud to be felool. There’s nothing wrong with it.”

Parliament’s pro-regime agenda

Despite Egypt’s many pressing challenges, including a currency crisis and a violent insurgency, the first item on the new parliament’s agenda is to review the nearly 400 laws and decrees issued by President Sisi and the Supreme Committee for Legislative Reform in the four years since the previous parliament’s dissolution. Article 156 of the constitution instructs the legislature to either approve or reject these laws within 15 days of its first meeting.

Given that timetable, many analysts fear that the legislature will be forced to approve most of the decrees with little or no debate. Ziad Bahaa-Eldin, writing for Ahram Online, at least 201 such laws that he believes the parliament will pass more or less perfunctorily, “due to the difficulty of reversing their effects”. Mai El-Sadany, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Foreign Policy that such a move “sets a precedent that the parliament exists to symbolically approve the actions of the executive”.

Among the hundreds of laws issued since 2012, there are several that observers warn threaten political freedoms and civil society. Among these are laws that regulate public protests, allow trials of civilians by military tribunals, and limit foreign funding of Egyptian organizations, which critics claim is targeted at civil society organizations.

Other controversial laws passed in the interim limit pay increases to civil service employees and make it harder to challenge the awarding of state contracts. In a statement, Human Rights Watch has called on Egypt’s parliament to “revoke the laws banning protests and expanding military court jurisdiction, and write legislation to cancel all prison sentences handed down under these laws”.

Despite these and other demands that the most divisive laws be repealed, Egypt’s parliament approved a controversial anti-terrorism law that allows for civilians to be tried in military courts, applies harsh penalties for terrorism-related offenses, and shields the military and police. The law passed earlier this week with 457 votes in favor.

Parliament unlikely to check executive power

These days, President Sisi is trying to make the case to foreign investors and his own people that his brand of authoritarianism, while it may limit short-term political freedoms, can push through economic reforms that deliver long-term stability and prosperity. As columnist Thomas Friedman the model in a piece about China’s one-party rule: “That one party can just impose the politically difficult but critically important policies needed to move a society forward”.

But while that model did work for China (for now), it created nascent economic and political crises that led to the 2010-2011 revolutions in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Syria. For decades under former Egyptian President Mubarak, the NDP-dominated parliament was little more than a rubber stamp for the autocrat’s agenda. That formula ended up benefiting those in power and politically connected businessmen but largely bypassed average Egyptians.

The situation appears just as bad, if not worse, in Egypt today. To his credit, President Sisi did indeed push through unpopular but important reforms, such as those of Egypt’s unsustainable food and energy subsidies. But unchecked executive power, endemic corruption, and burdensome regulations will ultimately prevent ordinary Egyptians from benefiting from Sisi’s reforms.

So while the prospect of political and economic stability may be tantalizing, foreign investors should recall recent history in assessing Egypt’s long-term prospects.

About Author

David Wille

David Wille works for a research center affiliated with George Mason University, where he is pursuing an MA in economics. Prior to graduate school, David was a retail banking research analyst at a Virginia-based consulting company and was a Fulbright Scholar in Egypt until 2011. He writes about the political economy of the Middle East.