The year 2015 will mark the official end of the transitional period in Egypt with the transfer of the legislative authority from the presidency to an elected parliament. Elections will begin on 21 March and last until early May in the case of a second round-up poll.
Since the removal of former president Mohamed Morsi on 3 July 2013, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and former interim president Adly Mansour assumed both legislative and executive powers, and issued hundreds of decrees and laws.
Parliamentary elections are the third and final step of the roadmap that was announced to achieve democratic transition. After months of delay and two years of political ambiguity, there is much to expect in terms of democracy and political stability from the next parliament.
Similarly, there are challenges. Yousry Al-Azabawy, a political expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies stated that one of the challenges is knowing to what extent this parliament will have an influential representative force. Will the president respect and accept the legitimacy of the parliament and the power that derives from it?
“This also depends on the seriousness of its members and their willingness to accomplish things. It is also the people’s responsibility to make good choices,” Azabawy argued. “Bear in mind that since the revolution of 25 January, and then 30 June, people have not seen any concrete results they can consider ‘fruits’ of the revolution,” he continued.
Yet, Azabawy said he does not believe the public acquired enough political maturity to choose parliamentary figures that would truly represent the will of the nation. At the same time, political parties remain weak in terms of popularity and political leadership, according to political expert Salah Abdullah, also a former MP and member of the opposing Labour Party in the parliament of 1987, under the government of Hosni Mubarak.
Political confusion ahead of the elections raises doubts on the motives of politicians in really serving the people, according to Salah. He strongly believes the next parliament will be “less inclined to pursue the people’s interests and more likely to serve the purposes of the state.”
Political and human freedoms
Farid Zahran, co-founder and vice-president of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) said he is concerned about the prospects for a real democratic transition and added that he suspects that the new MPs will not monitor the ministries’ performance. “They will be aspiring for money and power, in addition to serving their relatives, or the people of their constituency who voted for them,” Zahran said.
As a result, as Abdullah put it, this would turn the new legislature into a “parliament of necessity,” which comes in order to serve specific purposes related to the state’s current agenda: the “pretend” completion of the roadmap, the signing of international protocols, and the approval of laws and decrees passed in the transitional period.
Once elected, the parliament will be tasked with reviewing pending laws and decisions, including hundreds of laws and presidential decrees passed since former interim president Adly Mansour announced a constitutional declaration on in July 2013 and up to the present day.
That period has been marked by “controversial laws awaiting the parliament,” as described by state-run newspaper Al-Ahram in an article on 24 December 2014. These decrees need to be approved by the parliament upon its election in order to remain effective.
Some of these have sparked international controversy with regards to human rights. The security rhetoric has been used over and over to justify the crackdown on freedom of assembly and expression, and restrictions imposed on activists and civil society actors, most notably by the passing of more restraints on NGOs and the controversial Protest Law, human rights organisations said.
In preparation for Egypt’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the UN last November, the Forum of Independent Egyptian Human Rights Organizations (EIPR), comprised of 19 organisations, published a joint report declaring a dramatic deterioration in the status of human rights over the past four years.
A lack of political will continues to be the main reason for the deterioration of rights and freedoms. All of the successive governments since 2010 have violated various rights, including freedom of peaceful assembly and expression, the report said.
“The parliament is likely to be on the same page as the presidency on issues related to political freedoms, given the war on terror narrative that energises the political mainstream at present,” according to H.A. Hellyer, British political expert, non-resident fellow at the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in DC and in International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.
Experts confirm the interference of the state’s security bodies and the armed forces in the decision-making process driven by the war on terrorism.
“Judging by the present attitude of most political parties on these different laws that pertain to governance and human rights, it seems dubious to expect much in the way of change in the next parliament,” Hellyer stated.
Political dispersal and president
Since presidential elections were completed and Al-Sisi swore in last June, political parties have put considerable effort into forming electoral alliances. “Parties are trying to partner, mainly through joint lists of candidates because their chances are scarce in winning seats on their own,” argues Abdullah who believes they lack support in the streets.
Four major electoral coalitions appear on the political scene nowadays, each grouping numerous parties but parties are in continuous fluctuation and discord. A recent example would be the withdrawal of three parties from the Egyptian Front Coalition, due to disputes over chosen candidates to run for elections.
With the exception of the Democratic Current Alliance, the three others (Al-Wafd, Al-Istiqlal and the Egyptian Front Coalition) do not necessarily reflect alliances between similar political ideologies. For example, before withdrawing, leftist Al-Tagammu Party joined the Egyptian Front Coalition led by former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq’s party, among other figures from the Mubarak regime.
In general, four currents appear to frame Egyptian politics: liberal, socialist, Islamist, and nationalist. Yet, many groups with the same ideologies established different political parties, often with very similar names. Many of their leaders are businessmen and former politicians, with financial resources governing the strength of their party.
On 12 and 13 January, Al-Sisi influenced the prospects by demanding to sit with party leaders. In the meeting, politicians asked if he was going to support Mubarak-era prime minister Kamal El-Ganzoury and his electoral list for parliamentary elections, as the government’s representative candidates.
Al-Sisi’s reported answer was ‘no’ and that his stance was going to remain neutral, unless all political groups came under one coalition, which he would in that case support. Since then, a number of political parties, led by Al-Wafd Party, have been trying to compete against El-Ganzoury’s list, with their officials using the phrase reported by media as “forming one coalition in response to Al-Sisi’s call”.
The involvement of Al-Sisi sets further political challenges, mainly because unlike his precedents, Al-Sisi does not have his own political party, which leaves his political views unclear. But experts on the matter are divided between the situation’s pros and cons.
Bassem Kamel, a senior member of ESDP, views the parliament as part of the government that ‘naturally’ leads to coordination between the different authorities in Egypt.
“People always speak of the government, forgetting that the parliament is part of the government. For one thing, the next parliament will designate the ministers,” Kamel said, explaining that their selection should be based on ‘coordination with experts’ in the different fields, including advising members of the state’s national security council.
Furthermore, Nagy El-Shehaby, president of Al-Geel Democratic Party, and a member of the Egyptian Front Coalition who met with Al-Sisi, argued that it is not effective to have a parliament working against the president, adding that coordination will be the best strategy to serve the nation’s interests.
“Still, coordination between the presidency and the parliament does not cancel out the monitoring role of the parliament on the executive branch’s performance,” Shehaby explained.
When asked about potential disagreement between the presidency’s security agenda and laws on political freedoms, Shehaby said: “A compromise solution would be reached; there will be no clashing.”
On the other hand, Zahran said he sees a problem in the absence of a political programme on behalf of the president during his candidacy, as well as his non-consultation with politicians on a regular basis after becoming president.
“The only political affiliation we know of is that he is against the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Zahran. “It is it problematic for the concept of building a modern democratic civil state. We are left with the state’s practices in matters of democracy and human rights, in addition to goodwill and promising statements by Al-Sisi, to try and define some sort of political vision.”
Similarly, Abdullah explained that the concept of the parliament lies on the idea of political debate, enhanced by the usual presence of a ruling party and an opposition force. “If everyone is supporting the government and opposition is absent, then MPs are nothing more than state employees,” he said.
So far, politicians’ speeches have been positive regarding the presidential meeting. Abdullah, who considered the “quest for a united coalition” the first ‘unofficial presidential order’, fears politicians are trying to fill that gap and become the government’s endorsement.
Therefore, Abdullah described Al-Sisi’s management of the political scene as an unofficial one-party system. “Party leaders will now unite for seats, not for vision. Members will be driven by seeking personal benefits, which the people will soon realise and object to, especially when economic problems add to it: the poor will be angry that nobody speaks in their defence.”
Politicians are facing challenges to obtain parliamentary seats as competition is harder on individual seats, where candidates rely on wide electoral campaigns and networks of connections.
The parliament will be composed of a total of 567 seats divided as following: 420 to be elected as individual candidates, 120 to be elected among a list of candidates and 27 to be directly appointed by the president.
The president is responsible for calling for the first session of the elected parliament to be held, but is not legally bound by a specific time frame. Ramy Mohsen, chairman of the non-governmental National Center for Research and Consulting (NCRC) in parliamentary affairs, said that usually the president orders the first session within a week or two.
“If he does not however, the parliament holds its first session by the power of law in the second week of June,” Mohsen explains. Next, the president makes his proposal of a prime minister to the parliament, whom if approved by absolute majority is to choose the ministers.
Should the parliament reject the president’s suggested prime minister, the group that holds the majority seats will nominate another person, but if the majority of votes come against, the parliament is to be dissolved.
Meanwhile, Zahran believes there are attempts to crack down on political life. “The media raised the slogan of ‘let the man [Al-Sisi] work, political debates should remain silent in order not to obstruct the path to safety and stability’,” Zahran commented, explaining that some media figures took responsibility for speaking in the presidency’s name by shaping a public opinion unfavourable for democracy and focusing on the country’s need for security.
For his part, Zahran believes there is an oppressive state policy towards democracy which finds its roots in the Nasser regime. “The regime considered and then promoted allegations that democracy is only talk and inevitably leads to a waste of time and chaos. The democratic political process through which a competition is waged between parties divides the people and weakens the country, they said,” Zahran wrote in an op-ed.
Zahran commented by stating that a careful reading of his comparisons will show that similarities could be found between Nasser’s and the current regime, but that there were also many differences, because he considered Al-Sisi’s meeting with politicians a positive initiative, despite coming late.
Supporting his views with the argument of the weakness of political parties in popularity and political leadership, Abdullah worries most about the absence of an oppositional voice, and judges the current political parties as being closer to chaos than diversity, blaming this on Egyptian regimes which work against building a real political life.
“After the dissolution of the two significant political parties, the National Democratic Party (NDP) – Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party – and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), we found ourselves in a situation of political gap. This has origins in the previous regimes,” said Abdullah, who was a member of the parliament in 1987.
There were three political forces represented in the parliament: NDP, Al-Wafd Party and the Labour Party, Abdullah recalls. “It was a strong parliament, with at least 120 opposition members, and that is why Mubarak killed it,” he said. The parliament of 1987 was set to be held for five years, but Mubarak dissolved it three years earlier on the grounds that it was unconstitutional.
The next parliament has the right to call for the stepping down of the president through a public referendum, but risks being dissolved if people vote in favour of his stay, Mohsen stated.
On the other hand, the president has the same authority but not the same risks, and if the public referendum votes against the continuation of the parliament, a new one should be elected within 60 days, during which the president assumes legislative power.
A further trend to observe during in the parliamentary elections would be the ‘Islamist’ movement and how it is going to be shaped in the aftermath of Morsi’s removal with most of their political groups banned.
Azabawy expects that new, unofficial Muslim Brotherhood figures will run as independent candidates with little disclosure about their affiliation, but said he was certain voters’ preferences have switched against the MB over the past year.
Meanwhile, Al-Nour Salafi Party remains the only major party with a religious background that intends to run for the elections. It is not yet clear whether the party will establish coalitions or other types of informal alliances with other political parties competing in the election.