The Egyptian parliament begins its third legislative session next week after a three-month respite. Al-Ahram newspaper sat down with speaker Ali Abdel-Aal to discuss the chamber's biggest challenges, achievements and its interaction with the government.
Al-Ahram daily newspaper (AN): What do you think of the parliament's performance in its second session?
Ali Abdel-Aal (AA): The second round saw unprecedented legislative and regulatory activity, although time was tight and there was a very busy agenda of critical and sensitive issues that needed thorough scrutiny. Some 219 economic, political and social laws were ratified.
AN: What do you think about those laws?
AA: This is the largest number of laws an Egyptian parliament has ever ratified [in a single parliamentary session]. A number of other bills are still to be discussed in the house's next three rounds. We have passed several laws on citizens' services, including a law granting state employees a number of exceptional bonuses to help them manage the rise in prices, a law on pensions, and another on health insurance for schoolchildren.
With regards to reviving the country's economy, parliament passed the investment law and another piece of legislation on licenses for industrial facilities.
On health, parliament passed a law on health insurance for schoolchildren, another on the National Authority for Food Safety, and another on advertising health products. All such laws filled the legislative void previously found in these areas.
Other laws on national security and counter-terrorism have been passed, including the criminal procedures law, the terrorist entities law, the terrorism law, the protest law, and the emergency law. Other key laws include one on combating illegal immigration, another regulating the work of the media and the press, and another on the media personnel union.
I regret that media has not highlighted the house's activity and what it has offered to citizens, and has only focused on the negatives.
AN: Are you satisfied with the house’s performance, as much of the public have not yet seen the outcome of the new laws?
AA: The current house is made up of members of diverse ideologies, most of whom have little legislative experience, which can only be gained through practice. The chamber's performance has improved in its second round and I expect it to get better in the third round.
We work under very tough conditions while running up a budget deficit that does not allow us to achieve all that we aspire to.
Also, Egyptians must be patient and wait for some time before they see the outcome of recently passed legislation.
AN: Why do you think the parliament has not used one of its main regulatory roles, i.e. inquiry, during its second round?
AA: Inquiry is one of the biggest and most dangerous powers of parliament. It means levelling accusations of insufficiency or violation at a member of the government, and can only be carried out under certain legal conditions.
More important than the inquiry is the result. Many previous parliaments have conducted inquiries for hours. But did they ever dismiss a minister or hold them accountable? The current parliament, however, pressured a minister to resign [the supply minister resigned in 2016] without an inquiry, and following results produced by a fact-finding committee only.
AN: There is a state of discontent among the public with the parliament's performance in monitoring the government in many areas. Some believe the chamber has not sided with the people with regard to the rise in prices. What is your opinion?
AA: Ambitions are high and the government has been struggling to maintain stability since the 2011 revolution. Regional and international conditions have taken their toll on the economies of all countries, something that has made economic reforms an inevitable necessity.
The government is now required to present parliament quarterly reports on its achievements. This is the beginning of true accountability.
The chamber always sides with the Egyptian citizen. The chamber agreed with the government to allocated a EGP 1 billion subsidy for commodities obtained via ration cards, and directed the government to draw a bill to incorporate monies from special funds into the state treasury to bolster it, and it was signed into law in the last session. We also urged the government to increase the prices at which farmers sell key crops, including rice, sugar cane, wheat and cotton, in a bid to ease the burden on farmers and help them keep pace with rising prices.
AN: The maritime demarcation agreement with Saudi Arabia was one of parliament's biggest challenges. How did you deal with criticism of the chamber at the time?
AA: Under Article 151 of the Egyptian constitution, parliament has the final say in international agreements. This is dictated by the principle of separation of powers, which must be respected; we do not accept any undermining of the powers of the chamber.
The agreement was ratified in accordance with the constitution, as was the case with dozens of other international conventions. This is not the first time the Egyptian state has signed demarcation agreements.
AN: The previous parliamentary session saw constant arguments with opposition members, which was regarded by some as undermining their right to express their opinion because they are not a majority; what do you think about this?
AA: I do not undermine the right of the opposition. I am sometimes even criticised for complimenting the minority and giving them more room than others. Disagreement between the majority and minority is healthy in any democratic parliament. The final say is that of the majority and should be respected by everyone without commenting, as prescribed by the chamber's bylaws.
The minority sometimes does not accept the results of a vote and attempts to impose its opinion by force. I try not to allow any side to step on the other side's rights.
Al-Ahram daily newspaper (AN): How do you evaluate the role the Support Egypt coalition [an alliance of over 400 pro-government MPs] plays in parliament?
Ali Abdel-Aal: I think the alliance is doing a good job. The members have a sense of patriotism and are aware of their responsibility and the challenges facing the country. The members are still lacking some traits, given that they are new to the legislature, that I hope they will develop in the future.
AN: What are the weaknesses of the parliament that you would like to overcome in the next legislative session?
AA: The delay of some sittings and the absence of some members are the two things that disrupt the work of parliament the most and result in it not performing its legislative tasks in time. Some bills cannot be ratified without the requisite quorum of lawmakers. Some lawmakers fail to show up due to other tasks they need to perform at different ministries. We plan to request the government set times for such things, other than those of the chamber's sessions.
AN: Some observers believe the parliament has trespassed on the judiciary by passing the judicial authority law, on judicial appointments to top courts. What do you think?
AA: The three authorities [the executive, legislative and judiciary] enjoy complete independence. Parliament monitors the government while enacting laws that are binding for all once issued, yet it is not in charge of the administration. The chamber performs one of the main elements of its power i.e. enacting law. Amendments made to the judicial authority law are at the heart of the work of the chamber. They do not undermine the independence or the functions of the judiciary. The amendments are purely organisational, regarding the selection of heads of those judicial bodies. We can compare the texts before and after the amendments to see whether judicial independence was undermined.
AN: What about the new criminal procedures law?
AA: The government is currently reviewing final amendments to the law, which will then be sent to the parliament. The chamber's legislative committee has already started holding sessions to discuss the draft bill, to save time until it is ready. In its last session, the parliament passed a bill introduced by ten members which made necessary amendments to the law.
AN: Some observers believe the parliament's approval of the International Monetary Fund loan is unconstitutional because it came after the deal with the fund was made. What do you think?
AA: The IMF deal is an economic reform programme, presented by the government to the fund to ask for financial facilitation to carry out the programme. As a contributor to the fund, Egypt is entitled like all other countries to borrow. If the deal is regarded an international argument, then--as prescribed by the constitution--it has to be sent to parliament for approval. If it is regarded as a loan, the executive authority, likewise, cannot obtain loans without approval from the legislative authority.
This means there is no violation of the constitution either way. There is no doubt though that ideally, the deal should have been sent to the parliament once signed without any delay. I believe this is what the government recognized later. We had no other choice given the current pressing economic conditions but to put in place an economic reform programme, rather than resort to high-interest borrowing that would push foreign debt up.
AN: The relationship between parliament and the media has been tense recently; why is that and does criticism of the chamber anger you?
AA: We support freedom of opinion and accept constructive criticism, yet with respect for the chamber's prestige and status. Egyptian citizens have the right to a professional media. Professionalism means addressing positives and negatives with the same enthusiasm and speed. We demand only objectivity, professionalism, and that the public interest is kept in mind.
AN: You previously talked about your plan to write your memoirs, which you said will make reference to organised conspiracies against parliament? What are they?
AA: There had been persistent attempts to prevent the formation of this parliament. When the parliament was elected, many plots were hatched to create a negative image of it in Egypt and abroad, and to distance it from the public. I have tried to rescue the parliament from such malicious attempts. I will reveal the magnitude of these plots and the challenges we faced to foil them when the time is right.
AN: How do you evaluate the government's performance?
AA: The government needs to accomplish a lot under very difficult conditions. The government seeks to serve the interests of citizens and satisfy them amid tough economic conditions. The path to development is long.
AN: Does the government work to carry out parliament’s recommendations on all issues? Is there coordination between parliament and the government?
AA: The government seeks to carry out our recommendations within available appropriations and within the ratified general budget. We are striving to create a climate of cooperation and coordination between the chamber and the government. In fact, Minister of the House of Representatives Omar Marwan largely performs such a role.
AN: How do you see the disagreement between the government and parliament over the investment law? Do you expect the law to attract more investment?
AA: The main aim of the new investment law is to reduce stifling red tape, making business easier for investors and creating a “one-stop shop.” The disagreement over who issues the executive regulations for the new law was settled quickly afterwards, and it was agreed that the prime minister would do so. I expect the investment law to work out well under current Egypt’s Investment Minister Sahar Nasr.
AN: What is the role of the legislative authority in Egypt's fight against terrorism?
AA: Parliament plays a significant role in the fight against terrorism, mainly by enacting laws that guarantee prompt justice. We have ratified a number of laws in this regard, including amendments to the criminal procedures law, procedures of appeal before the Court of Cassation, the terrorist entities law, the terrorism law, as well as amendments to the emergency laws.
These laws will speed up the prosecution of those involved in terrorist crimes.
Al-Ahram newspaper (AN): Will parliament play any role, either locally or abroad, to uncover terrorism-supporting countries?
Ali Abdel-Aal (AA): Internally, parliament's role is mainly enacting counter-terrorism legislation to guarantee swift justice and hold those involved in terrorist crimes accountable. We deliver Egypt's point of view to the world by communicating with parliaments in other countries.
AN: What message do you want to give to Egyptians struggling with soaring prices?
AA: The role of parliament is to address the struggle of citizens through laws and control measures. We have called on the government to ensure tight control of markets, to curb exploitation by traders and unreasonable price rises.
AN: Raising fuel prices had provoked a huge public outcry. Why did parliament not pressure the government to postpone the move?
AA: Lifting the subsidy is the bitter remedy for accumulating economic woes brought by policies of successive governments. The subsidising of petrol, diesel and cooking gas has eaten up much of the state expenditures. Political reforms have been put off for decades. Confronting the people with the truth of the crisis and the means to overcome it is the only way out.
AN: Will parliament draft legislation to combat online terrorist crimes?
AA: The chamber is currently looking at a bill on online terrorist crimes submitted by a number of members. The government is also drafting another law in this regard which it will send to parliament once finished. It will be at the top of our priorities during the coming session.
AN: Almost a year after the flotation of the pound, do you think the aim of the move has been achieved? When do you think we can go back to a fixed currency rate?
AA: Floating the currency is one of the most difficult and dangerous economic decisions; it has a far-reaching impact on the country's economic structure as well as other social and political aspects. The move was necessary to have a fixed currency price, regain confidence of local and foreign investors and lure back investment.
It's healthier for investment when the exchange rate is set according to supply and demand without interference from the state.
AN: Do you think the Egyptian economy can recover given the large budget deficit and soaring inflation?
AA: Certainly the Egyptian economy is beginning to recover. Concerted efforts from the government, parliament and the people are needed to achieve quicker recovery, which I expect will take place very soon.
AN: During its last round, parliament set up committees tasked with carrying out field visits to border governorates. A year and a half later, no changes have been made in such areas. How do you view the efficacy of these committees?
AA: Such regions have been neglected for decades. The current parliament is the first to give this magnitude of attention to those areas.
Overcoming decades-long problems needs time and an increase in the money earmarked for these areas. Recommendations produced by the committees have been submitted to the government. We constantly follow up with the government to see them carried out.
AN: Why hasn’t parliament passed the local administration law governing the operation of municipalities?
AA: The law aims to combat rampant corruption across municipalities. It is highly important and therefore needs careful consideration and a national dialogue, something that we did not have the time to do during the previous round. It will be one of the main priorities during the next round.
AN: What do you think about criticism directed at the parliament that it has violated the constitution by not passing major laws, including those on transitional justice and the resettlement of the Nubian people?
AA: Such laws tackle thorny issues and therefore require broad social consensus and certain political conditions. Not passing laws in a certain time does not contravene the constitution. It's better to wait if a piece of legislation does not enjoy social consensus.
AN: What is the chamber's legislative agenda like in the next round?
AA: There are a number of major laws that will be looked at. These included one on the rights of people with special needs, another on regulating the operation of press and media, the criminal procedures law, the customer protection law, the municipalities law, the labour law, the syndicates and labour unions law, the youth law and others.
AN: How do you view the role of parliament in its third session, which will coincide with the next presidential elections?
AA: Under Article 142 of the constitution, 20 members or more can name a presidential candidate and the chamber's bylaws define the mechanism for doing so.
AN: How do you view Egypt's political landscape and political parties?
AA: A large number of political parties came to light following the revolutions of January 2011 and June 2013, many of which had limited experience in public work. This parliament helps those entities merge into single bigger blocs. We do not need many parties, we need effective parties.
Al-Ahram daily newspaper (AN): How do you view demands for complete judicial supervision of elections?
AA: The Egyptian constitution requires full judicial supervision for ten years. The country was going through exceptional circumstances when the constitution was drafted and this is why it prescribed full judicial supervision for ten years from the time of ratifying the charter.
The National Election Commission is an independent body and having full judicial supervision indefinitely is unacceptable and would disrupt the work of the judiciary.
AN: How do you view Egypt's international role at the current time?
AA: Egypt's regional and international role was somewhat diminished in the wake of the January 2011 and the July 2013 revolutions.
In a short time, nevertheless, Egypt has managed to get back on track. Egypt was elected a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and is now member of the Security Council and the Peace and Security Council of the African Union.
Egypt also chairs the Committee of African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC). Egypt has bolstered its ties with the major world's powers and highlighted to the international community its leading role in fighting terrorism.
Foreign visits by parliamentary delegations have also played a major role in enhancing Egypt's image abroad and delivering facts about the situation in Egypt. Most of the visits followed invitations we received which reflects an interest of foreign countries to get to know the truth about the situation in Egypt.
During trips by MPs to take part in regional and international conferences, Egyptian lawmakers were named in major international positions, including my membership of the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Also, the Egyptian parliament currently chairs the Parliamentary Assembly - Union for the Mediterranean. All this does contribute to bolstering Egypt's parliamentary diplomacy.
AN: What about rulings the parliament has not upheld?
AA: The parliament is keen to respect and uphold all judicial rulings, unless there are obstacles to upholding verdicts. In such cases, careful scrutiny of the verdict is required to identify the process of upholding it pursuant to the constitution.
AN: How do you see this month's Human Rights Watch report about Egypt?
AA: Human rights are always a politicised issue that is being used to exercise pressure. The report tackled human rights violations in the US as well, but put the spotlight on Egypt nevertheless.
We can confront such means of pressure or foreign agendas to undermine the country by national unity. Media also play a major role in this regard.
AN: Speaking about unity may jar with the current struggle of Egyptians in their daily lives. What do you think?
AA: Egypt has been through tougher phases, including in the wake of the 1967 and the 1973 wars. Only national unity among the people will allow us to always overcome foreign plots.