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Egypt inaugurates toothless upper house

The Islamist-dominated Shura Council – Egypt's consultative upper house – holds an inaugural meeting on Tuesday amid speculation about its future role in political life

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 27 Feb 2012
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Headquarters of the Shura Council (Parliament Upper House) in Downtown Cairo (Photo: Ahram)
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Newly elected members of Egypt’s Shura Council – parliament's consultative upper house – are due to be sworn in on Tuesday.

The inaugural ceremony will take place at a procedural meeting in which the council will also elect a chairman and two deputies.

On the following day, Wednesday, the council will elect the heads of 12 committees and also form its general and ethics committees. Ahmed Fahmi, a leading member of Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) is expected to be elected as chairman of the council, the first Islamist chairman in the Council's 32-year history.

The inaugural procedural meeting of Shura Council comes after one month of two-stage elections which were completed on 22 February, with Islamists emerging victorious winning more than 80 per cent of the seats.

The Islamists are made up of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party. The FJP was able to secure 105 seats (58 per cent) out of total of 180 seats that were up for grabs during the two-stage election.

The Nour party came next, clinching 45 seats (a quarter of the total), while the two liberal-oriented forces of the Wafd Party and the Egyptian Bloc trailed in third and fourth, with just 14 seats (7.7 per cent) and 8 seats (4.4 per cent) respectively.

Islamists swept the polls, gaining 83.3 per cent of the Shura Council while the liberals got a mere 12 per cent. This is a repeat scenario of the election of the People’s Assembly – parliament's lower-house – in which the Islamists got two thirds of the seats, while liberals and independents won the remaining third.

Other forces such as the Freedom Party and the Democratic Peace Party, both offshoots of ousted President Hosni Mubarak's defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) got four seats (2 per cent) in the Shura Council.

Independents won the remaining four seats. All in all, the figures mean that the non-Islamist members form slightly more than 15 per cent of the total 180 contested seats. Given that the total number of Shura Council seats stands at 270 – 180 of which are elected, and 90 appointed – the figures also mean that no force has a complete majority in the Council.

The ceremonial opening session on Tuesday will be attended by the 180 elected members, while the remaining seats will be appointed by Egypt's next president. A new president is expected to inherit power from the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) by the end of June.

As was the case with the People's Assembly in which former secretary-general of FJP Saad El-Katatny was elected speaker of the house, the FJP said one of its leading officials will be nominated to chair the Shura Council.

In a meeting on 26 February, the steering bureau of the FJP decided to nominate its leading member from the Delta governorate of Sharqiya, Ahmed Fahmy, for the post of Shura Council speaker. Fahmy, supported by the majority of the Islamists, is expected to be elected for the post. Two deputy speakers will be also elected on Tuesday; one of them is expected to be drawn from the Salafist Nour party, and the other from the liberal Wafd party, as in the People's Assembly. FJP and Salafist figures are also expected to chair most of the Council’s committees.

Under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the results of the election of Shura Council were almost a foregone conclusion, with the now defunct NDP securing the vast majority of the seats. In the last election of June 2010, the NDP won 95 per cent. No Muslim Brotherhood supported figure won a single seat.  In 2012 – or one year after the January 25 Revolution – it is the Islamists who have emerged victorious, putting an end to the 32-year-old NDP monopoly of the Shura Council, which however still lacks any real legislative or supervisory powers.

With the results of the Shura elections representing another step towards tightening the hold of the Islamists over parliamentary and political life, they also represent a further marginalisation of liberal forces.The Islamists occupy two thirds of seats in the People's Assembly now combined with an even greater a majority of more than 80 per cent in the Shura Council.

This means they will have a significant role in selecting the 100-member constituent assembly tasked with drafting the constitution. The two houses – the 678 elected members of the People’s Assembly and the 180 elected members of the Shura Council – will meet on 3 March to appoint the committee tasked with drafting the constitution. Out of a total of 678, the Islamist deputies in the two houses are numbered at 487 (337 in the People’s Assembly and 150 in Shura Council), thus forming around 70 per cent.

With regard to the Shura elections, FJP chairman Mohamed Morsi said his party took the polls very seriously. “Although other parties were not so keen to contest the Shura polls, we were more than serious in fielding a large number of candidates in all districts,” Morsi told FJP’s daily newspaper. He explained that the “Shura Council was important to us because a number of its members will form a part of the panel entrusted with appointing a 100-member constituent assembly tasked with drafting Egypt’s new constitution.”

In contrast to the FJP, a large number of political forces abstained from fielding candidates, out of a conviction, possibly erroneous, that the Shura Council would be phased out in three years. Many liberal forces, alongside the youth movements associated with the revolution, such as April 6 Youth Movement, launched a hostile campaign against the Shura Council elections. They suggest that Egyptian voters, whose turnout did not exceed 13 per cent, had effectively boycotted the poll, in what they see as a clear message from the electorate that the Shura Council is an insignificant body and it must be abolished.

Abdel-Moez Ibrahim, chairman of the Higher Election Commission (HEC) which was in charge of supervising the Shura polls, said turnout in the Shura ballot was 12.9 per cent. “This does not mean that voters have a negative view of Shura Council,” said Ibrahim, adding that “voters were simply not aware of the roles of the council.”

The Shura Council was created by late President Anwar El-Sadat in 1980 to take charge of regulating the national press and the formation of political parties. The speaker of the Shura Council had also been a de-facto head of the Higher Press Council and the Political Parties Committee. The Council was also entrusted with preparing reports on political and socio-economic issues facing Egypt.

In 2007, it was granted the right to debate laws and the state’s budget but the final say and vote on these two matters remained with the People’s Assembly. Safwat El-Sherif, Mubarak’s strong man who was appointed chair of the Shura Council in 2004, exploited the Council’s few roles to dominate the local press and political parties. El-Sherif stood against licensing Islamist parties and ensured that the local press toe NDP’s line.

El-Sherif is now in jail, facing charges of involvement in the killing of hundreds of peaceful protesters and illegal profiteering.

Responding to criticisms of the Shura Council, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mohamed Attia stressed on 26 February that it will not be annulled.

“The Shura Council should be considered worthy of gaining full supervisory and legislative powers on an equal footing with the People’s Assembly,” said Attia, adding that “the existence of a functioning bicameral system in Egypt ensures the creation of healthy political and democratic life.”

Attia criticised media which launched a hostile campaign against the Shura Council. “The political benefits of an effective Shura Council will far outweigh its financial costs,” said Attia, adding “not to mention its high-quality and prestigious contribution to scientific life.’

Attia attributed the very low turnout rates in Shura elections to the fact that “citizens were greatly exhausted after the three-month-long polls for the People’s Assembly.”

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