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Five challenges facing Egypt's forthcoming parliament

Ayat Al Tawy , Wednesday 16 Dec 2015
Parliament
Egyptian parliament in Cairo, Monday, July 9, 2012 (AP )
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Egypt has elected a long-awaited parliament that is due to convene later this month, following over three years of a parliamentary vacuum since a court dissolved a 2012 legislature.

With a widely criticised set of laws governing the parliament amid years-long political turmoil since the 2011 uprising, the chamber's job is not expected to be a smooth one.

Here is an overview of five major challenges observers say the parliament is set to tackle:

Threat of dissolution

Several analysts say there is a menace of declaring parts of a law defining voting districts invalid, and in turn dissolving the 596-member body. There have been concerns about a fair and balanced representation of candidates (number of seats) in proportion to the number of voters in electoral districts, with many saying elections could be legally questioned on this basis.

"Some constituencies have one candidate while others are represented by three or four candidates," said Yousri al-Azabawy, head of the Election Forum at the Al Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies.

"This way, a voter is entitled to vote for a candidate in a given district while another votes for two and another for three, meaning a citizen would be represented by an MP while another is represented by two or more."

"This contravenes the [2014] constitution that prescribes equality between citizens in terms of parliamentary representation."

Others say an additional loophole is that another election law defining quotas set for minorities -- including Christians and women --have overlooked Jews, violating the country's charter that recognises the "three heavenly religions."

"The law can be flawed for apartheid as parliament has eliminated a sect of society that the constitution acknowledges, setting aside a quota for Christians and neglecting Jews," said Fouad Abdel Naby, constitutional law professor at Menoufiya University.

Egypt's last parliament under deposed president Mohamed Morsi was dissolved after a court ruled its election unconstitutional. The court said at the time the law governing the poll breached the principle of equality when it allowed party members to run for seats allotted for independents.

Legislative challenge

Pursuant to the Egyptian constitution, the chamber has to review all laws passed in the absence of parliament -- the original legislative authority -- within 15 days so they can continue to be in force.

This will include laws passed since the constitution was endorsed in January 2014 - around a whopping 215 laws, some under interim president Adly Masnour and others under current President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi. These include a number of bills that had been strongly condemned by rights campaigners, including a controversial anti-terrorism bill and another reforming the country's bloated civil service.

Constitutional experts say the president should have kept his temporary legislative power to a minimum, exercising it "only in case of necessity," until a parliament is in place. They say legislators of the charter did not expect the parliamentary void to drag on for over two years.

"It is near impossible in practice to review 215 laws in this period," Minister of Legal Affairs and Parliament Magdy Al-Agaty said in TV comments last month.

"There is a possibility that the legislation is reviewed in essence and then discussed later [in detail]... It's eventually up to the parliament, the holder of power, to decide."

Some observers say another major challenge lies with the fact that Egypt needs a whole new legislative structure, especially for an economy battered by years of political tumult- a tough mission with a chamber said to have few seasoned lawmakers.

Blocs

Unlike the last parliament where Islamists won the biggest bloc with the then ruling Muslim Brotherhood group emerging as the dominant group, this assembly appears void of a majority bloc, an opposition force or a ruling party.

The absence of a clear opposition representation in the parliament has fueled fears that the chamber will have lawmakers not likely to challenge President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and rather act as a rubber stamp.

The perceived lack of cohesion between members has been blamed on a widely-criticised election system that allotted 75 percent of parliament seats for individuals and 20 percent for the winner-takes-all list that critics have said would produce a weak body and open door for patronage politics.

Critics say such composition of incoherent political ideologies will negatively affect lawmaking of economic and civil legislation in particular.

"Members will act as though each is an isolated island," constitutional law professor Maged Shebaita said.

"There won't be a major clear ideology. You will have some capitalist members, other socialists, some farmers, each promoting a different economic or social vision."

Government

Once in place, the parliament is required to endorse the current government within a month, if it did not win the chamber's trust, the party or the coalition of the largest parliamentary bloc has to nominate a government head. If the new cabinet is not approved within another 30 days, the parliament will be dissolved.

Observers expect a coalition formed by a former pro-government intelligence officer and comprising of almost two thirds of MPs to overwhelmingly vote in favor of the government.

They say the composition of a parliament of scattered, mostly weakly represented parties would already make unanimity on a new government very difficult.

"In the absence of a majority bloc, the many disjointed parties of different ideologies would fail to agree on a new cabinet," Shebaita said.

A cabinet reshuffle would, however, constitute a middle ground between government critics and those backing it, he added.

Naming a speaker

Many observers say it's highly likely that the head of parliament be named from the 28 presidential appointees who make up 5 percent of the seats.

The 2014 constitution has made both elected and appointed MPs equal in this regard. But critics say naming a head from the president's appointees would undermine people's votes for their representatives.

Those in favour of the move say it will bring old hands at constitution and law-making fit to be the state's "second-in-command."

Prospective candidates are said to include the likes of former interim president Adly Mansour and Amr Moussa, who served as the head of the committee that drafted Egypt's current constitution.

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