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Engineering Egypt's parliament: Stability at a cost

The likely emergence of a strong pro-state bloc in Egypt's new parliament may aid with passing swift legislation, but comes at a cost to democratisation and robust governmental supervision

Mohamed Shuman , Thursday 31 Dec 2015
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From the outside, away from reading the numbers and the details, the results of the parliamentary elections that were conducted lately seem very positive.

There was no direct interference from the administrative bodies or systematic rigging, helping entrench the principles of integrity and transparency. Manifestations of electoral violence vanished and representatives from 19 parties (from a total of 103 parties) became parliament members occupying 43 per cent of the total number of parliamentary seats against 57 per cent for independents.

The parliament enjoys, according to the constitution, unprecedented powers: to have the vote of confidence over the government, power to reshuffle it, dismiss its head, impose a state of emergency, and declare war. The parliament also has the right to amend the budget and withdraw confidence from the president, though the conditions are stringent.

But beside the above truths, other phenomena must be mentioned, some of which relate to the extent of legitimacy in parliamentary representation of the social and political forces of all Egyptians. The turnout in both stages did not exceed 28.3 percent of total voters.

This occurred for many reasons: namely, political divisions and polarisation in society; absence of politics and reduction of public space; as well as flaws in the elections law. All this allowed political money to be present, committing violations in media coverage and the media campaigns of the candidates.

The irony is that the High Elections Committee (HEC) did not move against this, or hold violators accountable (many of which became parliament members), although the elections law grants it this right.

Thus, the elections with its two stages witnessed violations and vote buying leading to a parliament lacking factors for success in playing its legislative and supervisory roles. The standpoints of the majority of its members are shrouded in mystery with regard to many issues, although they declare limitless support for President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and his policies.

In this context we can discuss two assumptions. The first is that there is an extent of change and continuity in electoral conflict balances and the shape of forces that decide its results. For the Muslim Brotherhood was absent and in spite of this the state role in the elections continued while the form and the content changed. State interference became soft and indirect. A few businessmen who have wealth and own private satellite channels attempted to inherit the Brotherhood role, with a difference in objectives. Thus, there are two competing poles: first, businessmen opposing the state and the military's interference in the economy; second, the traditional and renewed if changing role of the state.

We can say that the indirect role of some state bodies crystallised in supporting the "For the Love of Egypt" list, which included a miscellany of businessmen, former members in the National Democratic Party (NDP) and retired state officials. The list won all the seats allocated to the lists’ quota, numbering 120, which is the equivalent of almost 21.6 per cent of total parliament seats.

Moreover, these bodies participated in establishing and supporting the Future of the Homeland Party, is headed by a youth 24 years old. This party succeeded, by the help of some security bodies, in making dozens of former parliament members join and getting generous support from businessmen backing the state and its role in the economy. The party won 51 seats to be the second largest force in number of seats after the Free Egyptians Party, which gained 65 seats while the long-established Al-Wafd Party won 32.

The Future of the Homeland Party as well as the For the Love of Egypt list were keen that the youth, women and Copts have larger representation in a way that surpasses the NDP experience, due to differences in societal and political circumstances.

In spite of this, there are those who see this as a kind of circumvention of realities on the ground. The majority of the party’s youth belong to big families and include the sons of businessmen. The irony is that the average age among members of the Future of the Homeland Party, which is supposed to represent the youth, is the highest among the parties' parliamentary members. Moreover, Christians and women who are close to the regime are from among those who did not participate in the 2011 revolution.

In all cases, there is noticeable progress in the soft hegemony of the state in the parliamentary elections, one that cannot be compared to the rough interference and overt rigging the NDP was responsible for during Hosni Mubarak’s rule, the NDP being the state party — integrated into it and deriving its power from it.

As for the second pole in the elections, there are no strong parties or attractive ideas and it is hard to describe because it is a blend of forces and personalities who defend the free economy and the reduction of the state's role accompanied by some liberal slogans it will forsake if they clash with its economic interests, or if it gains economic privileges from the state, as was the case during Mubarak's era.

This pole has gone through the elections relying largely and obviously on money and media. It collected candidates that were not included in the "For the Love of Egypt" list, offering them forms of support exceeding what was permissible in the elections law, which is half a million pounds (around $70 thousand) per candidate. The founder of the Free Egyptians Party, the financier Naguib Sawiris, did not conceal his financial support for party candidates. He declared clearly his refusal of state interference in the economy and the private satellite channel that he owns presented unlimited support to his party's candidates, in violation to the HEC's instructions. The satellite channel owned by businessman Al-Sayyid Al-Badawi, Al-Wafd Party president, also did this.

The second assumption: the existence of a strong relation between distributing forces in the elections and the role of some state bodies, on one the hand, and a growing trend among forces aiming at engineering the political sphere on the other. The ex-general Sameh Seif El-Yazal formed along with some close to the state personalities the "For the Love of Egypt" list, which included representatives from all parties, a number of public figures, state officials and former army and police generals.  

After the elections ended, Seif El-Yazal announced an initiative for forming the "Alliance in Support of the Egyptian State," which was considered as an obvious attempt to include the biggest number of independent members of parliament (57 percent of the members) in order to form a majority bloc supporting the president.

Despite opposition of the Free Egyptians Party and some other parties, all the indicators suggest that the "Alliance in Support of the Egyptian State" is likely to enjoy a comfortable majority in parliament.

Some parties oppose the idea of such an alliance, rejecting the presumption that opposition towards the government equals animosity towrads the state. They raise alternative ideas for forming parliamentary blocs or alliances in order to realise other objectives, such as combating terrorism or supporting development.

In my estimation, Seif El-Yazal will succeed in engineering a parliamentary majority, regardless of the labels or stated objectives of this bloc.

On the other hand, a bloc or coalition of an effective minority of members advocating free economy and linked to a number of businessmen will be formed. This will constitute a "domesticated" opposition to the government. For Naguib Sawiris announced that his party will support the president even if he commits mistakes, because the country is combating terrorism and is in a critical economic stage.

There is a coalition or a small third bloc being formed under the name "Social Justice Coordination" that include some leftist, Nasserite and social liberal members. Regardless of this bloc's name, its existence will guarantee a symbolic presence of the revolution and social justice supporters in the face of the "Alliance in Support of the Egyptian State" and the businessmen bloc.

Finally, I think the parliament may witness other coalitions or blocs. It is difficult to predict the relations between these blocs or coalitions, as they will likely remain mobile and inconstant, adopting standpoints according to each issue or law presented before parliament.

In general, engineering elections and parliamentary performance do not help in democratisation, but they may guarantee stability and swiftness in legislation, which Egypt needs in a number of fields.

Questions remain, however, on the content of such laws and their orientations, on the supervisory role of parliament in light of the weakness of parties, a narrowing public sphere and most importantly the still stumbling economy, widespread unemployment, and the rise in prices.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Egypt (BUE).

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