Is Egypt's new parliamentary speaker just new spin on old story?

Gamal Essam El-Din , Monday 11 Jan 2016

The election of constitutional law professor Ali Abdel-Al ‎as speaker of Egypt's new parliament was ‎blasted by different independent MPs as an extension ‎of Mubarak-era politics

Ali Abdel-Al
Ali Abdel-Al greets members of parliament after he was elected the speaker of Egypt's parliament during the procedural and opening session at the main headquarters of the parliament in Cairo, Egypt, January 10, 2016 (Reuters)

In a stormy session on Sunday, Ali Abdel-Al, a ‎constitutional law professor, was elected as speaker of ‎Egypt's new parliament.

Although Abdel-Al won the ‎post by winning a two-thirds majority (401 votes), his ‎election was criticised by many independent MPs as ‎continuing the legacy of Hosni Mubarak and his now-defunct ‎ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).‎

According to independent MP and TV ‎anchor Tawfik Okasha, "the election of Abdel-Al was a ‎big mistake because he is an old guard figure who ‎represents an extension of the autocratic politics of the ‎former NDP and even further back, to 60 years ago."‎

Okasha, one of seven MPs who competed for the post of ‎the speaker, told parliamentary reporters on Sunday night ‎that "the election of Abdel-Al should ring alarm bells ‎about the current situation of politics in Egypt." ‎

The well-known media figure argued that MPs, both independent and party members, came under pressure from "higher circles" ‎to elect Abdel-Al in "Mubarak-style" politics.

‎‎"As a result, his election was a foregone ‎conclusion and not a result of a competitive election as ‎we hoped," said Okasha.‎

Okasha described Abdel-Al as highly autocratic person. ‎‎"Compared to the open-minded Fathi Sorour - the ‎longest-serving parliamentary speaker in Egypt's history ‎‎(in post from 1990 to 2010) – Abdel-Al is a hot-tempered professor who ‎cannot easily tolerate rival opinions and this is very ‎dangerous for the future of our new parliament which I ‎fear could collapse in weeks or even months." ‎

Okasha wondered "is this what those who chose him for ‎this post wanted?"

He said the way Abdel-Al ran the first procedural ‎sitting after his election clearly exposes his autocratic ‎instincts. "I was shocked when Abdel-Al refused to ‎allow independent MPs to contradict his interpretation ‎of the constitution by asserting that he is the one who ‎drafted this constitution and that he knows each of its ‎articles by heart," he said.

When he submitted his bid for the post of ‎speaker, Okasha introduced himself as "the voice of the ‎‎30 June revolution" which removed former president ‎Mohamed Morsi from office.

He urged MPs not to ‎elect a constitutional law professor as speaker. "These ‎kind of speakers usually know nothing about popular ‎politics and the only thing they can do is to tailor laws ‎and turn parliaments into rubber-stamping tools," said ‎Okasha.

He nonetheless received just 25 votes, compared to the 401 votes ‎Abdel-Al gained. ‎

Okasha became a member of parliament for the first in ‎‎2010 as an independent but he later joined Mubarak's ‎NDP. The 2010 parliament was quickly dissolved after ‎Mubarak ceded power in 11 February 2011.‎

Agreeing with Okasha, independent MP Kamal Ahmed ‎also slammed the process of electing Abdel-Al as ‎"undemocratic."

Ahmed, who also ran for the speaker's post, said "the ‎election of Abdel-Al was completed in a democratic ‎way but the way he was selected to run for the post of ‎the speaker was undemocratic and reflected a high level ‎of opportunism." ‎

Ahmed, an old-time leftist who got 36 votes, said ‎‎"Abdel-Al was selected by the 'Pro-Egyptian State In ‎Support of Egypt Coalition' which now acts like ‎Mubarak's NDP, and as a result his election came as a ‎foregone conclusion."

"If they had allowed the election ‎of the speaker to be competitive, it would have sent a ‎new democratic message to the outside world."‎

Ahmed, an MP from the city of Alexandria, also slammed ‎Abdel-Al for describing President Abdel-Fattah ‎El-Sisi as "the leader of Egypt's new march."

"This is ‎really an extension of Mubarak-era politics," he said.‎

He did however say that he welcomes the election of ‎Abdel-Al. "Anyway, this is not the time for political ‎feuding and jockeying because Egypt is in a very difficult ‎crisis and parliament should work in harmony to help ‎get it out of this crisis," he said.‎

In a word about his bid for the speaker's post, Abdel-Al ‎said he graduated from Ain Shams ‎University's Faculty of Law in 1972.

"I am a professor of constitutional ‎and administrative law and after I graduated I joined ‎the office of Egypt's prosecutor-general," said Abdel-Al, ‎adding that "I later got a Master's degree [in 1973] ‎and then I received a PhD in constitutional law from ‎the Sorbonne University in Paris [in 1984], and I ‎played a big role in drafting the current constitution of ‎Egypt."‎

Abdel-Al, who is 68 years old and comes from the upper Egypt ‎governorate of Aswan, also said that he acted for a long time ‎as a constitutional advisor to the emir of Kuwait, and ‎that he drafted the constitution of Ethiopia in 1993.

‎Abdel-Al's resume also shows that he worked for some ‎time as a cultural attaché at Egypt's embassy in France ‎in 1987.

Abdel-Al has written a number of different books on law and ‎parliaments, including a work titled The Political and Legal Ramifications of the Disbanding of Parliaments.‎

Once elected speaker, Abdel-Al lashed out at two ‎independent MPs – Ihab El-Khouli and Hesham Magdi – ‎who challenged his interpretation of the constitution, telling them: "I am the one who drafted this ‎constitution and I know all of its articles by heart."‎

Abdel-Al said he will do his best to be neutral and ‎to give all MPs the floor to express their opinion.‎

Emad Gad, a political analyst and MP affiliated with ‎the Free Egyptians Party, told reporters that he differs ‎with Okasha and Ahmed.

"The election of Abdel-Al ‎reflected a high level of competition and it was never ‎a foregone conclusion," said Gad, arguing that "in all countries, parliamentary blocs aim to reach a ‎prior agreement on their candidates for the post of the ‎speaker."

"But let me also insist that the majority of MPs ‎were convinced that Abdel-Al is the most qualified MP ‎to be the speaker in his capacity not only as a long-time ‎constitutional law professor, but also as a conservative ‎politician who can build bridges with the president and ‎the government and the judiciary," said Gad.‎

In Gad's view, "I urge deputies not to summon the ‎ghosts of NDP politics every time things do not go their ‎way." ‎

Gad, however, criticised Abdel-Al for his description of ‎President El-Sisi as "the leader of Egypt's new march."

"I ‎think he should have been keen not to use this kind of ‎bad term, which people used to hear for decades about ‎Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak and even Morsi."‎

Gad said while Abdel-Al should be a man with a strong ‎personality in order to be able to tame the "unruly" MPs or to manage a parliament with 596 deputies, he should at the ‎same time be "an open-minded speaker who can reflect the ‎diversity of opinion and viewpoints in the new ‎parliament." ‎

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