The Egyptian parliament: Always on edge

Mariam Rizk , Monday 2 Mar 2015

Four parliaments have been disbanded in the last 30 years over unconstitutional elections laws

An Egyptian man casts his ballot in second round of Egypt's parliamentary elections in Cairo, Egypt, Dec. 14, 2011 (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Further legal loopholes in Egypt’s elections laws put any future parliament at risk of being disbanded, experts have said, after the 2015 parliamentary elections were postponed on Sunday.

Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) ruled on Sunday that one of the laws regulating the parliamentary elections was unconstitutional, causing a delay to the vote initially set to start in three weeks.

Egypt's president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi issued a statement on Sunday afternoon after the ruling, urging the cabinet to amend the contested law within a month.

The new parliamentary election dates are still to be announced.

It is not the first time that the unconstitutionality of election laws has hindered the work of parliament. Over the past 30 years, four parliaments have been disbanded for the same reason.

Most recently, in 2012, a court ruling dissolved the Islamist-led house of representatives elected in late 2011.

Since then, legislative powers have been in the hands of the country’s president.

For Sunday’s ruling, the SCC looked into four lawsuits filed against three election laws: the Law of the Exercise of Political Rights, the Parliamentary Elections Law, and the Elections Constituency Division Law.

In response to one claim, the SCC ruled the Elections Constituency Division Law to be unconstitutional, but rejected another claim against a specific part of the text, deciding it was constitutional. It did not accept two other claims due to procedural flaws.

These two lawsuits could be filed again, without procedural shortcomings, experts told Ahram Online, give reason to disband a new parliament after elections.

A lawyer who filed one of the lawsuits, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, said he would still file a case against the rest of the laws "because the country cannot afford to spend billions on a parliament that could be disbanded in the easiest legal way.”

Some even questioned whether the legal loopholes in the elections laws were kept as a contingency plan to disband the parliament for political reasons.

"The question is, if they had the serious desire to form a well-established parliament, why leave loopholes in the law that could open up doors for further complaints and cases?” Abdel-Wahab said.

One of the rejected claims was against the Parliamentary Election Law, which allows female MPs to change their political party affiliation after being elected, while male deputies need first to garner the approval of two thirds of the parliament to do so.

"This is basic and obvious," Abdel-Wahab said. "If you have a constitution that states that men and women are equal, then this kind of discrimination has to be unconstitutional."

"We are repeating the mistakes of the past with a deformed, unconstitutional parliament," he said.

During Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, the parliament was disbanded in 1984, 1987 and 1990, after the SCC found the election laws on which they were based to be unconstitutional.

The 2015 parliamentary polls constitute the third and the last step in a political roadmap set forth by the army after the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013.

Two earlier votes on a new constitution and a president were seen as a necessary badge of legitimacy for the interim authorities, who were facing a huge wave of censure after toppling an elected president amid days of mass protests against him.

The parliamentary elections had been planned to start on 21 March, during the same month as Egypt hosts an international economic summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, on 13 to 15 March.

Organisers have high hopes that the summit will draw investments to revive a national economy battered from four years of political turmoil.

El-Sisi had said in January that the parliamentary vote should take place in the same period as the economic summit to reflect a message to show investors "that they are coming to a fully-institutionalised country."

In the absence of an elected parliament, El-Sisi has passed a set of laws. The most controversial include a law banning protests and a law defining "terrorist entities."

Before a law is ratified, it has to be approved by the Cabinet and by the advisory legislative department at the State Council, one of the top courts of the country.

The election laws "held suspicion of unconstitutionality from the very beginning,” Judge Abdel-Rahman El-Garhy told Ahram Online.

Even the Elections Constituency Division Law, which was on Sunday ruled unconstitutional in parts of its text, could again be contested in front of the court from different aspects, he said.

He suggested that the laws be presented to the SCC before being issued, to skip the high risk of the parliament being disbanded after its election.

When the laws were still in draft stage, many parties voiced opposition to the Parliamentary Elections Law, which allocated over 70 percent of all seats to individual candidates.

According to the law, the parliament is comprised of 567 seats. Up to 420 are elected as individuals, while 120 are reserved for party lists. Five percent, or 27, of these seats are appointed by the president upon recommendations from respective state councils and professional syndicates.

At the time, critics said that the system would weaken the influence of political parties, but allow wealthy businessmen and influential local figures to use local patronage networks to find their way into parliament.

“Parties and political forces challenged the laws and all the arguments were presented, but the authorities seem to have insisted on their point of view,” lawyer and constitutional expert Essam El-Islambolli said.

Once a parliament is elected, its members will have to vote on all laws issued by El-Sisi and his predecessor, interim president Adly Mansour.

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