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The challenges and relevance of Egypt's next parliament

After much anticipation, candidates for the coming parliamentary elections finally began filing their candidacy papers a couple of day ago.

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin , Wednesday 11 Feb 2015

Many see the parliamentary elections, scheduled from late March to early May, as a milestone, the last step in the roadmap announced in July 2013, and an important building block of the new state. While I agree that elections are important—especially that they will reinstate the legislature, now absent for three years—I don’t think the coming parliament will have much influence in establishing the foundations of a new state. In fact, it faces three major challenges that will undermine its significance and limit its influence if they are not addressed. 

Firstly, in addition to the ongoing violence and terrorism, the elections will take place in conditions that are irreconcilable with democracy, most importantly amid the curbs on civil liberties imposed in the past year by a slew of unconstitutional laws. There is also the winner-take-all list system, unparalleled in the world. Meanwhile, money and clannishness hold sway, and businessmen openly buy candidates for millions, without shame or oversight. The security campaign against youth continues, as they receive prison sentences for simply expressing their opinions and protesting peacefully. And all the while, the media incites against those with independent or opposition views. These elections may not be rigged, but the general climate does little to lend them credibility. 

Secondly, the next parliament will not contribute to the founding of a new state because this state has already reconstituted itself in the absence of a legislature, leaving little for the new assembly to do. The constitution has been drafted and approved, and the president has been elected. For all practical purposes, the power to appoint the government rests with the president, as any objection from parliament may bring about its dissolution.

New governors were recently appointed, and the finishing touches are now being put on economic laws and policies in preparation for next month’s summit in Sharm El Sheikh. Over the last two years, dozens of laws have been issued, and the new parliament will have only a few days to review them all. In short, the incoming parliament will be seated long after the new state has already settled in, leaving it little space for decisive action and influence. 

The third challenge is related to the composition of parliament itself. The electoral system adopted by the state, in the face of objections from all political forces, is designed to produce a weak, fragmented parliament without a dominant or even major political force. For the first time in decades, there will be no party representing the government or opposition parties. There will be no parliamentary majority to propose a cohesive program or overall vision that can either be supported or opposed. Instead, it will be an open pitch with hundreds of players running about, but not united by teams or clear objectives. This will impede the effective operation of the assembly. The challenge is to exercise its oversight mandate and legislate in a way that preserves the stature and esteem of the legislature while sidestepping these pitfalls.

Do these challenges mean that the elections are unimportant? No, we need a parliament and elections because the outcome will be an expression of the current state of politics and balance of power, even if clannishness and capital again dominate the assembly. And regardless of the flaws in the incoming parliament, legislative power will revert to an elected assembly, ending the exceptional legislative authority held by the president for the last two years. This ensures that at least society can learn about and openly discuss proposed new laws, instead of reading about them for the first time in the Official Gazette.

Finally, the formation of a new assembly is a step forward because it will end the fruitless election debates of the last two years. The public is exhausted by the endless talk of the date of elections, the electoral system, and party alliances and lists and, as a result, has withdrawn from politics, and public life in general. With the elections over and the parliament seated, there will be no choice but to grapple with pressing social and economic issues. 

The incoming parliament will not have a decisive impact on the shape or identity of the state, but it is necessary for the country to finally move forward and face the challenges of the coming period. Postponing elections again or doing without a parliament altogether is not an option. Let's remember that while the parliament is an important arena of political engagement, it’s not the only or even most important one. And although I’ve personally decided not to run in these elections, I salute all those who take on the battle in such difficult circumstances, defending the narrow political space that remains and holding fast to the banner of change. 

- Ziad Bahaa-Eldin holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is a former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investments.

This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday 10 February.



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