More important than parliamentary elections ... is what follows

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin
Tuesday 21 Apr 2015

Postponing parliamentary elections and a potentially weak parliament are not the only cause for concern

It’s absurd that Egypt is the only nation in the world without a parliament because it is incapable of issuing an elections law. There are countries that lack parliaments because of civil wars, natural disasters, or regimes that won’t allow representative bodies, and it may be that elections are postponed for the harvest, exams, fasts, or official holidays.

But for elections to be delayed for nearly a full year because the Egyptian state and its battery of ministries, experts, consultants, and law professors simply cannot draft a constitutionally compliant law, is altogether novel and unfortunate.

A full year we have been running in circles over electoral lists, constituencies, districts, coalitions, medical disclosures, and campaign regulations. The principal reason is that from the outset, the state chose an electoral system that contravenes the constitution and is rejected by every political force because it will lead to a fragmented, weak parliament. 

The system employs a winner-take-all list system that has no parallel anywhere in the world because it fosters fragile partisan alliances, enables the state to manipulate outcomes, and is likely to result in an unrepresentative parliament. 

Even after the election law was declared unconstitutional, the state refused to comprehensively reconsider this electoral system, preferring instead to adopt a narrow approach of amending only those articles annulled by the Supreme Constitutional Court and making a few other cosmetic changes. It even referred the file to the same legislative committee responsible for bringing us to this unfortunate point.

And when the prime minister called for a dialogue with political parties, state representatives hastily declared that the changes would be minimal, and to be completed in a matter of days. Unfortunately the second round of dialogue was subpar, ending in a scuffle between some attendees, prompting the extraordinary claim that the parties themselves are to blame for the election delay, as if being invited to two meetings is enough to bring representative politics to a standstill.

However, the postponed elections and a potentially weak parliament are not the only cause for concern. Ultimately, all the delays and blunders may have the more costly consequence of extinguishing the public’s enthusiasm, interest, and confidence in politics and the very idea of popular representation, the foundation of the modern democratic state.

While the debate raged over elections, the electoral law, districts, and lists over the past year, the state and its media persistently emphasized three overarching messages. 

Firstly that Egypt, being in the midst of an economic recovery and a war on terror, could not afford the luxury of democracy, popular participation, and rights and liberties. We should therefore all just plow through this phase without protest or objection.

The second message was that at this critical juncture, Egypt needs only the people and a leader; everything else, from parties to civic associations and unions, is superfluous and only impedes development efforts and serves the enemies of the nation.

The final message was that while parliament is an indispensable pillar of the constitutional order and the roadmap of July 2013, the longer it was in coming, the better public interest would be served by allowing important political and economic laws to be issued without elected representatives interfering in every detail and mucking up the process.

These three messages were not always left implicit. State spokespeople explicitly stated as much without hesitation or embarrassment, and these claims were repeated by various ministers and officials in moments of astonishing frankness.

The sidelining of parliament, the marginalisation of parties, and the suppression of dissident voices may indeed make governance easier, more efficient, and quicker than when consulting with parties, debating with the people’s representatives, and listening to various perspectives. But these are short-term, ephemeral gains. What enables the state to win its battle against terrorism, invigorate the economy, and make true progress is its ability to foster a genuine national consensus and mobilize resources to confront domestic challenges and external dangers.

But national consensus is not a uniformity of opinion, an unopposed leader, or an unaccountable government. This simply lends the illusion of agreement and concord. A strong society is one where multiple perspectives flourish and parties move in and out of government and opposition, where young people freely express their opinions, the media opens its pages and screens to various viewpoints, and a true national consensus can is forged where the state is supported by the people, and not only by the security and media apparatus. 

Ultimately, an election law will be issued, a parliament will be elected, and the roadmap will be completed. But whatever the shape of the coming parliament, the priority for the government and parties and the media that wish to see this country prosper is to revive the people’s confidence and faith in politics and instill the belief that diversity and difference is strength and that an absolutist state brings neither development nor progress.

- 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 14 April.


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