Egypt: The real challenge for the new parliament

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin
Tuesday 15 Dec 2015

The new parliament will be fully formed next week, after the runoff elections in four districts and the selection of the 27 parliamentarians appointed by the president. But this moment is clouded by expectations, questions, and suspicions about how well the incoming parliament will express the hopes and aspirations of the Egyptian people.

The apprehension is well placed. It’s reflected in the relatively weak turnout, half the voter turnout for the 2012 parliament.

This low rate of participation is largely due to dissatisfaction among the public, especially youth, with the climate in which elections were held, disinterest in the process, and a lack of conviction that the new assembly will be able to effectively correct the current course.

The reasons for the electorate’s lack of engagement are many, but they can be divided into two main categories. The first is related to process: the use of a closed-list electoral system, the extreme delay in elections, unregulated campaign finance, and silence on unprecedented malpractice by the media that branded a traitor anyone who expressed a reservation or question about current state management.

The second is related to the general political climate in which elections were held, from the continued detention of young people defending the right of peaceful protest to the widening security crackdown on dissident opinions of all political stripes, restrictions on civic action, and the return of police torture and abuse, practices thought to have relegated to the past.

These combined factors created a climate that did not suggest a genuine state desire to return to a democratic path. And the result is a new parliament that may check the last unmarked box of the roadmap of July 2013, but reflects no real democratic progress, or even a willingness by the state to open up the moribund political sphere.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean that the incoming parliament is unimportant; we can’t ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist or is worthless. Regardless of our assessment of the assembly and the conditions surrounding its formation, it represents a new reality, a new page of parliamentary activity fronted by different parties and political forces. We don’t yet know what this new world holds.

The biggest challenge facing the coming parliament—or at least those MPs who want it to succeed—is to regain the people’s trust and overcome the negative conditions in which the elections took place. Those MPs should seize every opportunity to restore the stature and independence of the legislative assembly they represent.

This will not happen unless they maintain their independence, heed the demands of the public—those that elected them and those that did not—and hold fast to the principles of justice and law in the face of pressure to abandon them. And they must defend the spirit and letter and the constitution despite the state’s neglect of its provisions.

Similarly, we must support those MPs who are willing to fight for the law and justice. We should stand with them in this difficult task and not despair at the media faces dominating the assembly.

This parliament will undoubtedly bring to light new figures with sincere aspirations and positions, to be forged in the coming debates and conflicts under the dome. Ignoring the parliament or waiting for it to fail will not help.

We must also remember that the parliament is the primary, but not sole arena for representative politics. It does not dispense with local elections, and it doesn’t preclude a role for parties, unions, and civic associations. While MPs stand in for the people in legislation and government oversight, they should not act in a vacuum or based exclusively on their personal beliefs.

They are influenced by and respond to the demands and aspirations of the public. The more society insists on its right to expression and participation, the more the parliament is compelled to respond to pressure and heed its voice.

The battle to reclaim democracy does not end with the election of the parliament—it continues. Despair, frustration, and disengagement will only lead to the realization of our worst fears.

The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.

This article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Tuesday, 8 December.

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