Egypt: What does the mockery of parliament serve?

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin
Sunday 13 Mar 2016

I have little sympathy, political or otherwise, for Tawfiq Okasha, television personality and until a few days ago, Member of Parliament.

I’ve been the target of his accusations and invective, like many others who dared criticize state policies over the last few years, and I agree it’s unacceptable for an MP and media personality with a large following to receive the Israeli ambassador in his home in the theatrical manner that he did.

Nevertheless, I still do not understand the grounds for the revocation of his parliamentary membership. His meeting with the ambassador? That’s not a crime punishable by law, regardless of the public’s rejection of normalisation of relations with Israel.

And anyway, many of those in and out of the assembly demanding Okasha’s head are well known for their anti-Palestinian vitriol. Is it because Okasha “lost the people’s trust,” as reported by the media? If so, then the conditions of that provision in the bylaws should have been followed to the letter, rather than simply appealing to such broad formulations.

Perhaps his conduct threatens national security? In that case, his parliamentary immunity should have been lifted, to allow him to be questioned by the competent authorities.

Clearly, his membership was revoked because he overstepped the proper bounds, prompting the state to deny him its protection and jettison him.

But I’m not really concerned about Okasha’s fate. What worries me is how blithely the parliament violated the law and its own bylaws—a step it could take in the future against other MPs for other reasons.

I’m also concerned about the continuing poor performance of the assembly, how it’s yielding to media and state pressure and becoming the object of ridicule, thus losing more of its credibility in the eyes of the public.

My motivation is not my admiration for this particular parliament. In fact, many people, myself included, warned of the consequences of the state’s insistence on conducting parliamentary elections under a flawed law that relies on an absolute list system with no peer the world over, discourages party participation, cements the control of moneyed and other special interests, and produces a fragmented and weak parliament.

This was all made clear, but the state disregarded it. The result was low voter turnout and pitiful returns (exhibit number one: Tawfiq Okasha took the most votes in a single constituency race in all of Egypt).

Nevertheless, we accepted the results and believed we should stick by the parliament regardless of its flaws, working to set it right, because it represented a step forward.

It brought in new faces who would rise to the responsibility and in any case, some kind of parliament is better than no parliament at all.

But unfortunately parliamentary performance over the last three months has been abysmal: the mayhem of the inaugural sessions; the recklessness of approving more than 340 laws in just a few days; the resignation of the former Cassation Court chief justice, Sirri Siyam, in protest at mismanagement; legislative activity sidelined for weeks for the discussion of house bylaws; the repeated postponement of the government presentation of its program; the silence on electronic vote manipulation in the assembly; the bedlam of every session.

All this has given the public the impression that the parliament, incapable of shouldering its responsibilities, doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously.

This is not in the country’s interest. Undermining the stature of parliament weakens its legislative and regulatory role and gives credence to the idea that Egypt and Egyptians aren’t ready for democracy and will not be for many years to come.

There may be some advising state officials that a weak, fragmented parliament—like weak unions, parties, NGOs, and youth movements—is in the ruler’s interest because it fosters stability and allows the government to implement its policies and programs unimpeded. This is a serious and historical error.

The lack of opposition and poor state oversight will not cause society to advance, the economy flourish, and security to reign. The opposite is true: development and stability are more likely with strong, independent political and representative institutions, a diversity of opinions, and mechanisms for negotiation, oversight, correction, and consensus building.

In the absence of effective parliamentary oversight, the government may find it simple to issue laws and push its policies through, but society will pay the price when it turns out that these laws needed a closer review and the policies required more consensus, groundwork, and explanation to succeed.

The public is right to lose faith in the parliament after seeing the mismanagement and confusion of its first weeks. But instead of making a further mockery of the assembly and laughing at the jokes and scandals circulated on television and social media, we should encourage it to correct course and cleave to the constitution and law.

An enfeebled parliament without credibility leaves the state without a watchdog and the people without a representative to defend their rights.

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 Monday, 7 March.


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