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Egypt: Senate significant enough?

Analysts differ on how the creation of the Senate will affect Egypt’s political life

Gamal Essam El-Din , Wednesday 12 Aug 2020
Senate significant enough?
photo: Mohamed Maher
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Egyptian voters headed to the polls this week to elect a 300-member Senate which will serve as a consultative upper house.

Two-thirds of the members will be elected via the party list or individual system, and the remaining 100 members are to be appointed by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

Meanwhile, political analysts have been busy discussing the significance of the creation of a second chamber of parliament to Egypt’s political life and development.

Political analysts affiliated to the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) believe that when compared to the former Shura Council, which was dissolved in 2013, the Senate does not have a significant role. “This is why I am afraid the turnout in this week’s Senate elections will be very low,” said Al-Ahram political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie.

Rabie notes that the former Shura Council was authorised to supervise national print media, select chief editors, license political parties, and discuss budget and development plans, none of which applies to the Senate.

Yasser Abdel-Aziz, a media expert, also notes that the law regulating the Senate was passed in parliament with surprising speed,” not to mention that citizens were surprised by the quick preparations which paved the way for holding the Senate elections,” said Abdel-Aziz, arguing that “there was insufficient time or a national debate so that people could fully understand what the Senate would do and how significant it would be to their life.”

Rami Galal, an independent parliamentary analyst, also notes that “quick preparations for the Senate election left people confused. Suddenly they saw big posters of candidates whom they know very little about, not to mention that the majority are completely unaware of how they will elect the senators or what the Senate itself will do,” Galal said.

“Yet the reasons are not just quick preparations and the lack of a national debate, but also the lack of competition,” Galal said, adding that the National Unified List led by the Mostaqbal Watan Party (Future of the Homeland) are sure to win the 100 party list seats uncontested. “This means that there is no actual competition for two-thirds of the seats as the president will be entrusted with appointing another 100 seats.”

Abdel-Aziz notes that there was hardly any serious coverage of the Senate elections by national television channels. “The reason is not just because these channels were busy focusing on other vital issues such as the coronavirus pandemic, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) negotiations, the armed conflict in Libya and the blast in Beirut, but also because these channels viewed the Senate elections as insignificant,” Abdel-Aziz said.

Abdel-Aziz argues that the few times the media, particularly TV, covered the Senate elections, they focused on supporting certain candidates or political parties, notably Mostaqbal Watan, even though this was in violation of the media rules laid out by the National Elections Authority (NEA).

Galal and Rabie, however, say that they have high hopes that by time, the Senate will make a significant contribution to Egypt’s political life. “I think that over time the Senate will be granted greater legislative and supervisory powers that will help create a forceful bicameral system in Egypt,” Rabie said.

A 2019 study by the ACPSS explains that the bicameral system has always been a feature of Egypt’s political and parliamentary life. “Egypt knew the two-house system as far back as the end of the 19th century, and after the promulgation of the liberal constitution in 1923, a bicameral system was again introduced, including two chambers — House of Representatives and the Senate,” said the study, adding that “a new constitution in 1956 adopted a one house parliament — the National Assembly — and this lasted until 1980 when the late president Anwar Al-Sadat decided to form the upper consultative house or Shura Council.”

When a 50-member constituent assembly met in 2013 to draft Egypt’s existing constitution, it came under heavy pressure from the public to relinquish the Shura Council on the grounds it was a costly and “talking shop” chamber.

Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, head of the coalition Support Egypt, told Al-Ahram Weekly that when the majority of MPs submitted amendments to the 2014 constitution in March 2019, they wanted a Senate created in order to widen the scope of political participation in Egypt. “The restoration of the bicameral system in Egypt shall give the opportunity for many sections of society to join parliamentary life, voice their opinions about public policies and help improve the legislative process,” Al-Qasabi said, adding that the existence of one house of parliament — the House of Representatives — over the last five years showed that it is a big burden for one chamber to fully and soundly exercise parliamentary legislative and supervisory roles.  “We saw that a second chamber was badly needed to help the House revise and draft legislation and effectively oversee the performance of the government,” Al-Qasabi said.

In an interview with Al-Ahram on 7 August, Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said the formation of the Senate will be a significant contribution to Egypt’s parliamentary and political life. “This chamber will comprise outstanding and distinguished figures from Egypt’s political, intellectual and legal elite and this will create a more thoughtful debate over legislation and national issues,” Abdel-Aal said, dismissing allegations that the Senate will be a big financial burden on the state budget. “The Senate’s budget will be part of the House’s budget and there will not be new staff as the old Shura Council staff will be the Senate’s staff,” Abdel-Aal said.

Bahaaeddin Abu Shoka, head of parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, also believes that the Senate will be a highly politically significant step on the road of democracy in Egypt. “According to the 2019 amended constitution [articles 248-294] and the law [articles 7 and 8], the Senate will be authorised to study and propose all that is good for reinforcing the pillars of democracy, support social peace and society’s basic requirements, sublime values, rights, freedoms and public duties, and widen the scope of the democratic system and its fields,” Abu Shoka said, adding that “it will be a must that the Senate be consulted on any proposed constitutional amendments in the future, discuss the state’s socio-economic development plans, and revise peace, alliances and sovereignty treaties with foreign countries.”

It will also be necessary that the Senate discusses draft laws, particularly those which regulate certain chapters of the constitution such as those related to the media or the judiciary, and review and give opinions on issues referred by the president or the House and related to the state’s general policies or its policies regarding Arab and foreign affairs, Abu Shoka said.

Abu Shoka also agrees that by time, amendments will be introduced to give the Senate greater powers similar to those which were granted by Egypt’s most liberal national charter under the pre-1952 monarchy — the 1923 constitution.

He also notes that the law stipulates that a senator should not be less than 35 years of age and have a university degree to make sure that senators are high-profile or high-caliber public figures. “This does not apply to a House member who should not be less than 25 and has just completed his or her basic education,” Abu Shoka said.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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