Middle East

Viewpoint: Egypt's new parliament - posturing without politics

Egyptian election campaign banners, Heliopolis (15/11/15) Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The elections were the last phase of the promised transition back to democracy

Judging from the number of times they have been summoned to the polls in recent years, Egyptians would seem to have an enthusiastically democratic system.

Judging from the comments of most analysts, Egyptians have returned to an authoritarian past in which a parliament exists simply to give a participatory veneer to a profoundly authoritarian presidential system.

The results of Egypt's just-concluded parliamentary elections suggests the cynics have the weight of the evidence on their side.

True, opposition parties have been banned, manipulated, or marginalised. Those with deep pockets and support from key state actors (such as the security services) will populate much of the body.

But the result is not a simple return to the past. There are reasons to believe Egypt's parliamentary life will be a bit more bumpy than the past for three reasons.

  • First, the parliament has some real prerogatives under the country's 2014 constitution. It must review all of the laws President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has decreed since he took office.
  • Second, the new body will be deeply disorganised. All of Egypt's previously elected presidents ruled with the support of a political party. President Sisi has none. Most deputies have positioned themselves as loyal to him, but there will be no easy way to co-ordinate them.
  • Finally, parliamentarians show a bit of a cantankerous spirit - as small groups or as individuals. The body will consist of a motley group of rich individuals, diverse (if generally tame) ideological inclinations, local bigwigs, and national figures (some known more for their loose talk rather than sagacity or prudence).

Loyal, if unruly

This will make the parliament a headache for the president. It will not be an Achilles heel, however, since steps are being taken to forestall an overly oppositional body.

Indeed, the electoral system looks to have been designed to produce a body that if unruly is ultimately loyal.

Key state bodies (the military, security forces, religious establishment and judiciary) have considerable constitutional and legal insulation from the parliament.

The head of the loose coalition of loyal parties is a security official; a major general from the army was slotted to serve as secretary-general of the parliament, responsible for overseeing parliamentary staff and operations, until he was forced to resign this week for lacking the requisite qualifications.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The new parliament is likely to fall in line with President Sisi

And if all else fails, the constitution can be amended to strengthen the president - an idea that has been floated (even by President Sisi himself) in recent weeks.

Egypt's past presidents have generally ruled by controlling politics.

Mr Sisi, by contrast, seems to wish to rule without it - to have state bodies do what they are supposed to do and for citizens to do what they are told.

The parliament, therefore, has been an afterthought. And it will behave like one.

In Egypt today, as the new regime's economic, security, and administrative performance produce increasing grumbling, the parliament is likely to provide some space for debates and posturing but unlikely to do much to correct performance.

Nathan J Brown is a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University.