25 February - 3 March 1999
Issue No. 418
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Features Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Businessmen want parliamentary shareBy Gamal Essam El-Din
Ahmed Fathi Sorour, speaker of the People's Assembly, has addressed the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) twice in the past eight years; the first time to discuss the role of the Assembly in monitoring government activities, the second to be questioned on the need for the greater representation of businessmen in the legislature.
speaker of the People's Assembly
But the main difference between his two appearances was that in February 1991, businessmen were only beginning to express their growing interest in contesting parliamentary elections. Eight years later, they are demanding a big chunk of parliamentary seats.
Last week's meeting opened with a speech by AmCham President Ahmed Shawki, praising the Assembly for enacting legislation that prepared the ground for a switch to a market economy. "In the last parliamentary session, 19 market economy laws were passed, including laws that liberalised the banking and insurance sectors," Shawki said. "A new labour law is in the pipeline. This law is of particular importance because it will give employers greater flexibility in hiring employees and workers."
Shawki also expressed satisfaction with the fact that a large number of businessmen managed to win seats in the incumbent parliament. "I believe that an even larger number of businessmen will contest the next parliamentary elections, due in November 2000," he said.
Sorour was then given the floor to explain the political role of parliament. He said that under the constitution, the government is accountable to both parliament and the president of the republic. "The constitution gives the president the right to dissolve parliament, but only after gaining the people's approval in a nationwide referendum," he said.
According to Sorour, the main political objectives of the People's Assembly are to promote democracy, ensure political stability and express the economic, social, cultural and political needs of the people. He insisted that MPs have complete freedom to express their views in the Assembly.
"Majority deputies are never given instructions," he said. "Do not believe what opposition newspapers say about parliament. They try to convince people that parliament works under orders from the government. To have a true picture of what goes on in parliament, please read the minutes of parliamentary sessions. You will find out that deputies were capable of introducing many amendments to government-sponsored bills and that the government had to comply."
After concluding his speech, Sorour asked his hosts not to hesitate in asking him "difficult" or even "stupid" questions. One businessman asked why the government, after carrying out an ambitious economic reform programme, was reluctant to embark on political reforms. Sorour responded by saying that this question should have come from an opposition newspaper reporter, and not from a businessman.
He said that political life is governed by constitutional considerations, the democratic process and people's awareness of their political rights. "All kinds of freedoms are well-protected and respected," Sorour said. "Political parties and the press have full freedom. In parliamentary elections, some parties fail to win seats, but this is not our problem. We cannot grant parliamentary seats to parties. This is the people's choice."
Arguing that the constitution was neither the Qur'an nor the Bible, Sorour said that it could be modified but any proposed modifications should be discussed extensively "at all levels".
AmCham's members questioned why 50 per cent of parliamentary seats are reserved for farmers and workers, and asked why businessmen were not granted an equally high percentage of seats. Sorour responded by accusing businessmen of looking down upon farmers and workers. "Why do you hold workers and farmers in contempt and treat them as if they are not as good as you are?" he said. "Workers and farmers make up half the nation and they deserve to have half of the seats in parliament. When they think they've matured politically, they will be the first to ask for this advantage to be abolished."
Sorour said it would be unacceptable for 50 per cent of seats to be reserved for businessmen. "Businessmen in this country are very strong," he said. "They are not a minority. They managed to win 25 per cent of seats in the last parliamentary elections. We do not want them to use their money to buy seats in parliament. We want people to vote for businessmen for their contribution to economic development. It would be a sad day indeed -- and I'm saying this to businessmen -- if businessmen managed to rule this country. We want them to contribute to the economic development of this country, but not to rule it."
Sorour also confirmed that the individual candidacy system -- as opposed to the slate system -- will be the basis of the next parliamentary elections.