Parliament in historic perspective
As elections approach, Gamal Essam El-Din
reviews Egypt's 145-year-old parliamentary history
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Late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser taking oath in the presence of then speaker of the People's Assembly on 25 March 1965
Political representation in Egypt began as early as 1798. The General Diwan (General Assembly) represents the nucleus of the first parliament in Egypt. It was created by Napoleon Bonaparte immediately after he invaded Egypt in July 1798. Bonaparte ordered that the General Assembly include prominent notables from all parts of the country to represent Egypt and to "give advice" on the nation's administrative, fiscal and judicial systems.
When Mohamed Ali (1805-1848), the founder of modern Egypt, ascended to power he created the "High Council" with all of its members being indirectly elected. In 1829, however, Mohamed Ali decided to turn the High Council into consultative council Maglis Al-Mashoura, including 156 appointed members, with most of them high-ranking officials, religious clerics and merchants. It held consultative sessions in the fields of education, local administration and public works.
It was Khedive Ismail (1863-1879) who established the first representative assembly that could be compared to a Western parliament. Instituted in November 1866 under the name of the consultative council of notables, Maglis Shura Al-Aayan, the council had no legislative power and acted merely as an advisory body. It consisted of 75 members elected by provincial dignitaries as well as umdas (village chiefs) and sheikhs. The council's speaker, Ismail Raghib Pasha, was appointed by a khedival decree. The council's lifecycle was three years and it remained in session two months each year. It held nine sessions in three legislative terms.
Although designed first to be just an advisory body, the council soon assumed legislative powers and included an opposition bloc in the face of the increasing meddling of England and France in the financial matters of Egypt. Historians agree that the creation of the council led Khedive Ismail to establish the first cabinet of ministers in the history of Egypt in 1878. It was established that this cabinet should be accountable to the council. When Khedive Ismail was expelled from power in 1879, his son Khedive Tawfik was crowned and a new parliament was created in December 1881 under the name of Maglis Al-Nuwab Al-Masri (Egyptian Council of Representatives). The cabinet was made accountable to the new representative council that was indirectly elected by the people and had the authority to legislate and direct questions to cabinet ministers. It was also decreed that the council's term be five years, and each session remained three months.
Despite being a significant development in Egypt's parliamentary life, Maglis Al-Nuwab Al-Masri did not last for long. It held just one ordinary session (26 December 1881-26 March 1882) before Britain occupied Egypt in September 1882. Under the first phase of the British occupation of Egypt (1883-1913), Egypt witnessed the introduction of the bicameral system. In 1883 Maglis Shura Al-Qawaneen (Consultative Council of Law) -- a lower-house parliament -- and Al-Gameiya Al-Omomiya (General Assembly) -- an upper-house -- were created. In July 1913, however, both the Consultative Council of Law and the General Assembly were dissolved and were replaced by Al-Gameiya Al-Tashrieya (Legislative Assembly). It consisted of 83 members: 66 elected and 17 appointed. The Legislative Assembly lasted for just one year as Egypt was declared a British Protectorate on the eve of World War I in 1914.
It was only after the promulgation of the 1923 constitution, following the end of the war and the events of the 1919 National Revolution, that a two-house parliament, with the power of legislating and withdrawing confidence from the government, came into existence. Consisting of a House of Representatives and a Senate, the House initially had 213 seats, gradually increasing to 319; the Senate had 120 seats which later rose to 180. According to Adel Wali, a researcher at the People's Assembly -- Egypt's current lower-house parliament -- the two houses developed great powers in terms of legislation and exercising control over government actions, including approval or modification of the state budget. But the king nevertheless maintained the right to dissolve the two houses. The excessive powers granted to the king by the 1923 constitution and the heavy-handed intervention of British occupation authorities led to the dissolution of the two houses of parliament 10 times during the years between 1923 and 1952. The period 1923-1952 also witnessed the creation of 41 cabinets, causing much political instability and social upheaval in the country.
The two-house (bicameral) system was abrogated following the overthrow of the monarchy in July 1952 and Egypt lived without parliament for five years. In 1947, a 350-member elected Maglis Al-Umma (National Assembly) was established. This parliament, however, lasted for just one session as it was dissolved in February 1958 when the Egyptian-Syrian merger union was declared -- thus creating what came to be called the United Arab Republic. An Egyptian-Syrian National Assembly was formed, lasting for three years, or until Egypt and Syria separated in September 1961.
The structure of parliament in Egypt was drastically altered after the creation of the ruling party the Arab Socialist Union in 1962, following which the Egyptians approved a national charter that stipulated that half of the assembly's seats should be reserved for representatives of farmers and workers. As a result, each constituency was to be represented by two deputies, one of them a peasant or workers and the other a feaat, or professional. This system, despite some alterations, remains in effect today.
Under a provisional constitution promulgated in 1964, a new National Assembly was created, including 350 elected deputies. This assembly, which completed its four-year lifecycle, played a key role in turning Egypt into a centrally planned economy. Another National Assembly was elected in 1969 but it lasted for just two years as it was dissolved by late president Anwar El-Sadat who took office in October 1970 following the death of Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
The individual candidacy system was used to directly elect members of parliament until 1984. In that year, the proportional representation system was introduced. Under this system, candidates were obliged to run collectively on a party slate or list. The electorate thus voted for a party rather than an individual candidate. Moreover, it was stipulated that a party must garner eight per cent of the national vote to gain a foothold in parliament. But three years later, this system was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court on the grounds that it was discriminatory against candidates who wanted to run as independents.
In 1987, a combination of the slate and individual system was used, but this was also branded unconstitutional by the same court. As a result, the nation reverted to the individual candidacy system in the 1990 election. The same system will be used again in this month's parliamentary election.
In September 1971, a new constitution was declared, creating Maglis Al-Shaab (the People's Assembly) or Egypt's current lower house of parliament. The assembly, first including 350 elected deputies and 10 appointed members, has political, legislative, financial and supervisory roles. Politically, argued Wali, the assembly -- alongside the Shura Council and local councils -- has the prerogative of nominating the president of the republic. It also has the right to amend the budget and withdraw confidence from the prime minister. In legislative terms, the assembly has the authority of proposing and passing new laws, and debating, modifying and approving or rejecting government- proposed laws. In supervising government actions, members of the house have the right to direct questions to cabinet ministers, discuss reports of the Central Auditing Agency, and to set up fact-finding committees.
During late president Sadat's era (1970-1981), three people's assemblies were created, lasting from 1971 to 1984. In 1980, however, Sadat decided to create an advisory upper house under the name of Shura Council. The 1971-1976 assembly completed its five-year term, while the next -- supposed to last from 1976 to 1981 -- was dissolved in 1979 by late president Anwar El-Sadat after he signed the peace treaty with Israel. A new assembly was created in 1979, completing its five-year term in 1984.
Six people's assemblies have been formed since President Hosni Mubarak assumed office in October 1981. The seventh Mubarak-era assembly -- or the tenth since the current constitution was promulgated in 1971 -- will be elected this November. The number of seats in the People's Assembly increased in 1990 from 360 to 454 -- representing 444 elected deputies and 10 appointed members. The coming assembly will be increased to 518 as 64 new seats will be filled by women representatives. Ahmed Fathi Sorour, an old-time law expert, has been speaker of the People's Assembly since 1990. The assembly includes 19 specialised committees plus an ethics committee and a general committee that includes the speaker, his two deputies, representatives of the opposition and independents, and chairmen of the sub- committees.