Thursday,16 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)
Thursday,16 August, 2018
Issue 1278, (14 - 20 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Parliamentary precedents

The opening sittings of the House of Representatives have revealed a penchant for spirited debate, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

Al-Ahram Weekly

On Sunday and Monday the newly elected House of Representatives elected a speaker and two deputies. The stormy inaugural sessions offered a taste of what will happen when parliament starts its real work, debating reviews of the 341 presidential decrees issued since the removal of Mohamed Morsi from office on 3 July 2013.

Ali Abdel-Aal, the constitutional law professor elected speaker by a two-thirds majority on Sunday, announced the following evening that parliament’s 19 newly formed committees should be ready to present their reviews of the decreed legislation to the House on Saturday for discussion during the following day’s session.

“If committee reports are not made available to the House within the 15 days stipulated by Article 156 of the constitution, Egypt will stumble into constitutional gridlock,” warned Abdel-Aal.

The 341 decrees — by former interim president Adli Mansour and President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi — were issued in the absence of parliament. Civil society organisations say Mansour and Al-Sisi used the absence of parliament to promulgate a series of laws that undermine human rights in Egypt.

On Saturday, 19 independent human rights organisations sent a letter to Abdel-Aal urging him and other MPs to review anti-terror legislation and laws regulating protests. The laws, says human rights activist Nasser Amin, were framed in such a way as to allow the state to suppress dissent, silence critics of the regime and detain journalists.

A special committee, headed by Serri Seyam, an appointed MP and former chairman of the Higher Council of Judges, has been formed to review laws dealing with matters deemed urgent.

“Urgent decrees can be divided into two groups: those dealing with the restructuring of sovereign institutions like the presidency and parliament, and those concerned with crimes listed under the penal code, such as terrorism,” said Abdel-Aal. “If they are not ratified within 15 days the state will face the prospect of having to release all prisoners held under the new terror law.”

Abdel-Aal said the urgency of the business at hand had forced him to temporarily halt the broadcasts of parliamentary sittings to prevent “attention seeking” by some MPs.

“MPs need to focus on finishing the urgent task of reviewing all 341 decrees rather than on grandstanding,” he said.

Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi Al-Agati said on Monday that there is no constitutional requirement for the government to resign following the election of a new parliamentary speaker.

Article 146 stipulates that the government must gain the confidence of a majority of MPs within 30 days of parliament reviewing its policy statement, said Al-Agati.

“President Al-Sisi has not yet decided whether to reshuffle the current government. As a result, Prime Minister Sherif Ismail will deliver the government’s policy statement before parliament,” said Al-Agati. “If Ismail does not gain the confidence of parliament then Al-Sisi will request a majority party or coalition to form a new government.”

Al-Agati told reporters that he expects Al-Sisi to deliver a speech before parliament “ahead of the government delivering its policy statement”.

On Monday night, Al-Sisi called Abdel-Aal to congratulate him on his election as speaker. Earlier in the day, Abdel-Aal had sent a message on behalf of the House to Al-Sisi expressing “parliament’s support for policies which have led to stability in a region fraught with internal conflicts and civil wars”.

In his opening speech on Sunday, Abdel-Aal described Al-Sisi as “the leader of Egypt’s new march”. The hackneyed expression, formerly used to describe not only Gamal Abdel-Nasser but also Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, offended some MPs.

Controversial TV anchor and independent MP Tawfik Okasha told reporters that the election of an “old-guard” figure like Abdel-Aal as speaker signalled a revival of the autocratic politics of former president  Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Okasha, who had nominated himself for the post of speaker, told reporters on Sunday night, “The election of Abdel-Aal rings alarm bells about the condition of politics in Egypt.”

Kamal Ahmed, the veteran leftist MP from Alexandria, denounced Abdel-Aal’s election as “undemocratic”. He accused the Pro-Egyptian State Coalition, a parliamentary bloc that supports Al-Sisi, of orchestrating the election of Abdel-Aal. “They are acting in exactly the same way Mubarak’s NDP used to act. Abdel-Aal’s election was a foregone conclusion,” he said.

On Tuesday, Ahmed threatened to resign his seat “to protest the undemocratic practices and personal interests that dominated the agenda of parliament’s first procedural sittings”. Along with Okasha, Ahmed was one of the seven MPs who contested the speaker’s post.

The tenor of this week’s sessions has spawned fears among many independent MPs that Mubarak-era NDP politics are back with a vengeance.

Anwar Al-Sadat, chairman of the Liberal Reform and Development Party, told reporters on Sunday that the pro-Sisi bloc appears determined to ignore the lessons of the past. “It seems that some people think it wise to ignore recent history. They fail to understand that it was the politics as pursued by the NDP that spawned corruption and political dysfunction,” he said.

On Monday, Al-Sadat joined other independent MPs in criticising Abdel-Aal’s original, unilateral, decision to form just six committees to review the 341 presidential decrees and amend parliament’s internal bylaws. Under pressure from the MPs, Abdel-Aal increased the number of committees to 19.

“We do not accept that any individual or group, especially those that claim to be the voice of the president, try ever again to impose their say on parliament,” Al-Sadat told parliament.

On Monday the pro-Al-Sisi faction suffered a defeat when Suleiman Wahdan, an MP affiliated with the opposition Wafd Party, was elected as deputy speaker at the expense of the pro-Sisi bloc’s nominee, Alaa Abdel-Moneim. Wahdan got 285 votes to Abdel-Moneim’s 281.

Though Abdel-Aal tried his best to appear neutral at this week’s opening meetings, insisting he was keen “to open the floor to all MPs and reflect the diversity of the new parliament”, he nonetheless lashed out at two independent MPs — Bahaa Al-Khouli and Hesham Magdi — who challenged his interpretation of some constitutional articles.

Abdel-Aal graduated from Ain Shams University’s Faculty of Law in 1972, after which he joined the office of Egypt’s prosecutor-general.

“I am now a professor of constitutional and administrative law,” he told MPs. “I received a Master’s degree in 1973 and a PhD in constitutional law from the Sorbonne University in Paris in 1984.”

Emad Gad, a political analyst and MP affiliated with the Free Egyptians Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly that this week’s election of the speaker and two deputies reflected an unprecedented level of competition.

“It was by no means a foregone conclusion. Egypt’s parliament is behaving in the way parliaments behave everywhere. It is forming blocs that then attempt to hammer out an agreement on crucial issues such as the election of a speaker.”

Abdel-Aal, says Gad, was elected because a majority of MPs believe his legal expertise qualifies him for the job, and his conservative politics will allow him to build bridges with state institutions such as the presidency and the judiciary.

“Deputies must not get into the habit of summoning the ghost of the NDP every time things do not go their way,” said Gad.

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