Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1311, (8 - 21 September 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Parliamentary post-mortem

While House of Representatives’ Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal was full of praise for parliament’s first session, analysts say MPs failed to exercise their supervisory role. Gamal Essam El-Din investigates the rival claims

Parliamentary post-mortem
Parliamentary post-mortem
Al-Ahram Weekly

As the House of Representatives concluded its first parliamentary session on Tuesday speaker Ali Abdel-Aal praised the legislative and supervisory roles parliament has played during the last eight months.

Addressing MPs Abdel-Aal said meetings had taken place “by day and night to debate and endorse laws” and that the scope of parliament’s activities was “unprecedented”.

In a 15-page statement delivered before MPs, Abdel-Aal said parliament had got through the bulk of its agenda. It debated and passed 334 laws that the constitution stipulated must be ratified within 15 days of MPs first sitting. “We also drafted new internal bylaws and a code of conduct in a record time,” said Abdel-Aal.

The bylaws increased the number of parliamentary committees to 28.

The House, Abdel-Aal added, had also passed 27 laws addressing pressing economic and social issues. “These laws tackled important financial issues, including the imposition of a value-added tax (VAT), the 2016-2017 budget and new economic development plans.”

Abdel-Aal praised a new law regulating the building of churches — “it facilitates the construction and restoration of churches via a number of clear-cut measures,” he said — and  legislation making the conduct of female genital mutilation (FGM) a felony rather than a misdemeanor.

In judicial terms, Abdel-Aal noted the passing of new legislation regulating the filing of appeals before the Court of Cassation. “And we also approved a law which states that pensions rise by ten per cent,” he said.

According to its speaker, parliament “has never acted as a yes machine for government laws”.

“We rejected laws which were not in the interests of ordinary citizens, particularly those on low incomes,” said Abdel-Aal. “We also compelled the government to increase the annual raise in salaries of government employees to seven per cent.”

“Two laws that attempted to levy charges on the public to improve health and social services, provisions for policemen and judges were also rejected. Instead, a new police law was passed imposing tougher disciplinary measures on policemen who violate citizens’ rights.”

Abdel-Aal claimed the House of Representatives is the first parliament in 60 years to force a cabinet minister to resign. “The report compiled by a parliamentary fact-finding committee marshalled strong evidence against the minister of supply who as a result was forced to resign before parliament moved to withdraw confidence from him,” said Abdel-Aal.

Political commentators and opposition and independent MPs have a very different take on parliament’s performance in its first session. Under Abdel-Aal, they say, parliament has been forced “to toe the government’s line”.

Independent MP Samir Ghattas complains that Abdel-Aal repeatedly prevented MPs from discussing questions and interpellations directed at cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Sherif Ismail. “Pro-government practices, and the refusal to allow parliamentary debates to be broadcast live on television, have resulted in a majority of MPs absenting themselves from plenary sessions,” says Ghattas.

Bahaaeddin Abu Shoka, chairman of parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, takes the opposite view. “The fact that most of the laws approved were drafted by the government stems from the fact these laws were heavily revised by the State Council. Most MPs are new, and lack the experience to draft laws,” said Abu Shoka.

Abu Shoka also insisted that “a majority of MPs not attending debates is a worldwide parliamentary phenomenon”.

Parliament’s failure to force the government to move to improve Egypt’s human rights record is symptomatic of MPs failure to exercise their supervisory role, says Ghattas. “The constitutional stipulation new laws on transitional justice, street protests and the media be passed in the first session was ignored because of parliament’s reluctance to exert any pressure on the government,” claimed Ghattas.

Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Magdi Al-Agati told reporters on Monday that “laws on transitional justice, the media and street protests are currently being revised by the State Council and legal experts”.

“That they were not submitted to parliament in the first session is not a constitutional violation,” argued Al-Agati. “The constitution merely recommended that parliament issue these laws in the first session whereas constitutional article 156 clearly stipulated that presidential decrees issued after the constitution was passed in January 2014 would be automatically cancelled parliament failed to ratify them within 15 days of first sitting.”

The inability to force the government to act to improve human rights constitutes MPs biggest failure, insists Ghattas. “Two MPs, including the head of the Human Rights Committee decided to resign after speaker Abdel-Aal refused to help the committee perform its job,” said Ghattas.

Margaret Azer, deputy head of the committee, notes “members have been unable to visit prisons or conduct a review of conditions in prison cells and police stations”.

“We sought help from Speaker Abdel-Aal to exert pressure on the prime minister and force Interior Minister Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar to allow MPs to pay regular visits to prisons but he refused to intervene.”

In a statement to reporters last week Anwar Al-Sadat, the former head of the committee, said his resignation was prompted by “the lack of cooperation from parliament’s speaker, secretariat-general and the government in responding to the committee’s memorandums detailing complaints raised by citizens about injustices done to them” and because of “parliament’s refusal to communicate with the outside world in terms of implementing Egypt’s international commitments and defending its image abroad”.

Al-Ahram political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie says parliament’s legislative and supervisory achievements “can only be judged in terms of the extent MPs have influenced the decision-making process in Egypt and their ability to act as a counterbalance to the executive authority.”

“In this respect parliament has been a major disappointment. Not only are a majority of MPs new, lacking the experience necessary to hold the government to account, Speaker Abdel-Aal, well-known as a regime loyalist, acted to cushion the government from any serious criticism.”

Parliament has now adjourned for a month long summer recess.

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