Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1315, (13 -19 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Egypt’s 150-year parliamentary history

Compiled by Gamal Essam El-Din

Al-Ahram Weekly

Egypt was the first Arab state to have a Western-style parliament. It was created on 22 October 1866 or one century and a half ago.

EGYPT’S MAGNA CARTA AND THE FIRST POPULAR PARLIAMENT (1795-1798): Most historians agree that the first assembly that can be compared to a Western parliament was established in 1866 by Khedive Ismail (1863-1879).

A minority, however, trace the history of Egypt’s first parliament to 1795, when hundreds of ordinary people and Muslim clerics from Cairo and the Nile Delta decided to meet at Al-Azhar mosque to protest the oppression they faced at the hands of Egypt’s ruling Mamelukes.

The 18th-century historian Abdel-Rahman Al-Gabarti (1756-1825) recounts how Al-Azhar mosque became a centre of resistance. “In 1795, hundreds of fellaheen from the Nile Delta and representatives and notables from Cairo, as well as leading religious clerics, chose Al-Azhar mosque to protest the taxation policies of Ibrahim Bey and Murad Bey),” wrote Al-Gabarti.

“They were able to force the two ruling Mamelukes to sign a charter obliging them to respect the rights and freedoms of citizens and refrain from imposing taxes without first consulting with Al-Azhar clerics and representatives of citizens.”

THE DIWANYAT PERIOD (1798-1866): When Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Egypt in 1798 he was keen to win the support of clerics and popular leaders. According to historian Abdel-Rahman Al-Rafei, “The day after his occupation of Cairo Napolean decided to form Al-Diwan Al-Am [Public Assembly].”

“The Diwan, the first of its kind, met under the presidency of Napoleon and included nine Azhar clerics who were asked to give recommendations as to how Napoleon should govern the country. The Diwan met at Napoleon’s house, the palace of former Mameluk ruler Murad Bey in Al-Azbakiya.”

During the reign of Mohamed Ali (1805-1848), reforms were pursued in every possible field. In August 1829 a Majlis Al-Shura (Advisory Council) was created to act as a consultative parliament for Mohamed Ali.

“The Majlis, the first of its kind, met under the presidency of Mohamed Ali’s oldest son, Ibrahim Pasha, who referred to it as his parliament,” writes Al-Rafei. “The 156-member council, which included notables, senior officials and clerics, would meet in the Citadel.

SHURA COUNCILS (1866-1923): In 1866, Khedive Ismail created a quasi-parliamentary body, the Shura Council of Representatives (Majlis Shura Al-Nuwwab). It consisted of 75 deputies, selected by a two-tiered vote. Representatives of the people, chosen by popular vote, would themselves elect members to the Assembly.

It was Ismail, writes Al-Rafei, who decided the Shura Council of Representatives should no longer meet at the Citadel but in the hall of the Ministry (Diwan) of Public Affairs.

“The offices of the Diwan of Public Affairs were built in 1860 and acted like a Ministry of Irrigation,” according to a publication issued jointly by Egypt’s parliament and the Bibliotheca Alexandria in 2005. “A hall was constructed as part of the building so irrigation and civil engineers and officials could meet.”

Ismail decided the hall should also be used for the sittings of the 75-member Shura Council of Representatives. The same space later served as the meeting chamber of the Senate (1923-1952) and the Shura Council (1980-2013).

The Shura Council of Representatives was Egypt’s first nationally elected parliament, argues Egyptian journalist and historian Salah Eissa. “It met at the hall of the Diwan of public works for the first time on 25 November 1866. It had no legislative powers and acted as an advisory council.”

THE AGE OF TWO HOUSES (1923-1952): The 1923 constitution ushered in a two-house parliament with the power of legislating and of withdrawing confidence from the government. The House of Representatives initially had 213 seats, which gradually increased to 319. The Senate had 120 seats to which, over the years, a further 60 were added.

While the two houses enjoyed an unprecedented degree of power in framing legislation and reviewing government policy, including approval and modification of the state budget, the king retained the right to dissolve both houses.

While the Senate would gather in the old Public Affairs Ministry, a new building was constructed in 1923 to accommodate the House of Representatives. The roof was a circular dome decorated with coloured glass. Two balconies overlooked the debating chamber.

The Pharaonic Lobby, created in 1923 to connect the homes of the House of Representatives and the Senate, was inaugurated on the 25 March 1924, the day of the opening of the first two-house parliament. The lobby, a pastiche of ancient Egyptian temple architecture, boasts 24 columns with papyrus flower capitals.

A SINGLE HOUSE (1957-1980): The House of Representatives and Senate were disbanded following the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952. In 1957, a 250-member National Assembly was established and in 1963 a national charter stipulated that half of the Assembly’s seats must be occupied by representatives of workers and farmers.

Each constituency would henceforth be represented by two deputies, one of them a peasant or worker and the other a fe’at or professional. The system remained in effect until it was revoked by the 2014 Constitution.

Following Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor as president, Anwar Al-Sadat, changed the name of the National Assembly to the People’s Assembly.

THE PEOPLE’S ASSEMBLY AND SHURA COUNCIL (1980-2015): In 1980, Sadat decided to revert to a bicameral system and set up the Shura Council to act as a consultative upper house. It included 264 members who were entrusted with revising laws, discussing the budget and recommending policies.

In 1984, under then-President Hosni Mubarak, a slate system was introduced, replacing the individual candidacy system by which deputies had been selected. Under the new system, candidates were obliged to run collectively on party slates.

The electorate voted for a party rather than individual candidates. Parties needed to win eight per cent of the national vote to gain a foothold in parliament.

After three years the system was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) on the grounds that it discriminated against independent candidates. In 1987 a combination of the slate and individual systems was used but this was also branded unconstitutional by SCC.

As a result, the individual candidacy system was reintroduced for the 1990 elections and remained in place until Mubarak’s ouster in 2011.

POST-REVOLUTION (2011-2015): Following the removal of Mubarak it was decided that the last parliament elected under his rule be dissolved. Fresh parliamentary elections were held at the end of 2011, resulting in an Islamist-dominated parliament.

It included 508 MPs elected under a mixed system of the individual candidacy and party lists. Five months later the SCC ruled that the election system unconstitutional and the 2011-2012 parliament was dissolved.

The new constitution drafted after Mohamed Morsi’s removal from office abolished the Shura Council and replaced the People’s Assembly with a House of Representatives. The next parliament, the first to be elected under the new constitution, will comprise 596 MPs, the highest number in Egypt’s 150-year parliamentary history. A total of 448 were elected as independents, 120 on party-based lists and the remaining 28 will be presidential appointees.

The 2014 Constitution strengthened the legislative and supervisory powers of parliament.

“The House has the unprecedented prerogative of withdrawing confidence from the president of the republic and is empowered to review all cabinet reshuffles. It will debate the policy statements delivered by the president and the prime minister at the beginning of each parliamentary session and can, if it chooses, reject them and demand a new government be formed. Nor can the president declare a state of emergency without parliamentary approval.”

The House can propose and pass new laws and modify, approve or reject government-sponsored legislation. In supervising government actions, members of the house can direct questions and interpellations to cabinet ministers, debate the reports of the Central Auditing Agency and establish fact-finding committees.

The Higher Elections Committee, which supervised the last parliamentary election held between 17 October and 2 December, reports that the new house will include representatives from a total of 20 political parties.


A NEW LIBERAL PARLIAMENT: During parliamentary elections, held between 17 October and 2 December, 568 MPs were elected. Of the total, 448 stood as independents and 120 on party lists. Twenty-eight MPs were appointed by the president.

The Free Egyptians Party, Future of Homeland and Wafd Party won the lion’s share of seats. The Free Egyptians Party, founded by Coptic billionaire Naguib Sawiris, came out on top with 65 seats (10.9 per cent), followed by Future of Homeland, funded by steel tycoon Ahmed Abu Hashima, with 53 seats (8.8 per cent), and the Wafd Party, headed by businessman Al-Sayed Al-Badawi, with 36 seats (6 per cent). Thirteen smaller secular parties won 73 seats between them, resulting in a liberal bloc of 220 MPs.

Islamist and leftist political parties were among the elections’ biggest losers. The Nour Party, the only Islamist force contesting the poll, won just 11 seats (1.8 per cent). Four leftist political parties —Tagammu, Arab Nasserist party, Popular Socialist Current, and Egyptian Social Democratic Party — fared even worse, securing just eight seats between them.

A distinctive feature about the new parliament is that groups that in the past were underrepresented have made headway. The House of Representatives now comprises 89 (14.9 per cent) elected female deputies and 39 Copts (6.5 per cent).
Physically challenged candidates won eight seats, the same number as representatives of expatriate Egyptians.

Media people (journalists and TV anchors) won 11 seats, and 50 seats went to former police and army officers.

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