Egyptians, mask-clad due to the COVID-19 pandemic, queue up outside a polling station on August 11, 2020 for a new senate in an upper house election. (Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Analysis

Egypt’s Elections and Parliament: Old Habits Never Die

Over the past year while the world was reeling in a pandemic that disrupted lives on all fronts, many countries carried out their planned elections and referenda, and Egypt was among them. Between July and December 2020, the National Elections Authority (NEA) administered elections for Egypts two houses of parliament—the House of Representatives and the newly-formed Senate. The recent amendments to the Political Rights Law state that the House is comprised of 568 elected members, of which 25 percent should be women. The president can appoint up to 5 percent of the chamber’s members. On the other hand, the Senate is comprised of 300 members of which 10 percent are designated to women—200 members are directly elected, while the remaining 100 are appointed by the president. According to Egypts Constitution, as amended in 2019, this bicameral system represents the legislative branch. 

On paper, the two houses have different roles and responsibilities, but the reality is different. The Senate, which replaced the Shura Council revoked under the 2014 Constitution, has a generally ceremonial consultative role as stated in articles 7 and 8 of its law, whereby its duties are proposing what it deems necessary “to consolidate and expand democratic rule, support social peace, and freedoms.” In addition, it provides consultation on proposals to amend any articles of the Constitution, state plans for social and economic development, treaties (especially ones related to the rights of sovereignty), as well as comment on draft laws referred by the president or the House. It is still not yet clear what the agenda of the new Senate looks like since it has only met to elect its speaker and deputies and just recently had its internal regulations approved by the newly-elected House of Representatives.

The House is supposed to have a more active role in proposing and issuing necessary laws and regulations; and acting as a check to the executive branch, among other regular tasks expected from any parliament. However, since the election of the first parliament under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisis tenure in 2015, the body has acted as a rubber stamp to the presidency and the executive branchs wishes under the pretext of defending and consolidating the power of the state. In fact, it reduced its own role—under the coercion and encroachment of the security apparatus—into a mouthpiece and defender of the executive branch regardless of issue, rather than serving as any sort of check. For instance, in its first 15 days according to Article 156 of the Constitution, the House of Representatives and its speaker Ali Abdel Aal had to review and approve over 330 laws that were issued by both the interim and elected presidents. 

Some have argued that the that parliament should be judged based on the prevailing environment during its 2015 legislative term—from domestic terrorism, social strife and economic hardship to external threats from countries like Libya and Ethiopia. During this tumultuous period, parliament approved the massive regulatory changes needed for economic reforms and an open investment climate, that is allowing for the ongoing massive infrastructural overhaul and attracting much-needed foreign investment. Nonetheless, it’s also during the past legislative term, the House and the government increased the socioeconomic burdens on the people for years to come by increasing taxation, introducing VAT and approving numerous billion dollars in loans. 

Whats new and different about the 2021 Parliament?

Both houses of parliament share some noticeable changes. For instance, the new parliament has the most women representation in the country’s history, after implementing quotas (25 percent in the House and 10 percent in the Senate). Both also elected former Chief Justices of the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) as speakers—Abdel Wahab Abdel Razek for the Senate and Hanafi Gebaly for the House. Both former judges, along with others who were appointed to parliament, enabled blatant abuse of numerous laws by the executive branch and the security services. It was under Gebalys tenure in 2018 that the SCC annulled opposing court rulings surrounding the transfer of the Red Sea Islands Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia.   

Most noticeable is the high turnover among House members, with the majority members in the bicameral legislature from the Nations Future Party (Mostaqbal Watan). The rise came with increased youth representatives who were selected from the Presidential Youth Program (PLP) and the recently-founded coalition of young party members and politicians. There is also the return of former National Democratic Party (NDP) members and associates who are businessmen, members of influential families in the Delta and Upper Egypt, and family members of former parliamentarians who are running in their stead (essentially inheriting their seats)— prompting the joke that Hosni Mubaraks son Gamal was the only one who couldn’t inherit his fathers position. The complete demise of the Free Egyptians Party, which had the highest number of seats (56) in the previous parliament, was also very noticeable. Similarly, the Salafist Al-Nour Party, which was once in control of 111 seats in 2012—second only to the now-banned Muslim Brotherhoods Freedom and Justice Party—won only seven seats.  

According to the final results announced by the NEA, most of the House MPs are new, after 409 members of the previous parliament either didn’t run or lost their seats, with only 176 incumbents remaining. The turnover of over 70 percent of the parliament included both government loyalists like Mortada Mansour and Abdel Rahim Ali, and critics such as Ahmed Tantawi and Haitham el Hariri. The latter faces charges of vote-buying and breaking the electoral silence prior to the 2020 elections. Both Tantawi and el Hariri were members of the coalition of 25-30 parliamentarians who criticized and voted against the infamous Red Sea treaty. Among the reasons attributed to this turnover are the re-districting of the independent seats and reprisal from the security services against both critics and acolytes. 

The Nations Future Party: a resurrection of the NDP?

The rise of the Nations Future Party (NFP) to the forefront of political parties raises several questions about the partys mission and program, and its supporters and funders. The partys mission on its website, believes that the security of the homeland and the territorial integrity are the first and absolute priority for all Egyptians.” It identifies empowering young people through various means to develop the country as its second priority, claiming to “have 120,000 young members from 27 governorates.” The site doesn’t show any party program or plans for how they would take on or implement any of their mission statement and pillars. 

This becomes especially critical when NFP is announced as majority party in the House by controlling 316 out of the 596 seats, a sharp increase from only 53 seats in 2015. NFP also heads 17 out of 25 committees in the House; two of its senior party members, Mohamed Aboul Enein (businessman and owner of Ceramica Cleopatra Group) and Counselor Ahmed Saad el-Din (former Secretary General of the previous House), are the two deputy Speakers of the House; in addition to the Speaker of the Senate, Judge Abdel Razek, who is the president of NFP.  

The NFP’s electoral success, as well as the token representation of other insignificant parties in parliament, wouldn’t have been possible without the alleged coordination and engineering of lists and seats by the National Security Agency (NSA)—formerly the State Securityof the Ministry of Interior. National Security officers and the agency have significant experience in handling and designing domestic politics and elections, including managing the relationship between the state and Islamists during Hosni Mubaraks reign. According to Mada Masrs reporting, NSA officials have been involved heavily since the constitutional referendum of 2019, and some officers advocatedfor the return of the upper house [Senate] as a means of expanding the space to build and cement allegiances,” and as a reward to those who contribute to and support the state.

These developments and the reports associating NFP with the NSA and the Peoples Republican Party (PRP) with the General Intelligence Services (GIS), showcase the regimes adamant position to not allow for any independent voices to organize without their consent—all under the pretext of fighting infiltrators and combating terrorism. This is also reminiscent of the closely coordinated relationship security services established with the defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) especially during election season or for pro-regime causes. So far, the security apparatus wants to maintain the façade of electoral politics without yielding an inch. It controls the entire process, from amending laws to vetting and selecting candidates to coercing businessmen to bankroll campaigns and political parties. 

However, it will be important to watch how the security apparatus maintains this tight lid and manipulates the different groups while preventing the ascendence and growth of any single one.

The rise of the Youth Coalition: a state-sponsored gateway to power  

The Coordination of Political Parties’ Youth and Politicians (CPYP) was established in 2018 as one of the recommendations of the Fifth National Youth Conference after President Sisi called on political parties to merge and form an opposition bloc,” citing the “critical need to prepare future political leaders.” Such an announcement calling for plurality, opposition groups, and youth engagement continue the top-down approach to politics employed by Egypts regimes. After all, it was late President Anwar Sadat who decided in 1977 to officially open the political space by forming a centrist party, the NDP, and allowing opposition parties on the right and left. In addition to attempts at political engineering, every president from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak attempted to create select youth groups—an approach adopted by Islamists as well, whether it be youth wings for the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist movements. 

The youth coordination body includes representatives from over 20 political parties, independents as well as some graduates of the Presidential Leadership Program administered by the National Training Academy (NTA). As part of the youth representation in parliament, CYPY members won seats in both houses of parliament, 28 seats in the House and 5 seats in the Senate—all as part of the closed electoral list system, also winning seats in several House committees. The group prides itself in transcending ideologies and developing a new concept and understanding of politics as their motto states. The CPYP sees its goal as strengthening political parties and creating channels of communication with the state through direct dialogue with officials, in addition to issuing statements, organizing community dialogues and launching socio-economic campaigns. To expand its reach, it most recently launched its club on the popular social media app Clubhouse. In short, CPYP is doing what any political party is supposed to do but without calling it a party. 

Carrying out all these tasks in just three years represents a large undertaking by youth—especially when it is fully endorsed and supported by the state. However, the legal framework and structure governing this coordination body remain unclear. If it isn’t a registered party abiding by the rules and responsibilities of the political parties’ law, then is it a civil society organization, a company, or a new hybrid? What is the groups income scheme that allows for organizing trainings, supporting its newly-elected representatives and recently expanding its downtown office? Moreover, who is covering the cost of the CPYP cooperation protocol with the global consulting and mediation company Willis Towers Watson (WTW) to evaluate and develop youth leadership. While there are no clear answers to these questions, its imperative to seek answers and closely follow the work of the CPYP moving forward.

What to expect from the new parliament?

In its first act after electing the House leaders, the Speaker—in a show of power—called on the Prime Minister and his Cabinet to testify and answer questions from the new House members. This was the first time the House of Representatives, including the previous 2015-20 session, used its constitutional powers to question the Egyptian government (excluding the Ministers of Interior and Defense) about its programs and progress. This was hailed as a step to regain some legitimacy in the eyes of Egyptians. However, this development was overshadowed by several incidents. MP Abdelalim Dawood accused the Nation’s Future Party of vote buying, prompting an internal purge in the Wafd Party as well as a possible disciplinary action by the House against the parliamentarian that could lead to his dismissal. This saga coincided with a debate around the tax exemption of Senate members’ monthly stipend, something already enjoyed by members of the House. The idea was ultimately struck down at the end, raising questions regarding the discrepancy between members of both bodies, and more importantly regarding why the salaries of House members are tax-exempt in the first place.

Despite what might be regarded as a rubber stamp or ineffective parliament, the new changes and players, namely the NFP and the CPYP, could provide some new ways to look at Egypt’s internal politics. It seems that the state is invested in revitalizing the role of the parliament by permitting some scrutiny of the government and its draft laws, especially when it comes to social and economic issues that could lead to possible public unrest.

A recent example to showcase this aforementioned dynamic is the recent confrontation on the House floor regarding the implementation of amendments to the Public Notary Law pertaining to real estate registration, set to go into effect on March 6. The NFP party called for postponing its implementation, rebuking the government’s hastened approach without serious consideration for the people’s socioeconomic challenges. This was suddenly settled with a presidential directive to postpone implementation of the law for two years, hailed as a success both for the pressure applied by the NFP and the reaction of the President. Similarly, a draft of a new Personal Status Law prompted a debate and harsh statements from civil society and women’s rights organizations. Consequently, NFP used this as an opportunity to criticize the government drafting of laws without any serious societal debate or proper legal review.

This all seems to fall in-line with recent comments by President Sisi acknowledging that the people have a right to express their opinion and the state “accepts opposition views that aim to improve people’s lives,” or what he referred to as  purposeful opposition.” While the past elections didn’t represent a serious shift in decision-making and politics at large, there are still nominal members representing both the Social Democratic and the Reform and Development Parties who are willing to pose difficult questions and voice some outspoken opposition to Egypt’s statement in response to the international rebuke to its human rights record. Yet, one wonders if these voices could continue on this path, especially with the rise of a security-supported majority party across the bicameral parliament and a cadre of youth as both loyal and opposition tools.