Egypt will have a new parliament this month. This council, absent for over three years after the Constitutional Court dissolved the last one, will have two weeks to “discuss “ and endorse (or strike down) hundreds of laws that President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi and his predecessor, Adly Mansour, issued via decrees over the past two years.
The 2014 Constitution gave the president the right to legislate almost at will in the absence of a legislative assembly. Previous constitutions had limited this license to urgent and necessary situations. Former President Mansour and current President Sisi used this license to issue over 430 laws. Even if we exclude decrees to promulgate official budgets, we are left with about 200 laws. No parliament can get this job done in only two weeks, unless they work nonstop. Even then the fate of every law will have two hours for deliberation and voting.
But what are these laws and how necessary were they?
A recent study by Tarek Abdel Al of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights concludes that a large number of these laws were neither urgent nor necessary. There is a legal debate on this topic, particularly how the executive authority should use its temporary powers to decree laws. Most seem to agree, however, that it is necessary to rule by fiat if the state is under an imminent threat due to a massive natural disaster or war. Many constitutions, such as that of Brazil, highly restrict the temporary legislative prerogative of the executive branch to clearly exceptional circumstances.
Most of the laws issued by Sisi and his predecessor were driven by a desire to re-establish authoritarianism and legally vanquish political opposition in the domestic parlance. This was in order to regain the “awe” or “prestige” of the state. They were additionally interested in wooing foreign investment and reassuring big local business. These laws firmed up control over the political process starting from a well-crafted electoral law where the majority of seats are contested individually while parties and coalitions compete for about 25 percent of the seats on a winner-takes-all basis. They reinstated the power of the Constitutional Court to dissolve the parliament at any time if it deems the electoral law unconstitutional. They even abolished elections to select university deans opting for a selection process and appointment by presidential decrees.
Other laws served the interests of the business community especially on issues of taxation. The privileges of the military, the judiciary and the security agencies were enhanced through budget and salary increases. Finally, Sisi and Mansour’s laws, such as the infamous protest law, the anti-terrorism law (or the relevant amendments to the Penal Code), proscribed several of the rights that the 2014 constitutions enshrined. The amendments made what should otherwise be routine political action by parties or non-profit organization highly risky, possibly criminal and punishable by lengthy imprisonment terms or hefty fines. Such a legal arsenal effectively banned any opposition public gatherings and crippled civil society organizations, or at least put them on treacherous shifting legal sands.
Laws, more often than not, are political tools of the elite and the ruling regime to run a society. In democratic systems, many compromises are struck through the legislative process where various social forces compete and haggle to maximize their gains. This process is aided by free media, the right to assemble and protest and an independent judiciary. Jettisoning this cumbersome process, the two leaders — Sisi, and Mansour before him — have excessively used their prerogative to re-engineer the country politically, economically and even socially.
Even if they were given months to ponder these laws, the new parliament will most likely rubber stamp most if not all the laws that the two presidents enacted. The way the parliamentary elections have been engineered by the electoral law have led to a selective representation where big business, government bureaucracy (including security agencies), and big families in rural areas control the seats of the assembly. The Salafi Nour Party won 12 seats (compared to 112 seats in 2012). This will make the parliament more attuned to the interests of big business, individual constituency services, and national security interests as determined by the presidency and relevant agencies. Such a parliament would most likely pay no attention to the majority of laws issued by the last two presidents, if not declare a blanket support outright.
These are not necessarily good news for the ruling regime. This new arsenal of laws seems to have one thing in common: reasserting a rudderless authoritarianism, one that only serves itself and its constituents — the army, the ministry of interior, Al-Azhar, the bureaucracy, certain sectors of big business, etc. Consequently more Egyptians will be pushed outside the realm of formal politics and back into a desert of cynicism and violence. And indeed, Egyptians seem to be turning away from representative politics after a brief affair; the turnout for the latest parliamentary elections’ first round is 25 percent, and the second round is 23 percent (compared to a total turnout of over 54 percent in 2011).
Egypt’s new parliament could likely become its last authoritarian one. Its performance could rekindle hopes for reform or continue the current path of accelerated erosion of public confidence in politics and peaceful change.