On Egypt’s proposed Senate: A constitution reversed

The package of proposed constitutional amendments that could allow Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to remain president until 2034 also suggests reintroducing a second parliamentary chamber, similar to the Shura Council that was abolished in 2014 for enabling corruption.

On February 6 Parliament’s General Committee accepted a proposal, submitted by the head of a parliamentary coalition dubbed Alliance to Support Egypt, to amend the Constitution in several ways. It was approved in principle by an overwhelming parliamentary majority on February 14.

According to the committee’s report on the amendments, the purpose of re-establishing an upper house in Parliament, this time called the Senate, is to “increase societal representation, expand participation, and include as many voices and opinions as possible.”

Many of the 50-member committee that wrote the 2014 Constitution believed the Shura Council functioned as a backdoor to corruption and a tool used by those in power to keep allies onside. This was a major reason for its abolishment in the Constitution.

The proposed amendment

The new chamber is to include at least 250 members on five-year terms. Two-thirds are to be elected, while the remaining third will be chosen by the president. They may not have simultaneous membership of the lower house, the 586-member house of representatives, or People’s Assembly.

According to the proposed amendment, the Senate will have a duty to “discuss and propose what it deems necessary to protect the principles of 25 January and 30 June revolution, support national unity and social peace, preserve society’s main elements and supreme values, rights, freedoms and public duties, and to deepen the democratic system.”

The amendment stipulates that the Senate will be consulted regarding the following:

  • Proposed amendment/s to the Constitution
  • Draft legislation supplementing the Constitution
  • Public budgeting for social and economic development
  • Peace and alliance treaties, and all agreements related to state sovereignty
  • Draft legislation referred by the president
  • All topics related to the state’s public policy and foreign and Arab affairs policies

The Senate would then deliver its advisory opinion to both the president and the House of Representatives.

The amendment also stipulates that Cabinet members cannot be held accountable by the Senate.

The old Shura

The proposed Senate is almost identical to the Shura Council, established in 1979 after a public referendum. In 1980, new sections were added to the Constitution to lay out the Shura’s role and executive regulations, according to which it was responsible for “discussing and proposing all that it deems necessary to protect the principles of the 1952 revolution and the 1971 corrective revolution, support national unity and social peace, protect the people’s labor alliance and socialist gains, preserve society’s main elements and supreme values, rights, freedoms and public duties, and deepen the socialist democratic system.”

The 1971 Constitution also stipulated that the Shura Council offer consultation regarding six domains, the same as those stipulated in the current proposed amendment, listed above. Further amendments were made to the 1971 Constitution in 2007, some of which concerned the Shura Council’s responsibilities. They limited its advisory opinion to only three domains: public budgeting for social and economic development, draft legislation referred by the President, and all topics related to the state’s public policy and foreign and Arab affairs policies.  

After leading Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Morsi was elected president in 2012, the Brotherhood entered a political struggle to control the reins of government. Following the dissolution of the 2012 Islamist-dominated Parliament just before Morsi became president, the Muslim Brotherhood needed a legislative body to rule. Thus, the 2012 Constitution granted the Shura Council full legislative authority until a new house of representatives was elected, in addition to other jurisdictions, such as approving the president’s appointments of directors of auditing and the independent bodies of state organizations.

After Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, the 2012 Constitution was suspended and a 50-member committee was formed to write a new constitution.

Why was the old Shura Council abolished?

According to the meeting minutes of this 50-member committee, the question of maintaining or abolishing the Shura Council was one of the most contentious. A vote abolished the council with a narrow majority.

Remarkably, both supporters and opposers on the committee agreed on the significant political corruption that manifested in the council.

During the discussions, Sameh Ashour, head of the Lawyers Syndicate, said the public’s impression of the Shura Council was that it was a way to “reward and distribute offices to members of the [ruling] National Democratic Party who had electoral weight, who could not be satisfied through the house of representatives only.”

This was reflected in the turnout for Shura Council elections, Ashour said: It had not exceeded 6% of eligible voters in the last election.

Gaber Nassar, former head of Cairo University and a constitutional law professor, told fellow committee members that the Shura Council had two main purposes: Poisoning the partisan experience through its power to approve or reject the formation of new parties, and allowing the ruling party and government to control the press.

The executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies, Abla Abdel Lateef, predicted that if it was kept, the Shura Council “will retain the same bad reputation, especially as it will be linked to the appointment of people, and will remain as a backdoor for corruption.”

Although Al-Sayed al-Badawi, former Wafd Party president, argued for keeping the Shura Council as a second legislative chamber, he agreed with other committee members that it was “corrupt” and functioned as an entity to “please [certain forces].”  

Badawi also felt, however, that the Council might act as a “guarantee for thorough revisions of legislation” and “fill the legislative and regulatory vacuum in case of a dissolution of the house of representatives.”

Refaat Dagher, former Farmers Syndicate secretary, defended the existence of two legislative chambers too. He explained that “in light of a new Constitution and the new political forces, if one party takes a majority, it will be allowed to form the Cabinet without overall approval of the house of representatives,” adding that “if there are two legislative chambers, legislation will be better than if there is only one chamber controlled by a certain tendency.”

The same rationale appears in the current General Committee’s justification for reintroducing a second legislative chamber. Its report states that the “bicameral system exists in various developed parliamentary systems and it guarantees efficient legislative process by allowing a thorough and careful discussion and study of draft laws and legislation in both chambers, which is difficult to achieve in the unicameral system.”

The bicameral system’s purpose is not necessarily linked to improving the legislative environment, however, as pointed out by leftist leader and leading member of the Tagamoa Party Hussein Abdel Razek during the 50-member committee discussions in 2013. He brought up the fact that only 77 of the 177 states in the global Inter-Parliamentary Union use the bicameral system. It is usually used in “big countries with large populations consisting of different ethnicities or nationalities, or in federal or confederal systems,” he said, while “the unicameral system is usually adopted by countries with unsophisticated political systems or those without racial or ethnic struggles.”

Amro al-Shobaky, a political commentator and a member of the 50-member committee who voted to abolish the Shura Council, told Mada Masr that a second parliamentary chamber exists in many democracies, but as a body of advisors to revise and examine legislation, not as a space to recruit supporters for the ruling party.  

Shobaky believes that re-establishing one in Egypt is not a sound idea due to the enduring lack of guarantees that it would function like its counterparts in other democracies.

Other amendments in the proposed changes currently on the table relate to the legislature, the judiciary, the media and the military. According to a timeline laid out by the parliamentary speaker, the amendments will be put to a national referendum before the start of Ramadan in early May.

On the same day Parliament voted to advance the proposed amendments, a group of political parties, public figures and members of the committee that drafted the 2014 Constitution launched a petition to “categorically” oppose them. Several recent arrests have been linked to opposition to the amendments, including the arrest of four members of the Dostour Party.

Mohamed Hamama 

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