Egyptian Parliament: Beyond a Talking Shop
By: Lina Attalah
Published Thursday, February 16, 2012
CAIRO – Until a little more than a year ago, televised parliamentary sessions in Egypt were nothing but a lousy interruption from people’s soap opera watching routine. Commonly fraudulent elections under the Hosni Mubarak regime had reduced parliament to a sheer gesture of democracy. But with a new parliament born in the context of a revolution, people are watching sessions more closely.
Since sessions kicked off in February, parliament’s plenary sessions have been grabbing the country’s attention. In one of the sessions, Salafi MP Mamdouh Ismail attempted to recite the call for prayer while in the parliamentary chamber. This prompted a feud with Parliamentary Speaker Saad Al-Katatny of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, who ridiculed Ismail by saying “you are not more Islamic than us.”
In another session, Free Egyptians Party MP Mohammed Abu Hamed heroically raised a buckshot shell in the face of Al-Katatny. The parliament speaker had just told the chamber that according to the interior minister, no bullets were fired in the wave of violence between police and protesters in downtown Cairo following the deadly Port Said football match. The image of Abu Hamed waving the shell – which had been collected from downtown Cairo – at al-Katatny became iconic.
These and other scenes became the talk of the city. Online social media networks were awash with comments and digital artwork depicting a parliament that is unable to engage in a serious debate about the country’s democratic transition and future. For many revolutionaries, the new parliament doesn’t represent the end result of their revolution.
Many say that this parliament is not the revolution’s parliament. Seventy percent of parliament seats are held by Islamists, while the revolution included people of varying political persuasion. This raises questions about institutional representation and procedural democracy. In a recent op-ed published in Al-Masry Al-Youm, Tamer Waguib wrote that the performance in parliament has thus far been frustrating for revolutionaries, especially considering most Islamist MPs did not support the street protests that ensued following the Port Said massacre.
But underneath the media shows and the performance politics, can this parliament promise change considering the plethora of legislative challenges it has been faced with?
“It’s too early to evaluate the parliament,” says Magdi al-Khuraibi, MP and member of the Popular Socialist Alliance. “It’s true that political Islam has dominated the parliament and is giving us little room to operate, but the voice of the Left remains relevant because we are the most tuned in to the Egyptian street.”
Al-Khuraibi is member of the Industry and Energy Committee, one of 19 specialized parliamentary committees. Recently, MPs in this committee have been discussing the issue of the Dabaa nuclear plant. This controversial project in the north coast of Egypt recently prompted protests from residents claiming that the government wrongly took their land to build the reactor. According to al-Khuraibi, a parliamentary delegation has been formed out of the committee to meet up with residents and find a way to resolve the dispute.
“We are dealing with real issues in these committees, and hence there is no space for ideological disputes,” al-Khuraibi says. “No matter how disappointed people are, we will never be the parliament of the [former ruling] National Democratic Party. We have serious social and economic challenges ahead of us.”
Al-Khuraibi, who is an employee at an electric firm in the Delta city of Daqahliyah, thinks that parliament can’t afford to enter into ideological feuds. He believes that Egyptians expect the parliament to pursue policies which fulfill the promises of the revolution.
Bassem Kamel, MP and member of the Social Democratic Party, describes the committees’ work as the most efficient thus far in parliament. “People may be disappointed with the parliament, but know very little about what happens in the committees,” he says.
“There is a lot of bullsh** in the plenary sessions and many MPs care about making an appearance on TV for their followers to watch them and cheer for them,” Kamel adds.
Kamel, an architect, is a member of the housing committee. He and fellow MPs have been discussing with the concerned minister a number of social housing projects including the “Build Your House” and the “One-Million Housing Units” initiatives. Both of these projects have been delayed due to a lack of adequate financing. “We’re thinking of ways to lobby for a rise in spending on social housing in the government’s budget,” Kamel said.
Kamel is also chairing a hearing that will include a committee of urban planners and architects who will offer critiques of the Cairo 2050 plan. This contentious and extravagant urban development plan, inherited from the Mubarak era, involves residents’ relocation to the city’s peripheries to make way for fancy hotels and wide parks.
In the last few weeks, the complaints committee in parliament has submitted an amendment to the 2005 anti-trust law, which was engineered by former NDP stalwart and steel tycoon Ahmad Ezz who is now facing corruption charges. Also in the last weeks, the legislation committee submitted a law that allows parliament to level accusations against government officials, including ministers, and to put them in trial.
According to Wael Khalil, an activist, in addition to criticizing parliament, activists need to act as watchdogs. “We need to develop proper criteria for assessment, and not merely base our impressions on the shoptalk we’re witnessing.” Khalil said that a clearer understanding of how parliament works and activists agreeing on what is to be expected from committees is essential.
While parliament is falling short from representing the ambition of revolutionaries such as al-Khuraibi, Khalil sees it as susceptible to pressure from the street.
“We should not view the parliament and the forces of the street as two separate things. The street should keep questioning parliament on its performance, but delegitimizing the parliament altogether won’t solve the problem,” he says.
And while Kamel recognizes that the parliament is not revolutionary, Khalil sees that the parliament will only become revolutionary when the street pressures it to set the bar higher.
Many agree that the re-awakening of mass street protests on the anniversary of the 25 January protests emboldened the parliament in many ways. Whether it will have a decisive say in matters of high politics, such as the terms under which SCAF will give up its political power, remains in question. But on the more detailed and intricate map of legislation, change is likely to happen.