While all eyes were focused in recent weeks on presidential elections and their results, attention should now turn to Egypt’s next vote for the new unicameral parliament, the House of Representatives. The significance of these elections comes from the results of the presidential elections and the events of the last few months. For many reasons only two candidates competed in the presidential election, which was settled in favor of one candidate long before it began. A genuine electoral competition was missing, which would have represented the new political map in Egypt and of the Egyptian voters’ inclinations given the recent dramatic changes in the political arena. The upcoming parliamentary elections are important in this respect: they will draw Egypt’s political map since they will be the first general elections since Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July of last year.
Observers expect these elections to be highly competitive and include all different political movements and parties. The general elections that were held all through last year (the January referendum on the constitution and the recent presidential elections) were limited to citizens of one main political affiliation, those supportive of the events of July 3, and were boycotted by a majority of the voters who reject the current political regime. These factors have prevented a real balance of political power in Egypt.
The foregone conclusion of Egypt’s presidential elections formed a “political blockage” that kept a segment of the Egyptian people from seeing their will reflected in the public sphere—a factor which must be addressed in the coming parliamentary elections. This will alleviate the political blockage and restore much of the social peace and political stability that were lost due to the major shift the country saw last year.
In this respect, the upcoming elections will be an important test for many political parties. On one hand it will be a test of the ability and willingness of Islamist currents to return to political life. Since Morsi’s ouster, almost no Islamist political party, and in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, have taken part in any electoral proceedings. The Brotherhood limited their political activity to organizing rallies against the government and the July 3 regime amid what are perceived as great security challenges due to violent events and terrorist acts that took hold of the country. On the other hand, there is no better or more appropriate occasion than the parliamentary elections to return to peaceful political operation. This would normally require a comprehensive political initiative from the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters in order to reengage in peaceful political participation through the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), their political arm, in order to guarantee their representation in the next parliament and reinforce their presence in Egypt’s political life.
With much of their leadership in jail, the incentive for the Brotherhood to take this step is to save their ‘existence’ and reputation as a political player. A large swathe of the Egyptian public blames the uptick in terrorist attacks in Egypt on the Brotherhood, so a political initiative may help alter the public perception that they are supporting terrorism, and will allow them a return to politics. Persistent protest has yielded no results for the Brotherhood, and the only way forward for them, for their sake and the sake of the country, is to influence political change by practicing politics, and not protesting. It is in their best interest to initiate the first step by issuing a clear statement that they have accepted the status quo and have decided to return to the political process by participating the next parliamentary elections through the FJP, which is still a legal political party. This move would push the government to deal with the issue in a different way, and could also lead to strong and competitive parliamentary elections.
In addition, it is important to ascertain the level of popular support for the Nour Party and test its ability to mobilize the masses as a political party that represents part of the political Islam movement (Salafists) who supported the July 3 events and most recently provided direct support to Sisi’s presidential run.
Moreover the parliamentary elections will also be a test of the government’s ability and willingness to hold unbiased elections, and to accommodate political differences and the Egyptian people’s anger and disapproval of the current political direction. Certainly the biggest responsibility falls on the state, which will need to offer the opposition, in all its forms, a space to achieve proper representation that matches its political weight.
The presence of a House of Representatives at the heart of the Egyptian political system are significant for two reasons. First, the parliament is an important element that counterbalances powers of the presidency and the government. According to Egypt’s new constitution ratified last January, the president enjoys wide authority over all sectors of the Egyptian state, which puts the president at the heart of the country’s political system. This arrangement, which has been in place since 1954, gives the president wide powers over the other state authorities, whether it be the government (the second branch of the executive authority) or the parliament (the legislative authority). In addition, the political circumstances and shifts in Egypt led to Sisi’s election of who came from a position of power and with great popular and institutional support, given that he is a scion of these institutions as former Defense Minister and head of intelligence. For these reasons, Egypt’s political life requires the election of a strong parliament capable of balancing out the de facto and constitutional power of the president.
Article 161 of the country’s constitution is an important tool through which the parliament can, at least theoretically, counterbalance the powers of the president. This article states that the House of Representatives has the powers to withdraw confidence – for any reason – from the president by a majority request and the approval of two thirds of the members. Undoubtedly, this new constitutional provision which was adopted for the first time in Egypt’s constitutional history, is a guarantee of great value that will help achieve a peaceful transfer of power in case of great popular opposition to the president’s performance. This also adds to the powers of the House of Representatives even if withdrawing confidence from the president is in fact in the hands of the people through general referendum. .
The second aspect of the House of Representatives’ role at the heart of the Egyptian political system is the dire need for a parliament with the inherent power to legislate. Egypt has been without one for more than three years, which is an obstacle to issuing new and important legislation, or amending old laws. These functions are essential to both the judicial and political institutions in the country. Egypt is increasingly in need of legislative amendments, especially after the ratification of the new constitution, as existing laws must be either amended or replaced with new legislation conforming to the new constitution.
Yussef Auf is a nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. His work focuses on Egyptian constitutional issues, elections, and judicial matters. He has been a judge in Egypt since 2007.