Egypt’s Roadmap to Nowhere

The new parliament in Cairo is just a fig leaf for President Sisi's authoritarian rule.

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This Sunday, Egypt’s new parliament will finally gather “under the dome,” as Egyptians call their country’s parliament building — but it doesn’t look like there will be much debating. In its first session, the new legislators are expected to rubber-stamp at least 241 laws that have already been put into effect by presidential decree over the last two years.

This is Egypt’s first parliament since a court dissolved the last one in 2012, arguing that the legislation governing its election had been flawed. When President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, then the country’s top general, announced the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated President Morsi in July 2013, he laid out a “roadmap” — a set of goals meant to mark a transition back to democracy — that included provisions for parliamentary elections.

These were finally held in November and December, electing almost entirely pro-regime legislators, mostly independent candidates and a few representing political parties. Egypt’s new parliament includes no meaningful opposition.

According to Sisi’s roadmap, the transition back to democracy is now complete. In reality, though, it looks as though Egypt will be a democracy in name only. The country’s obsequious parliament may make governance easier in the short term, but it will not be an effective arena for resolving political disputes. The lack of alternative views will also hinder the development of sound policy to head off economic and political crises — and pressure on both of those fronts is growing.

Before mass protests unseated President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt’s parliament had been dominated by his National Democratic Party, which served as a rubber stamp of the leader’s authoritarian policies rather than as a true representative of the people. After the revolution, Egypt’s first real competitive elections in the fall of 2011 led to a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. For Egyptians to see a parliament filled with Islamists, who for years had been tarred by the state as Egypt’s enemies, was a stunning reversal — but it didn’t last. The parliament was dissolved by court order, and after July 2013 most of its members were locked up in a dragnet that swept up anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Just recently, images surfaced of Saad el-Katatny, the once-plump head of that short-lived assembly, looking gaunt in a courtroom cage.

This time, the electorate voted in 568 representatives, 75 of whom are former police and army officers. As the constitution allows, Sisi then appointed another 28 representatives to the parliament himself. In their campaigns, candidates flaunted their lack of allegiance to any political parties and bragged that they had no platforms other than supporting and executing president Sisi’s policies. Meanwhile, the president, the state apparatus, and the state-run media have regularly denounced the opposition, including independent civil society organizations and political activists, as unpatriotic or even treasonous.

The uprisings that overthrew Mubarak created genuine uncertainty, and the government’s talking points have repeatedly raised the specter of unrest. In such an electoral climate, it was nearly impossible for any opposition parties to get into parliament. “Egyptian citizens don’t want to hear the word ‘January’ or the ‘January Revolution,’” says Basem Kamel of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, referring to the uprisings that overthrew Mubarak and inaugurated the country’s last few years of instability. Back in 2011, Kamel was an early leader among the activists who chased Mubarak out. Now he laments that so many Egyptians no longer want to risk change, seeming to prefer the stability promised by Sisi. “They’ll say ‘no, don’t go and criticize the authorities,’” he says.

So it’s no wonder that Egypt’s new parliament is packed with pro-regime legislators. Most of its seats were determined by individual races, but about a fifth were reserved for the winners of a competition among party-like “lists” of candidates. The victorious list, “For the Love of Egypt,” itself consisted of candidates from multiple political parties, and so had no unifying ideology. But many of its members are Mubarak-era officials, and the list was understood to support Sisi’s regime, and to enjoy the regime’s support in return. Recently, a key former campaigner for president Sisi alleged that the presidential administration and the intelligence services had helped select the list’s candidates. Kamel also told an Egyptian newspaper that security forces were pressuring candidates to join the list.

“This list supports the June 30 Revolution and the results of the revolution, and supports the political and economic projects of President Sisi,” says Mahmoud Nafady, a campaign manager for a pro-Sisi legislator, and a supporter of the list. He dismisses the need for a parliament made up of opposing parties who support different platforms, arguing that such partisanship would lead to unrest and conflict. What is important, he insists, is for everyone to support the president.

“For the Love of Egypt” was formed and is led by a former intelligence official, Sameh Seif al-Yazal. But though he leads a list, Yazal has been forthright in his opinion that even such a deferential parliament has too much power. Even before the parliament began its work, pro-regime editorials in both state-run and private newspapers have echoed his comments that it was only going to get in the president’s way. In fact, there are no significant opponents to Sisi’s policies among the newly elected legislators. And in any case, an article in Egypt’s 2014 constitution, which was drafted after Morsi’s ouster, allows Sisi to dissolve the legislature in cases of “necessity” that are not specifically defined.

Even would-be allies of the regime have been marginalized in favor of a narrower and more pro-Sisi parliament. The National Movement Party is headed by Ahmed Shafiq, a former air-force general who was the military’s candidate in Egypt’s last competitive presidential elections. The party supports the government, and was set to be a major player in the most recent parliamentary elections, as its leadership had experience with nationwide campaigning — a rare asset in Egypt. But the party faced an uphill battle getting its message to the voters in a hostile media climate. The repeatedly delayed elections made it difficult for it to sustain voter support. And Egypt’s election laws favor independents with narrow, local bases of support rather than nationwide ideological organizations. In the end, many of the National Movement’s candidates balked, preferring to run as independents rather than risk campaigning under the banner of a troubled party. The once-formidable organization will have only four legislators in parliament under its banner, and 10 who ran as independents.

Even the Salafist Nour party, which risked alienating its Islamist constituents when it supported Sisi’s overthrow of President Morsi, has little to show for its loyalty to the government. Its campaign was hobbled by gerrymanding and a hostile media. So, though it held over 20 percent of the parliament in 2011-2012 and remains a well-organized group, only a handful of its candidates made it into parliament this time around. Its head, Younes Makhyoun, warned that low Islamist representation in parliament would drive young people towards violence.

Meanwhile, the dominance of pro-regime legislators in the new parliament is perhaps the first step towards the resurgence of a new pro-regime party — like Mubarak’s old NDP. Jason Brownlee, a scholar who has studied political parties in Egypt and other autocracies, suggests that this scenario is possible, as Sisi will probably need a party in the near future.

Regardless, though, it’s already clear that Egypt’s new parliament is not a victory for democracy, but rather a serious setback. The fact that it is expected to uncritically approve Sisi’s undemocratically-passed laws with little or no debate “sets a precedent that the parliament exists to symbolically approve the actions of the executive,” wrote Mai El-Sadany, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy who tracks the legislative process under Sisi, in an email. “This, in turn, contributes to a weaker democratic process and allows laws that were passed to constrain rights and freedoms to become permanent.” 

It will also hinder the government’s ability to tackle Egypt’s many problems. A currency crisis, a struggling tourism sector, crumbling infrastructure, and widespread corruption can only be properly addressed by utilizing the talents and knowledge of a wide range of political actors. Instead, Egypt’s new parliament merely offers a fig leaf for President Sisi’s authoritarian rule. The responsibility of meeting these challenges will rest with him.

In the photo, election officials count ballots at the end of the second round of voting for Egypt’s parliamentary election in Cairo on December 2, 2015.

Photo credit: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

Corrections, January 8, 2016: The legislator whose campaign Mahmoud Nafady managed supports President Sisi, but he is not a member of the “For the Love of Egypt” list, as the article originally stated. Egypt’s new parliament contains 75 former police and army officers — they are not all generals, as the article originally stated. And the National Movement does have four legislators in parliament and another 10 who are in parliament as independents. The article originally said that the National Movement had no presence in parliament.

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