The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged parliament
Not even the MB really thinks the new constitution that great

One of the controversies about Egypt's new constitution is the way it has an ambiguous reference to al-Azhar having an advisory role as part of the expanded role of religion in state affairs. In January, we had the spectacle of the FJP's much-ballyhooed new Islamic finance law being twice rejected by al-Azhar, to the dismay of the Brothers, because it allows for (Islamically-correct) financial instruments to be used to raise investment in public infrastructure projects. Al-Azhar did not like the idea of foreigners owning such public infrastructure, and thus rejected the draft law — what seems like a secular rather than religious objection, although perhaps they had a religious reasoning too.

This was a great illustration of my fundamental problem with the constitution — the lack of forethought that went into it, and the unintended consequences of it. I think it's just the beginning, as this example unearthed by Nour the intern shows. She writes in first about the ongoing debate about the police (the Brothers' new best friends) but the second item speaks to my point:

Fast forward to minute 4, where Al-Qahira Al-Youm reporter, Mohamed Saad Eldeen, explains the Shura Council's session where MOI representative specifically stated that it is the police's job to "protect the legitimacy of the President" and they intend to do so. An outraged Wafd party member objected to their shamelessly political stance arguing that it's the exact same, wrong, stance they took for Mubarak. Instead of the MOI representatives defending themselves, Freedom and Justice party members did it for them, saying that it's the MOI's job to protect the regime and that the police should be using more force with the protesters. Eldeen added that the Minister of Interior didn't attend the session and sent a deputy instead, like every other minister who has been asked to attend for the past two weeks. The council later moved on to the European agreement with Egypt in the works. The agreement is worth €60 million, and includes loans and interest, which irked Salafi members who demanded the agreement be referred to Al-Azhar first, before they formally reject it. That's when Essam el-Erian intervened to stress the government's need for the money and that, with all due respect to Al-Azhar, "this is a legislative council." At that point, Salafi Nour party members reminded him of the continued existence of the constitution.

So many sessions are going to sounds like this one — one of the many factors that will add to the politicization of al-Azhar, because it has the potential to become a veto power (especially over Islamists, who can't very well just ignore the advisory opinions of the country's leading Islamic scholars the way secularists might) and that, therefore, controlling al-Azhar will become part of getting your ducks in a row when you want to pass legislation.

This is why I think the recent controversy over the election of the new Mufti is just the beginning of a long fight, as do Nathan Brown and Hisham Hellyer

In Translation: The SCC's verdicts

We've had the linguistic gnomes at Industry Arabic working overtime this weekend to translate the verdicts dissolving parliament and declaring the Political Exclusion Law unconstitutional issued by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court this weekend. They plowed through the legalese and given us this  —a full translation of the verdicts, available in PDF [334kb, original Arabic version here.]. They even highlighted in yellow some of more significant passages.

Below I am excerpting the reasoning of disbanding parliament because members of political parties were allowed to run for the individual candidacy (aka simple majority of first-past-the-post) seats:

There is no doubt that establishing this competition had a definite impact and reciprocal effect on the two-thirds allocated for closed party lists, since if political parties were not competing with independents over that other portion, then a rearrangement would have taken place within the party lists, taking into account the priorites within each party. Furthermore, political party members had the choice between two ways to run for the People's Assembly, the closed party-list system and the individual candidacy system. Independents were deprived of one of these ways, and their rights were limited to the portion allotted for the individual candidacy system, in which political party members also competed.

While I understand that the court mostly based its argument on electoral laws — the "unconstitutional" law electoral of 2011, replacing or amending previous ones being the chief problem — I was not sure what parts of the 2011 Constitutional Declaration the said law violated, particularly since previous decisions to dissolve parliament (in 1987 and 1990) often invoked in this case took place under a different constitution. Indeed, oddly, there are references to both the 1971 Constitution (under which many laws regulating political life where enacted) and the 2011 Constitutional Declaration now in place. The court itself at times seems to hesitate between the two, as if both were somehow still relevant rather than just the latter.

Once again, the key argument of the court is that the 2011 electoral law discriminated against independents because while members of political parties could contest both the list system and the simple majority system, non-affiliated politicians could only take part in the simple majority races. This, it ruled, is a violation of the principle of equality, as enshrined in Article 7 of the 2011 Constitutional Declaration:

Law applies equally to all citizens, and they are equal in rights and general duties. They may not be discriminated against due to race, origin, language, religion, or creed.

Here's the court's long-winded argument:

Whereas it is established that the political system in the Arab Republic of Egypt shall be a multi-party system – under the 1971 Constitution, and confirmed by Article 4 of the Constitutional Declaration – considering that this multiplicity aims primarily to deepen democracy and anchor its foundations within the framework of the right to run for office and vote, which are considered a primary gateway and a basic rule for it. Hence, these rights were guaranteed by the Constitutional Declaration to all citizens, who hold popular sovereignty in accordance with the provisions of Article 3 of the Constitutional Declaration, and exercise it according to the means indicated in that Declaration. There is no proof of this stronger than the fact that the multi-party system is what carries within its folds a system in which opinions may agree or disagree, while the national interest remains its framework, standard of assessment, and check on their activity, which is an interest that is maintained by the whole people. The multi-party system was not a means adopted by the constitutional legislature to replace one domination with another, but was considered a straight path for national action through the democracy of dialogue, within which opinions are numerous and varied, with the role played by political parties connected in the end to the wish of the voters in all their different aggregations. It is a wish which manifests itself when they freely choose their representatives for parliament, and in the weight their votes throws behind those who are competing for the seats. This is what the Constitutional Declaration was intent on ensuring, guaranteeing the right to vote and to run for office, and making them equal in the exercise of those two rights. It did not permit discrimination between them in the bases on which they exercised these rights, nor did it give preference to some citizens over others in any issue related to them. It granted these two rights to the citizens -- who meet the required conditions – regardless of their varied affiliations and political opinions, in order to guarantee that national action remains collective, with no preference for some citizens over others. Through this collaborative effort in building up national actions, political parties shall work with those not affiliated with them, in order to anchor the foundations of these actions. Thereby, the true meaning of Article 3 of the Constitutional Declaration is realized, which does not grant popular sovereignty to one class, excluding the other, nor impose the authority of one group over the other. Within this framework lies the value of the multi-party system as a constitutional purpose for deepening the concept of democracy, which does not offer political parties a role in national action that exceeds the margin of confidence granted by the voters to their candidates, who compete with others according to objectives rules unlimited by any creed, and unrestricted by any form of affiliation, whether political or non-political, so that all citizens who fulfil the conditions set for this would have the same opportunity – through which they influence, equally among themselves – the shaping of national policy and the determination of its final features. This is confirmed by the fact that the Constitutional Declaration does not include a provision compelling citizens to join political parties, or conditioning the exercise of political rights related to the right to run for office and to vote on party affiliation, which indicates by necessity that it establishes the freedom of citizens to join or not to join political parties, and to exercise their enumerated political rights through political parties or apart from them. Undoubtedly, the principles of equality and equal opportunity, which are the primary fundamentals and principles concerned in the matter, necessitate one legal treatment for all candidates, on the basis of equal opportunity for all, with no discrimination based on party affiliation. Discrimination in that case would be based on difference in political opinion, which is a matter prohibited constitutionally. The party system should not become a restriction on the freedoms and the public rights originating from it, one of which is the right to run for office, which is one of the public rights stipulated by the nature of parliamentary democratic systems, and imposed by its main cornerstone, which is based on accepting the sovereignty of the people, in accordance with the provisions of Article 3 of the Constitutional Declaration.

Of course remember that the 2011 electoral law was drafted by SCAF in September and then modified three times by October. Surely they could have checked it then?

I'll leave legal analysis to others — do chip in with your two piasters.

Who's unhappy about the coup against parliament?

The ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court on Thursday has been described by many, including myself, as a coup by proxy. The only democratically elected institution in Egypt is now gone, the SCAF has regained full legislative powers  — i.e. the power to rule by decree — and it's not clear whether the president who will be elected in the next two days will be able to assume his position in any case. Furthermore, we know that SCAF intends to ammend the constitutional declaration now in place or perhaps issue a new one altogether. If it looks like a coup and smells like a coup and is based on absurd legal reasoning, it probably is a soft coup.

The strange thing is that I don't see much outrage about it outside of Twitter.

The Muslim Brotherhood has chosen to accept the decision and focus on the presidential race. This may be simply a tactical choice to boost its premise that Mohammed Morsi is the revolutionary candidate at a time when the MB has lot its main claim to legitimacy, its parliamentary majority. Others whisper that this indicates a deal in the making, where Morsi will take the presidency. Many MB members grumble but for now their focus is the presidential race, even though SCAF now has the leeway to redefine presidential powers depending on which candidate wins. It may be that the MB is keeping its outrage bottled in case its candidate loses, but the decision not to push on the court's verdict as illegitimate is certainly puzzling.

The Salafists have largely been quiet, as far as I can tell. Perhaps they're wondering whether this politics stuff is worth it.

Establishment secularists of all stripes appear to be delighted with the dissolution of parliament, even those who were MPs! Some of them expected this from the outset of the elections  — they knew the 2011 electoral law was problematic and that this parliament would not last long. (Personally, I don't understand the constitutional logic of the verdict  —it might have applied under the 1971 constitution but the constitutional declaration contains nothing to prevent a mixed electoral system). But then why did they play along with it? Others are simply happy to see an Islamist-dominated parliament go under. It's quite sickening that they have so little respect for the institution they were elected to and believe a parliamentary majority they dislike is best replaced by a council of 20 or so generals.

Radical revolutionary types are in a good mood too. It proves everything they've been saying, and in any case many of them believe the parliamentary elections were fraudulent or otherwise flawed. They can credibly say that the emperor is naked, and if Ahmed Shafiq wins the presidential election, their entire theories will have been proven. Some hope that the real, violent and bloody, revolution will come then. 

To me, it seemed like this dissolution of parliament was worth making a real fuss about. Accepting the verdict as so many have done not only sets a precedent but essentially is an acceptance of the rules of the games set by SCAF. The revolutionaries who decried this transition from the beginning — and they range from radical leftists to radical libertarians to very establishment personalities like Mohamed ElBaradei  —are at least safe in the knowledge that they refused to participate in this charade from the very beginning. But the others...

A few days ago I began writing a post endorsing Mohammed Morsi for president. I wanted to wait to see whether Shafiq was still in the race before I posted it. But the decision to dissolve parliament sounds the death knell to the credibility of the political process in Egypt, and while I still prefer a Morsi victory (with many, many, caveats) to a Shafiq one, I think it's hardly worth giving credence to an entire political system that has no credibility. The only thing I see in Egypt's future is military rule, civil disobedience, and violence. The SCAF is mostly responsible for this, but those who accept this verdict and SCAF taking over legislative powers have their role too. History will remember them.

The Salafi who called the azan in parliament

The above footage is from a surreal moment in yesterday's session of the Egyptian parliament (where you can be guaranteed a surreal moment at least twice a day) during which Salafi MP Mamdouh Ismail suddenly decided to call the azan, the call to prayer. Never mind that it actually did not seem to be prayer time, or that parliament was in the middle of discussion (of the Interior Ministry clashes I believe). Ismail is a very nasty type of Salafi, the litigious kind. He has brought countless morality lawsuits against prominent people, the latest of which is the ongoing one against Naguib Sawiris for putting a cartoon of Salafi Mickey and Minnie Mouse on Twitter.

A wonderfully forceful reaction by Speaker Saad al-Katatny, who told him that if he wanted to pray he could go to the nearby mosque and that he was not any more Muslim than anyone else. Good to hear that from a Muslim Brothers, who have been known to act like they're more Muslim than some. A lot of people among the Twittorevolutionaries are making disparaging sounds about Katatni but I think he's generally been a very effective, stern speaker – whatever his biases are.

Meet Egypt's next speaker of parliament

From Profile of Dr. Mohamed Katatni, FJP's Nominee for Parliament Chairman - Ikhwanweb:

After the announcement of his win in the parliamentary seat in Minia, Katatni recalled the ironic twist after former NDP member Ahmed Ezz sarcastically prayed during the last parliamentary session that they (the NDP) succeed to take over the Muslim Brotherhood's places. Ezz's prayer could not have been more precise; the MB members were released from jails and the NDP and former regime affiliates responsible for oppressing a nation for over 30 years, are in fact sitting in their places, however, in jail.

How sweet that must feel. Me, I remember when Katatni – a decent man I have long thought respectfully of, aside from his defense of FGM in parliament – told me in 2008 that if is able to form a political party, he will quit the Muslim Brotherhood. This is the chief problem with the FJP's win for me: it's not clear whether party leaders make decisions, or the unelected leaders of the secret society (with no legal existence or accountability) that is the Muslim Brotherhood.  

Katatni will be the Speaker of the People's Assembly, and that could make him third in line for the presidency if similar provisions as the previous constitution are maintained.