Egypt’s Might-Have-Been Parliament

Oil and gas are sovereign resources owned by the Egyptian people. Consequently any business agreements in this sector must be ratified by a parliament serving as the official representative of the Egyptian people. Unfortunately, Egypt’s parliament was dissolved in June of 2012, and President Morsi’s administration has thus far been unsuccessful in conducting elections that are considered legitimate by Egypt’s courts, the opposition, and the broader public. Moreover, it is unlikely that the parliamentary crisis will be resolved in the near future. In the meantime, sectors like oil and gas will remain in a precarious state of suspension.

History Tends to Repeat Itself
The Egyptian parliamentary election crisis highlights the paradox of post-revolutionary Egypt: everything has changed and nothing has changed. The January 25th Revolution ousted Hosni Mubarak and appeared to pave the way for sweeping democratic reforms. Egyptians elected a new parliament; however, the representative body was short-lived as the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) dissolved the parliament in June of 2012. Meanwhile Mohamed Morsi defeated Ahmed Shafik in a close presidential race after Egypt’s liberal opposition failed to function as the cohesive political entity that many Egyptians and international observers had hoped for. Several months later, President Morsi attempted to rectify the parliamentary crisis by issuing a presidential decree to hold new parliamentary elections in April. In return, the National Salvation Front (NSF), the leading opposition coalition in Egypt, responded by boycotting the elections citing an unsuitable political climate. Eager to enter the fray, Egypt’s judiciary branch suspended Morsi’s presidential decree thus delaying the parliamentary elections indefinitely into Cairo’s hazy future.

A brief look back at the 2010 parliamentary elections sheds light on the paradoxical nature of post-revolutionary Egyptian politics and subsequent parliamentary crisis. More specifically, the 2010 elections suggest a continuity, rather than a transformation, of the electoral mechanisms that existed in pre-revolutionary Egypt. The 2010 parliamentary elections pitted the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the largest opposition group in pre-revolutionary Egypt. After a poor performance in the first round of elections, the MB decided to withdraw from the elections citing widespread fraud and election irregularities. “The violations, terror and hooliganism we were subjected to at the hands of security forces and NDP thugs before and during elections…made us reconsider taking part in the runoff,” were the words used by the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide Mohamed Badee as reported by Amro Hassan of the Los Angeles Times.

Two and a half years later, Egyptians are hearing the same accusations of fraud, irregularity, and intimidation. Only this time, the accusations are coming from liberals like Muhammad ElBaradei and directed at none other than the MB. How did the MB transition from the accusers to the accused? For starters, the MB assumed the majority role formerly held by the NDP, and consequently it is in their interest to hold elections as soon as possible in order to secure a parliamentary majority. On the other hand, the liberal opposition has been relegated to the role formerly played by the MB during the 2010 elections, and it is in the opposition’s interest to delay elections. Following in the footsteps of the MB, the NSF officially announced that they would boycott the 2013 elections. Perhaps they learned a lesson from the MB’s playbook.

The progression of political events from the 2010 parliamentary elections until present suggests that a fundamental transformation of the political structure has not occurred in Egypt. Rather, the MB simply filled the political vacuum left by the NDP, and the liberal opposition was forced to assume the much smaller and limited role formerly played by the MB. The repositioning of the MB in Egyptian political society from the leading opposition group to the ruling party can serve as a useful framework through which to view the current parliamentary impasse.

A Three-Way Battle
The latest political drama in Cairo concerns a three-way battle between the Muslim Brotherhood, the judiciary branch, and the opposition over who will determine the upcoming elections. The MB are hoping to conduct elections while they still have a good chance of securing a majority of seats in the upcoming parliament. Yet a dismal economic forecast and constant political turmoil threaten to upset the MB’s plans for majority rule. The judiciary recently expanded its role in parliamentary proceedings by suspending Morsi’s decision to hold elections. The opposition, best represented by the NSF, boycotted the election in the hopes that the boycott would be associated with increasing public dissatisfaction over the Morsi administration. In order to shed light on the current parliamentary election crisis, it is necessary to examine each of these three power players in more detail.

The crisis began when President Morsi, the figurehead of the MB, issued Decision No. 134 of 2013 which paved the way for parliamentary elections to begin on April 22. The reasons behind T presidential decree were twofold. First, the MB are worried that any delay in the elections will cost them seats in the upcoming parliament. Eamonn Gearon, North Africa expert and professor at John Hopkin’s SAIS, describes the MB’s concern: “Nothing is guaranteed in Egyptian politics, least of all a Muslim Brotherhood majority in a to be determined parliament.” Second, securing a much-needed loan from the IMF depends partly on Morsi’s ability to convey a semblance of democratic progress and stability. Electing a parliament is an important condition in this respect. There was only one problem with the MB’s plan, they underestimated the power of the judiciary branch.

On March 6, the Administrative Court officially entered the parliamentary ring by issuing a decision to suspend Presidential Decision 134 and send Law 2 of 2013 back to the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) for review. Law 2 of 2013 is the draft election law that provided the legal framework for Morsi’s presidential decree. The Shura Council amended and passed Law 2 on February 21 without final approval from the SCC. Since the Shura Council made changes to the law, the council was supposed to refer the law back to the SCC for final approval. When President Morsi issued his presidential decree, he either sought to circumvent judicial authority or believed that the Shura Council’s changes would not be challenged. In either case, the Administrative Court did challenge the draft election law as well as the presidential decree that followed. 

The Administrative Court’s suspension of the draft law passed the political buck back to the Morsi administration and the Shura Council. As of April 11, the Shura Council responded by passing a new election bill in addition to a political participation bill. The two bills have been referred to the SCC before they can be signed into law. The constitutional court has 45 days since the date of referral to rule on the new election draft law. This means that President Morsi may be in a position to announce new election dates at some point in May.

The Administrative Court’s decision to suspend the upcoming elections also forced Egypt’s leading opposition coalition, the NSF, to rethink its strategy. The NSF had decided to boycott the elections before the court’s decision because many believed that any elections conducted by the Muslim Brotherhood controlled government would be fraudulent. NSF member Sameh Ashour explained to Egypt Independent’s Omar Halawa that his coalition would refrain from participating in elections until there was “a law that ensures the integrity of the electoral process, a Cabinet that applies the law and gets the trust of people, a true independent judiciary, lifting the blockade on the canal cities, and realizing the hopes of the nation and social justice.” Some observers questioned whether the NSF boycotted the elections because its demands were not met or because they feared confronting the MB in a general election.

Whatever the case may be, the battle between the MB and the courts has nevertheless granted the NSF additional time to rethink their electoral strategy and the effectiveness of a boycott. The court’s decision to delay the elections could not have come at a better time for the NSF, which is suffering from internal strife. Many of the coalition’s senior leadership did not agree that the boycott was an effective political strategy. Moreover, a prominent opposition leader, Hossam Eissa, resigned from his position in the Dostour Party on March 21 over corruption in the party. The Dostour Party is headed by Mohamed ElBaradei and serves as a founding party of the NSF. Eissa’s resignation is just one example of the growing discontentment and discord within the diverse umbrella coalition of opposition parties. The NSF will likely use this window of opportunity provided by the courts to organize their rank and file and reevaluate the effectiveness of their proposed boycott.

The NSF and other opposition groups criticized the new election draft law passed by the Shura Council in April, citing exclusion from the drafting process. The opposition also expressed concern over the council’s decision to allow religious slogans during election campaigns. Moreover, the NSF released a new set of demands meant to ensure a free and fair election process. These demands represent more of the same political rhetoric from the opposition, but they serve to leave the door open for another boycott. In other words, demanding much needed, but perhaps unrealistic, political conditions provides Egypt’s opposition with a legitimate excuse to boycott the upcoming elections.

The Future of the Parliament
What does the future have in store for the elections? The elections will eventually occur; however, it remains unclear whether the Muslim Brotherhood or the judiciary branch will determine the time frame for the elections. The MB will do everything in its power to push the judicial process along, or work around it if possible, in order to hold elections sooner rather than later. The deteriorating political and economic situation in Egypt means that delayed elections will likely equate to less Muslim Brotherhood controlled seats in the parliament. Egypt’s judiciary, on the other hand, is not motivated by any particular time constraints. It will seek to establish itself as an independent branch capable of serving as a bulwark against power hungry presidents. For this reason, the courts will follow every technical procedure necessary to set the precedence that the judiciary is an important oversight body in the Egyptian system of checks and balances. In either case, the court must rule on the constitutionality of the new draft law by the end of May.

While the NSF may not be able to determine election dates, the opposition coalition has the luxury of time on their side. In other words, they are free to decide when and if they want to participate in the upcoming elections without suffering major political repercussions. When the legal technicalities are inevitably resolved and the elections dates are once again set, the NSF will have another chance to reconsider their decision to boycott. If the election crisis is resolved in the near future (let’s say before Ramadan), then it is unlikely that the NSF will reverse its decision to boycott. Yet the longer the crisis goes unresolved, the more likely it is that the NSF will reverse its former decision. “In light of the growing dissatisfaction with the Muslim Brotherhood on the Egyptian streets, the NSF may soon decide that participation in, rather than withdrawal from, future elections will be advantageous for Egypt’s opposition,” explains Gearon. 

As the dissolved parliament approaches its one year anniversary, there seems to be a greater and greater disconnect between the Egyptian government and its citizens. This disconnect does not bode well for the oil and gas sector. In Business Today Egypt, Hani El Sharkawi, an independent oil and gas consultant, says that a consistent dialogue between the government and the general public is essential for the wellbeing of the oil and gas sector. The government has not managed to determine a date for the elections, and the window for dialogue is closing quickly. Unfortunately for sectors like oil and gas, it appears that the battle over the next parliament is just warming up.

By Robert Mogielnicki


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