Last Sunday saw President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and previous president Adly Mansour join Speaker of the Parliament Aly Abdel-Aal in a celebration in Sharm al-Sheikh that marked 150 years on the beginning of parliamentary life in Egypt. Participating were Speakers of Parliament and heads of international organisations from 16 countries, 14 delegations representing other parliaments, as well as parliamentary dignitaries from around the world
It was Viceroy Muhammad Ali (1769 – 1849) who laid the foundations of modern Egypt on centuries of Ottoman rule, during which Egypt declined on all fronts. When Muhammad Ali took the reins of power in 1805, he embarked on a reorganisation of all aspects of social, economic and political life and turned Egypt into a modern independent State.
Among Muhammad Ali’s descendents, his grandson Khedive Ismail Pasha who ascended the throne in 1863 carried his grandfather’s torch for modernisation. For this purpose Ismail borrowed heavily from England and France, landing Egypt in debts it could ill afford. Ismail established the first parliament and the first cabinet in the Arab World.
Question of control
Historians agree that the first parliament in Egypt was the Representatives Consultative Council, established by Khedive Ismail Pasha on 22 October 1866. The council consisted of 76 members elected by the village umad , singular umda (mayors) and sheikhs as well as dignitaries of Cairo, Alexandria and Dumyat. The share of these three major cities in the council was only six representatives, and the role of the council was merely consultative. It is possible that Ismail’s main purpose in forming such a council was to exercise more control on the notables who formed the council, gain their political and financial support and polish his image with the European circles and financial institutions to which he was indebted.
The council was dominated by members of the landed gentry and did not include members of any other social class such as workers, merchants or intellectuals. Requirements for becoming a member of the council included that the person must be an Egyptian; have ‘wisdom and perfection’; be above 25 years old; have a good knowledge of reading and writing. He must not have any previous criminal record; must not have been dismissed from a job or sentenced to bankruptcy; must not be poor or needy; nor a civil servant or belonging to the military.
All council members enjoyed privileges such as legal immunity during the time when the council was in session, unless the MP committed murder. The council’s parliamentary session lasted for two months from mid-December to mid-February; the Speaker and his deputy were appointed by the Khedive. The council’s authority was merely consultative and not decisive, and therefore its recommendations were considered non-binding suggestions presented to the Khedive who was the sole decision maker.
It is safe to say that Egypt’s first parliament did not include all classes of the society and therefore had a clear aristocratic character. The council’s duties were limited to discussing the issues presented by the government without participating in decision-making, and the council met only upon the Khedive’s wish. It is thus not possible to consider the Representatives Consultative Council as a democratic body in the real sense of the word; nevertheless, its importance cannot be overlooked as it paved the road for political consultation and for limiting the ruler’s absolute powers. This was put into action during the parliamentary session of 1879.
A quick comparison between the council’s sessions in the years 1869 and 1879 shows the extent to which democracy evolved in just one decade. At the opening of the 1869 parliamentary session, MPs were asked to sit in the hall according to their political affiliation: those who supported the government were asked to sit to the right; those who opposed the government to the left and the centrists in the middle. All the MPs moved to the right, uttering words of indignation as to how one could possibly oppose the ruling authority. However, in January 1879, the Council’s opening speech showed political and democratic maturity. One clause read: “We, the representatives of the Egyptian nation, its deputies and the defenders of its general best interest which is also the government’s best interest.” The Council was described as the base for civilisation and order, which are prerequisites for freedom, the source of advancement and progress, and the true motive for achieving equality in rights, which is the essence of justice.
Two by-laws were drafted for the first council; the first was called al-la’iha al-assassiya (the basic by-law) and consisted of 18 articles which included a description of the competences of the council and the representatives’ election system, in addition to the dates of the council’s sittings. The second was called al-la’iha al-nizamiya (the organisational by-law); this included 61 articles setting the internal rules and regulations governing the Council’s work.
The first parliamentary sitting in the history of Egypt’s legislative life was held at the Cairo Citadel, which at that time was the residence of the Khedive and the seat of government. In 1878, after Khedive Ismail had moved to Abdeen Palace, the lavish palace which he built in central Cairo and inaugurated in 1874, he moved parliament’s meeting place from the Citadel to one of the main halls of the Mixed Courts headquarters in Attaba. The same year saw the establishment of the first Cabinet of Egypt whose seat was also located in the Mixed Courts building.
The real turning point in the history of parliamentary life in Egypt occurred in 1876 when the Representatives Consultative Council demanded the abolishment of muqabalah law. This advance tax law, issued in 1871, stipulated that landowners who paid six years’ taxes in advance would get a lifetime exemption from one half of their tax liability. By issuing the law, Khedive Ismail was attempting to collect enough funds to repay his foreign debt. This was the first time in which Egyptian representatives demanded to inspect the accounts of the Finance Ministry, and is considered the first incident of the parliament’s supervisory role over the Egyptian government in the history of modern Egypt.
Separating parliament and cabinet
In 1881, the Representatives Consultative Council was renamed the Egyptian Council of Representatives and Egypt started to enjoy a fair amount of freedom and democracy. It was this council that issued the basic by-laws of February 1882, which stipulated that the representatives be elected to the council for a mandate of five years; that each representative be given a yearly allowance of EGP100; and that the representatives be allowed to pursue other occupations.
Parliamentary immunity was one of the issues to which the 1882 by-laws granted special attention. Article four stipulated that it was not allowed to attack any MP by any means at all. If an MP committed a crime while parliament was in session, he could not face prosecution unless a special permit was issued from the council; it was also possible for the council to demand his release or to halt the court proceedings until the end of the parliamentary session.
In order to separate the legislative authority (the Egyptian Council of Representatives) and the executive authority (the Cabinet), the cabinet headquarters was moved to one of the main halls within the premises of the Public Works ministry on Sheikh Rihan Street. This is the hall which was later used as the headquarters of Egypt’s Upper House of Parliament, the Shura Council, since it was created in 1980 until it was dissolved in 2013.
Also in 1882 the Council of Representatives issued the Basic Law which is considered a landmark in the history of parliamentary life in Egypt. The Basic Law is the first document in Egypt that set the rules governing the relationship between the ruler and the people and the election of the people’s representatives.
The Egyptian parliament was closely connected to Egypt’s nationalist movement and its struggle against the British occupation which commenced 15 September 1882.
It is important to point out the close link between Egypt’s quest for independence and drafting a constitution. Before the British occupation, Egypt enjoyed partial independence from the Ottoman Empire and the nationalist movement mainly focused on drafting a constitution, reducing the ruler’s absolute power, demanding that the people had the right to supervise the ruler’s actions, and acknowledging the authority of the parliament and the people’s representatives. After British occupation began, the additional goal of independence from the British was added to the list of national demands and was thus connected to the goal of drafting a constitution for the country.
The Egyptian Council of Representatives held only one parliamentary round that ran from December 1881 to March 1882, and was dissolved in the wake of the British Occupation of Egypt in 1882. This was seen as a huge setback to Egyptian parliamentary life.
The British authorities established in May 1883 a new governance system which better suited their presence in Egypt. It consisted of two chambers: the Advisory Council of Laws and the General Assembly, as well as the Council of Provinces. A new Regular Law was issued, stipulating that the Advisory Council of Laws consisted of 30 members: 14 permanent appointed members including the Speaker and one of his two deputies, and 16 elected members, including the other Deputy Speaker. The Speaker was appointed by Royal decree of the Khedive of Egypt whereas the permanent members were appointed by Khedival decree upon recommendation from the Cabinet. The council’s role was mainly consultative and administrative as no law or regulation regarding a public administrative bylaw was issued before consulting the council.
Egypt nominally independent
As Egypt’s national movement matured at the beginning of the 20th century, the United Kingdom issued the Unilateral Declaration of Egypt’s Independence on 28 February 1922. It was keeping good on a promise by the UK that Egypt would be granted independence in return for supporting the British in WWI. Through the declaration, the British government unilaterally ended its protectorate over Egypt, but granted it only nominal independence. Yet the declaration was a landmark in Egypt’s history since it was the first time for modern Egypt to become an Independent Sovereign State.
A new Constitution was drafted in April 1923, and marked a turning point in the development of Egypt’s parliamentary life; the first Egyptian parliament was elected according to a multi-party system in 1923 – 1924.
The new Egyptian parliament was bicameral and consisted of the Senate and the House of representatives. Chapter three of Part III of the Constitution established the laws that regulate and organise the work of the two chambers of parliament.
The 1923 Constitution was one of the best constitutions in the history of Egypt; it was carefully drafted in such a way that combined many of the advantages of the existing constitutions of that time.
The date 15 March 1924 was a historical day in which King Fuad I inaugurated the first Egyptian Parliament founded on modern constitutional principles. Celebrations were held throughout Egypt to mark the beginning of a new era in Egyptian democracy and the participation of the people in governance. As the clock struck 10am, the Royal procession arrived at parliamentary headquarters. The King was greeted by princes, cabinet ministers and a parliamentary delegation. He took the royal oath to protect the Constitution and the law and to protect the independence of the nation and safety of its land. He then proceeded to open the first parliamentary session. King Fuad, however, was never satisfied with the 1923 Constitution because it reduced his powers.
On 22 October 1930, a royal decree was issued annulling the 1923 Constitution and replacing it with the amended Constitution of 1930, and dissolving the Senate and the House of Representatives. Unlike the 1923 Constitution which limited the powers of the ruler, the 1930 Constitution granted more powers to the king. The new Constitution was met with wide public discontent. For five years protesters took to the streets; the State retaliated: protesters were imprisoned or killed, newspapers were closed and journalists imprisoned for their writings which attacked the new Constitution. Finally, in 1935, the 1930 Constitution was annulled and the 1923 Constitution was reinstated.
From one-party to multiparty
After the 1952 Revolution, the monarchy was abolished and the following year the republic was declared in Egypt. New constitutions were promulgated in 1956, 1958 and 1963, and the parliament once again became unicameral, known as the National Assembly and, for the first time, included women MPs since women had been granted political rights in the 1956 Constitution.
In 1971 a constitutional referendum was held and approved by a sweeping majority. The new Constitution included an article calling for the establishment of an upper house of parliament. On 30 April 1980 parliament, called the People’s Assembly, approved the amendment of the Constitution allowing for the establishment of the new chamber, the Shura Council. The new council was approved in a public referendum held on 22 May 1980.
In the period which followed the 1952 Revolution and prior to the constitutional amendment of 1980, political parties were banned and the only political party allowed in Egypt was the Arab Socialist Union, established in 1962 based on the principles of Nasserist Arab socialism. Law 40 of 1977 had been passed by the People’s Assembly a few years before, allowing for the formation of political parties.
The 1980 amendment restored the multiparty system; Article 5 read: “The political system of the Arab Republic of Egypt is a multiparty one, within the framework of the basic elements and principles of the Egyptian society as stipulated in the Constitution.”
Priority: Citizenship concepts
The main issue which was in the spotlight at that time was national unity between the Egyptian Christian and Muslim communities. MPs decided that it was of the utmost importance that the authorities showed resolve to quench sectarian attacks against Copts and that employment opportunities must be created for the nation’s youth to prevent them from falling into the grip of fanaticism.
Many amendments to the 1971 Constitution were endorsed through the years, and the last of these amendments was carried out in 2007. In December 2006 President Hosny Mubarak presented a request to amend 34 articles of the Constitution to the then Speaker of Parliament, Safwat al-Sherif. The amendments were approved by the Shura Council and the People’s Assembly; a public referendum was held on 26 March in which the amendments were approved by 75.9 per cent of the voters. The amendments included an increase in the powers granted to the parliament; cancellation of all forms of Nasserist Socialism popular in the 1960s; the establishment of a higher commission to supervise elections; the banning of any political party based on religion, gender or ethnicity; and emphasis on the concept of citizenship.
The Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 which brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power in 2012 led to an Islamist-majority parliament in 2012. This parliament attempted to turn Egypt into an Islamist State, but it was short-lived and clashed with the judiciary since it was pronounced non-constitutional. On 30 June 2013, Egyptians waged a massive 30-million-strong revolution which, with backing from the military, overthrew the Islamists and made Egypt a secular State. A new Constitution was established in January 2014 by which Egypt’s parliament again became unicameral. This is the current parliament, now named the House of Representatives, already in its second round.
Commemorative postage stamp
To mark 150 years on parliamentary life in Egypt, Watani’s Fady Labib reported that the Egyptian National Post Organisation (ENPO) issued a commemorative postage stamp sized 7.5cm x 3cm, depicting the first speaker of parliament, Ismail Pasha Ragheb, and an image of the first bylaw legislated by parliament.
Attending the launching ceremony of the stamp were Ali Abdel-Aal, current Speaker of the Parliament; Yasser al-Qadi, Minister of Communications and Information Technology; and Essam al-Sagheer, chairman of ENPO who noted that the postal authority has decided to issue a volume that tells the history of parliament through stamps.