As these words find their way to the reader, the Committee of the Fifty which has been writing a draft constitution for Egypt would have in all probability wrapped up its job.
This means that it should have decided once and for all whether to retain the Shura (Consultative) Council—the upper house of Egypt’s parliament—or do away with it and suffice with a one-house parliament. Yet I still care even if just for the record to cite my view on the matter.
It has been claimed that retaining the Shura would be no more than a waste of time and money. I see this as a flawed, hasty assessment that has failed to get to the bottom of the matter.
Upper houses of parliament were not created as arenas for political gossip or research; were this the case they would have certainly been a waste of time and money. But as the name “Shura (Consultative) Council for Laws” suggests, the raison d’être of the council is legislation. Whereas some see the Shura as merely second fiddle to the lower house of parliament, others see its role in scrutinising and reviewing the bills referred to it from that house as pivotal. If the Shura approves a bill it passes; if it finds it flawed in any way the Shura refers it back to the lower house for rectification. The process ensures that the laws passed are flawless.
Defenders of the Shura affirm that it is the body that acts as the legislative ‘safety valve’ since it provides a venue for duelling thoughts and views, ensuring that no laws are rushed through. We in Egypt should know better than to fall prey to allowing hasty legislation to pass. Our experience with previous regimes has proved that unjust, incompatible laws may be rushed through, only to be eventually contested in court and ruled unconstitutional. Consequently, such laws are shelved but only after they have been there long enough to work considerable damage especially where equality and citizenship rights are concerned.
This brings us to another significant pitfall. Will the new constitution stipulate that laws should be reviewed for their accordance with constitutionality before or after they are passed? Since it is likely that the constitutional revision of laws would take place after they are passed, the Shura’s role as a legislative safety valve becomes more significant than ever. It would ensure prudence and deliberation in studying the laws and safeguarding their constitutionality.
We should also realise that the new constitution stipulates that the majority party would form the Cabinet, in all probability meaning that legislation would succumb to the political agenda of the majority party. This we already experienced in full horror at the hands of Muhammad Mursi’s Islamist regime and parliament. There should thus be a second line of defence in parliament—the Shura—that would restrain the appetite of the majority for hijacking legislation to their own end, to the detriment of the Egyptian people.
The benefits of a Shura that possesses adequate legislative authority as opposed to the toothless, cosmetic Shura Egypt had in the past are numerous. The qualifying measures for membership in the Shura should be different than those which apply in case of the house of representatives. To run for the lower house, candidates must enjoy strong street presence or at best family or clan support, factors that carry considerable electoral weight but which have nothing to do with legal or legislative expertise. In case of Shura membership, academic experience, reasonable age, and expertise in the legal and legislative fields should count. Then would the Shura adequately assume the role of legislative safety valve.
We should also endorse the call to grant the president of the republic the right to appoint one third of the members of the Shura—whereas he appoints only 10 members to the house of representatives. Though there would be no harm in curtailing this right when it comes to the lower house, since their influence is insignificant, widening of the margin of appointment to the Shura is adequate. It would ensure that individuals with legal and legislative expertise, who probably may not be sufficiently known on the street for them to garner much street popularity, would find their way into the Shura.
For all these reasons I totally endorse the two-house parliament embraced by well-established democracies. It’s not for nothing that the UK has its House of Commons and House of Lords, and the US its House of Representatives and the Senate. It would be a real benefit if the Shura is established as the upper house in Egypt’s parliament and given adequate legislative authority. I apologise to the readers if this article reaches them as the Committee of the Fifty decides otherwise.
1 December 2013
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