On Saturday 13 February President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi addressed Egypt’s new House of Representatives, declaring it officially opened. “I announce the transition of legislative authority to the elected parliament,” the President began his speech, declaring the end of a four-year legislative hiatus in which law-making powers were in the hands of the president of the republic. This is the first parliament since the 30 June 2013 massive Egyptian Revolution which rid Egypt of the post-Arab Spring Islamist regime and set the ground for a secular State. President Sisi’s opening speech was a protocol; the newly elected parliament had already convened last month, elected a speaker and two deputies, and reviewed the laws which had been issued by the two post-Revolution presidents, Adly Mansour and Sisi, in the absence of parliament. The House of Representatives approved all these laws but one, the law of civil service; it still remains to be seen how the House will handle this legislative predicament. The sessions have been boisterous and tumultuous, and involved on the part of a number of MPs behaviour and rhetoric that went against venerable parliamentary tradition. A request to lift the immunity of three MPs on claims that they were legally disqualified was rejected by the House. MP Judge Sirri Siyam, who was among the presidential appointees to the House, submitted his resignation in protest against his alleged marginalisation. The resignation of a presidential appointee is unprecedented, and Judge Siyam’s aroused heated discussions in the media.
President Sisi’s speech to parliament was different than those Egyptians were familiar with during the time of former President Hosni Mubarak who used to put before parliament a proposed list, which came to be termed ‘agenda’, of legislation required. President Sisi’s speech was in essence political; it focused on the greatness of Egypt and her people who overcame the Islamist challenge to their Egyptianness and the attempts to break them as they demanded freedom, social justice and human dignity. He called upon parliament to perform the historic legislative and supervisory role required of it by the people.
That the President did not assign any legislative agenda to parliament carries substantial indications that conform to Egypt’s Constitution. The president has no upper hand over parliament; rather, he has to let the House of Representatives and the government perform their roles freely and independently without placing any agenda before them.
There remains an important observation that never ceases to dishearten me and which I will never tire of highlighting. This is the non-disciplined attitude displayed by many MPs. President Sisi read a written, formal speech and did not improvise as he is wont. This should have set the standard for this formal event which should have been respected as such. Yet the manner in which many MPs responded has proved how unaware they are of time-honoured parliamentary tradition. They turned the formal occasion into a celebratory, boisterous event in which they interrupted the President several times by waves of overly enthusiastic clapping and cheering. The President had to repeat specific parts or phrases of his speech in an attempt to regain order and silence to make sure his words get heard. The final impression was that this was no official opening of parliament; it was some popular, disorderly carnival. The question which begs an answer, however, is whether the House’s secretariat is aware of this, or is happy with it? The Speaker overpraised President Sisi to the point where his speech appeared to lack poise and objectivity. It brought to mind former Speaker Fathi Sorour who was used to flattering the then president Hosny Mubarak. I am sure neither President Sisi nor Speaker Abdel-Al would be happy with that parallel.
Such erroneous culture has to change. We must all confront it in order to root honourable parliamentary tradition. I imagine the initiative should come from the House of Representatives’ secretariat on whose shoulders lies the responsibility of rooting proper parliamentary behaviour. MPs should realise that restrictions on what can be said or not said, or what is done or not done, in no way violates their freedom of expression or behaviour under the parliamentary dome.
In this context, Watani today prints a feature on “Egypt’s representative experience over successive parliaments” to mark 150 years on parliamentary life in the country. It reveals a proud tradition of the parliamentary experience Egyptians strove so hard for and finally gained. They partnered with the ruler in running the country, they monitored heads of State and governments, and they ran the legislative authority that governed the lives of the people. Delving into this rich history reveals the honour and nobility of Egypt’s parliaments, and confirms that they deserve veneration and respect rather than non-disciplined vulgarity.
21 February 2016