Problems on hold
Last week I wrote about Egypt’s House of Representatives as it embarked on its third round in the five-round parliamentary term. I proposed suggestions to improve the House’s legislative and supervisory performance which, sadly, leaves a lot to be desired. My aspiration is that the House could achieve a mature, robust democratic experience through strong political parties.
Until political maturity becomes a reality on the ground, I cannot help feeling sorry that Egypt’s 2014 Constitution decided against bicameral legislature, in which legislators are divided into two separate houses. The House of Representatives would have formed the lower house, and the Shura (Consultative) Council the upper house. The system is not new to Egypt; Shura councils played significant roles during the country’s modern history. They included among their ranks a fine Egyptian intellectual élite who rose above electoral conflict, promoted dialogue, and tolerated different opinions, generating thus a respectable balance of perspectives that worked in the best interest of Egypt. This made many, myself included, keenly aspire that the 2014 Constitution would maintain bicameral legislature, so that the Shura Council would effectively act as a safety net that would protect against any blunder or misjudgement by the lower house. Sadly, however, and under what I see as the ridiculous pretext of evading redundancy and waste of funds, the Constitution decreed a unicameral parliament. This reflected lacking awareness of the need for a safety net, as well as an absence of expenditure control in parliament. Ironically, the current House of Representatives has incurred unprecedented runaway expenses that could have covered the expenditure of both houses had there been a will to have two.
Egypt’s experience in bicameral legislature is neither a blimp nor a lone model among those of the great democracies in the world; we are all familiar with the British Parliament and its House of Commons and House of Lords; and the US Congress with its House of Representatives and the Senate. We all witness the effective roles these upper houses play, and the prerogatives they hold in order to fulfil their roles as legislative safety nets, not mere political decor or waste of funds.
For those who do not grasp the significance of the Shura Council, let me outline it here:
• Criteria for public representation based on population distribution over Egypt’s governorates, as well as conditions for fair representation and parity, have produced a House of Representatives that includes 600 MPs—a huge number by all standards. In the absence of much-needed political and party coalitions, they engage in frequent struggles and skirmishes. True, the President has used his authority to appoint a number of superbly-qualified and intellectual figures to the House, yet these only constitute 5 per cent of the elected MPs; their impact pales beside that of the elected majority. Predictably, the final word is with the majority which made it to parliament through notorious clan and family loyalties, purportedly owing to the absence of strong parties. Given all that, it becomes obvious that there is urgent need to create a counter-balance through the Shura Council. Its members should make no more than 20 to 25 per cent of the number of members of the House of Representatives, and should include public figures of hefty weight. These should come from among scholarly, literary, intellectual, judiciary, and professional circles: including heads of judiciary authorities, universities, research centres and syndicates, as well as cultural and media figures, and other figures who possess the intellectual worth that could serve legislative and political endeavours but would remain above electoral conflict. They should be selected according to standards that do not involve the ballot box.
• The Shura Council is in charge of studying and discussing draft laws, in parallel with the House of Representatives; it should be able to knowingly evaluate a draft law once the House of Representatives completes drafting it and refers it to the Upper House. Once the Shura approves a draft law, it returns it to the lower House to pass as law. However if the Shura finds any flaws—hence the legislative safety net—it returns the bill, together with the relevant remarks, to the House of Representatives to review and resolve before the law can be passed.
• Although the Shura Council can be strictly charged with the legislative role, it can also be assigned a safety-net supervisory role over the executive authority, in order to support the work of the House of Representatives on that front. This would ensure that supervision of the executive authority does not run out of control and slip into party rivalry.
I am fully aware that our current Constitution makes no provision for a Shura Council. Yet I remain persuaded that bicameral legislature would serve Egypt better than the current unicameral one. But this would obviously have to wait till and if Egyptians decide to amend their Constitution.
15 October 2017