Over the coming weeks, Egyptians will vote in parliamentary elections in which nobody knows who will win yet everybody knows the result. The regime will then claim (inaccurately) that the “road map” — announced when former president Mohamed Morsi was deposed in July 2013 — has been completed. Few observers have high hopes for the new parliament, but its lackluster future has roots in the state’s complicated past.
Regardless of the results of individual races, the parliament will play the same role: the body will be weak but not toothless; it will be less a rubber stamp than an annoying speed bump for Egypt’s rulers. Virtually everyone is likely to come away disappointed: Egypt’s leaders who show no interest in politics will find a parliament that must be massaged; the opposition will find few points of entry; deputies will enjoy little authority; and voters will find little choice. Egypt’s parliamentary system seems to serve no purpose but appears to have been built on purpose. What is the secret behind the apparently planned obsolescence of the parliament?
This is not a Stalinist election. Multiple candidates and party slates are competing. With a new set of rules, some redrawn boundaries, untested electoral actors and influential local bigwigs jockeying in new alliances, it is difficult to forecast individual races. But the expected outcome — a motley group of politicians, pundits and patrons (but not strong parties) seeking access to resources, platforms for posturing and prestige — remains the same.
The opposition cannot win, since there is no real opposition running. The election has been carefully structured to marginalize the most influential Islamists and to enhance the prospects for locally prominent individuals lacking clear ideology or affiliation. The largest party in Egypt’s last elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, has been harshly suppressed, and the movement’s members who are still free talk more of revolution than elections. The second largest party, the Salafi Nour Party, clings to legal existence, but its credibility among previous supporters remains untested.
To be sure, plenty of independent-minded figures are also vying for seats. But in Egypt’s constricted political environment, with civil society cowed or contained, demonstrations harshly restricted and most organizations monitored, those parties that do exist complain that they cannot mobilize potential followers properly for electoral competition. However, even if these constraints were suddenly lifted, few current organizations show the skills to actually mobilize the electorate. The election commission and the courts have battled publicly over who can run. More quietly, some political figures have complained that security bodies place very heavy thumbs on the scales to favor certain candidates. Others are harassed out of competing.
With weak parties, a body that is almost one-fifth larger than its predecessor (dissolved in 2012), and most campaigns based on local networks and reputations, the new parliament will be filled with deputies lacking previous experience or strong ideologies, guided instead by platitudinous programs and fulsome promises. Individual deputies might exact a price for loyalty: those with local constituencies will want to show their ability to deliver goods; those with business interests might appreciate the connections they will forge; and independents and intellectuals might expect to have their ideas taken seriously before toeing the line. The 2015 parliament may occasion the introduction of cat-herding metaphors into the Egyptian dialect.
Does all this matter? Yes, because there are measures the parliament can take that could affect the way Egypt is governed. And just as significantly, there are actions it is supposed to take that it will have trouble actually doing.
Over the past four and a half years, Egypt’s rulers have taken advantage of a parliamentary vacuum to issue hundreds of legal changes by decree. President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi himself has issued over 200 such decree-laws, some covering very sensitive subjects. Only now that the parliament has been elected has this jerry-rigged procedure drawn public attention. Article 156 of Egypt’s new 2014 constitution requires that these decrees be submitted immediately to the parliament; if the parliament fails to act, the laws are revoked retroactively. The constitutional language is fairly strict. Unless they find a loophole — and they may— it is hard to imagine deputies following any path other than ignominious surrender to political realities and approving them all. But it will be an ugly process. Since the new parliament will likely take weeks organizing its most basic affairs — approving bylaws, electing a leadership, establishing committees — it seems unlikely that deputies will even be able to read much of what they will be pressured to approve.
The parliament will most likely stand out for its inability to exercise the powers it has been nominally granted. Egypt’s supposed “legislature” will, in effect, have trouble legislating. In the past, Egyptian legislation has been drafted in various executive branch agencies and reviewed by judicial advisors before being presented to the parliament. That path is unlikely to change with this parliament, despite the deputies who may noisily introduce bills they know will fail or use legislative debates to grab attention. The regime is likely to get any law it wants if it works hard enough, but it may find itself forced to work in order to cobble together majorities on some issues.
Some legislation will be particularly difficult to change — perhaps for a good reason — and that will please few. Egyptian law acknowledges a special kind of legislation that falls between a normal law and a constitutional text: a “law complementing the constitution,” designed to define a specific right or procedure. Under Article 121 of the 2014 constitution, these laws require the approval of a supermajority of two thirds of all members. The purpose behind the provision seems to be to ensure that such fundamental pieces of Egypt’s legal framework are the product of deliberation and consensus, a sensible attitude. However, in the current context, this rule actually means that any such law will have to clear a high hurdle — and until that happens, critical pieces of Egypt’s creaking and authoritarian legislation will remain intact.
To make matters even more tenuous, the new parliament will operate with a judicial sword over its head. The Supreme Constitutional Court—which has almost never met an Egyptian electoral law it liked—could strike down the law by which the parliament was elected. Such a ruling could, depending on how the court rules, require immediate dissolution of the body. Since 2011, various drafters have tried to find ways to avoid this dissolution, but none of those attempts have stuck.
Deputies elected on an individual basis and given little responsibility are unsurprisingly likely to act as irresponsible individuals. It will be easy to portray them as a group of grandstanding blowhards, patronage dispensers and venal politicians.
But the president will still have to deal with them, and indeed he shows signs of realizing this, crafting tools to bend them to his will. Last year, a general parachuted into the position of secretary general of the parliament, an unprecedented step taken long before any deputy will take a seat. More recently, President al-Sissi ordered the formation of a new cabinet and made clear he hopes the new parliament will approve it, apparently aiming to grease the skids for an automatic vote of confidence in his new ministers.
Political scientists who study authoritarian regimes have noted that many incorporate some elements of democratic procedures. Those regimes that have some elections and even limited pluralism in political life seem to last longer than those that do not. There are many reasons this might be the case: they allow for some information gathering; some channeling of opposition into legal channels; some limited opportunities for co-opting critics; and perhaps even some possibilities for evolution rather than rigidity. Packed, pliant but not completely subservient parliaments can serve a function.
However, scholars often err in assuming that an institution’s apparent function was put there intentionally for that purpose. Egypt’s parliamentary system shows a different face of authoritarianism: one that works not on the basis of a long-term design with structures carefully crafted to serve its continued viability but instead makes ad hoc decisions based on short-term needs. Egypt’s rulers show no signs of having deliberated about whether they wanted a parliament before engineering one. Constitutional planning shows, at best, a tactical logic on such issues, hardly a strategic one.
In 2013, leaders of a regime hastily reconfiguring itself found that a parliament was a long-established part of Egypt’s political order and therefore took its existence for granted. Its constitutional architects knew what they did not want the parliament to do — such as muck around in the military budget or police affairs unsupervised — and they also knew that they wanted to keep a close eye on electoral rules to prevent an ideological body, especially one dominated by Islamists. They fought those past wars successfully. In the process, however, they left other provisions for parliament untouched and many others untested.
Egypt’s parliament may be born broken. It was built that way not in an act of intelligent design but by a combination of ad hoc decision-making, historical inertia and absent-mindedness.
Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at the George Washington University. He is a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “When Victory is Not an Option: Islamist Movements in Arab Politics” (Cornell University Press, 2012).