Egypt’s Shura Council elections: A gesture of democracy?

Egypt’s Shura Council elections: A gesture of democracy?

In early June Egypt’s parliamentary elections will kick off with voting for the Shura Council, the consultative assembly. Some opposition parties plan to participate, others will boycott, and the ruling National Democratic Party is gearing up to secure its hold on the assembly.

Candidates will compete for 88 seats in the upper house, two thirds of the council’s 264 seats. The remaining third is directly appointed by President Hosni Mubarak.

As different political parties prepare for the elections, the process raises question marks over their relevance to the country’s democratic process and overall political life.

The Shura Council was established through a public referendum in 1979 under the principle that popular consultation as a pillar of democratic practice is embedded in both Muslim and Western political thought. In theory, the council’s mandate is to preserve the spirit of the 1952 revolution and the 1971 Constitution, by proposing draft laws, discussing issues and checking on the constitutionality of decrees.

The council also discusses any reconciliation and alliance treaties that would change Egypt’s borders. Meanwhile, the 2007 constitutional amendment to Article 194 granted the council powers to accept or decline any proposed changes to the Constitution.

In practice, the council has little power over Egypt’s politics, say experts. “I don’t feel how close the Shura Council elections have become although they are about to start. Yet we do not feel they have any impact on a street level,” Akmal Qortam, a businessman and political commentator, wrote in Al-Masry Al-Youm two weeks ago.

Mohamed Ibrahim, a researcher on Egyptian politics at Exeter University in the United Kingdom, said the limited significance of the Shura Council elections lies in the fact that it is only a consultative body: “It’s prescribed in the council’s mandate that it is only a consultative body and does not have any legislative powers when it comes to drafting laws.” 

Party participation

Nonetheless, opposition parties are taking part in the Shura Council contest, perhaps using it to test the waters for more significant elections for the lower house, the People’s Assembly, scheduled for this fall.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest opposition group, which is legally banned, is partaking in the Shura Council contest in keeping with its general policy of actively and seriously participating in parliamentary elections.

“We will follow our normal path. We have candidates all over the nation who enjoy a good relationship with citizens, who are present on the streets and who are respected,” said Mohamed Morsi, a spokesperson for the group and member of its Guidance Bureau.The Brotherhood has settled on contesting over 20 percent of the 88 seats nationwide and is set to announce the names of its candidates next week. Its announced strategy in elections is that it does not intend to overrule others, but rather to participate in bearing political responsibilities.

But there are fears that voting in the current round of elections will resemble previous parliamentary elections, which is to say they will not exactly be democratic. “The elections are again taking place under the emergency law, which mars our candidates’ and voters’ capacity to pursue their political rights,” Morsi said. “The recent past has shown us how the regime is deploying tons of tax-payer money to fiercely stand against any opposition candidate.”

The electoral process in Egypt is traditionally managed through informal political networks at constituency levels that include financial and material incentives for voting for a certain candidate.

Morsi also commented on the problematic geographic distribution of constituencies. “The way constituencies are defined is marred with favoritism and major geographic confusion,” he said. In March of this year, a presidential decree was passed to amend the Shura Council’s constituencies, whereby four new constituencies were added, amid skepticism from opposition parliament members.

For the leftist Tagammu Party head and current Shura Council member Refaat el-Saeed, despite recent experiences of electoral fraud in Egypt, it’s hard to know what will happen in the Shura Council elections. “Usually the hopes for success are somewhat high in the first stage, then interventions increase and hopes are gone by the second stage of the elections,” el-Saeed said. “But this all depends on the political will, which is unclear to everyone, including the ruling regime.”

The Tagammu Party is planning to field about 11 candidates, whose fate is yet to be determined once their papers are submitted to the Electoral Committee which rules on the validity of candidacies. In general, a candidate should be at least 35 years old, have settled his military status, be able to read and write, and have no record of immunity stripping from parliament.

The ruling National Democratic Party, which holds the majority of seats at the council from the last round of elections in 2007, is ready for the June polls with Mubarak calling for partisans to support their candidates in different constituencies.

When contacted by Al-Masry Al-Youm, steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, a member of the NDP’s Policies Secretariat, said the party’s list of candidates will be ready in mid-May, with the application deadline having now elapsed. In the meantime, none of the candidates applying for the contest are from the party’s Policies Secretariat, according to NDP spokesperson Ali Eddin Helal.

The Policies Secretariat is the NDP’s strategy box. Ruling out its members’ candidacy for the Shura Council elections can be understood as a gesture of limiting the NDP’s control over the council. Some media reported the decision has angered some members of the Secretariat who had intended to run in the elections.

A democratic device or a gesture of democracy?

Ibrahim, whose research focuses on informal polities, said the council is mostly a prestige-making avenue for its members.

“Candidates are interested in improving their prestige and making networks by joining the Shura Council, especially given that many of its members, across different rounds, are ex-ministers, ex-governors and businessmen. That’s why neither the Muslim Brotherhood, nor the rest of the opposition are particularly keen on fighting hard for seats there,” he said.

For Morsi, the main reason why the council’s elections are not taken that seriously is that since their inception, the country has been under the rule of emergency law, which limits the fairness of the process and shakes people’s trust in government. “The Shura Council was not born to a democratic process. For one, a third of it is appointed by the president and two-thirds are elected in successively fraudulent processes,” he said. 

Other parties have opted to boycott parliamentary elections altogether to protest violations. Ossama el-Ghazaly Harb, head of the liberal National Democratic Front has just announced his party’s intention to boycott the elections.

But for el-Saeed, the council has a lot more potential, especially when compared with the People’s Assembly. “The Shura Council has been a more thoughtful and respectable council, perhaps because of the appointed third. Sometimes appointment to legislative councils is better than elections.”

He cited instances where the council had a leading role in moving forward important legislation, such as the draft social insurance law. “We managed through the Shura Council to deliberate with members of the NDP and convince them of the urgency of changing the law. It’s also through the Shura Council that we started a series of questionings around the constitutionality of the minister of finance’s actions,” el-Saeed added. 

In monitoring the council’s activities, Ibrahim said he has noticed that its voice is heard in the media only when it makes statements on regional issues, such as the Israeli assault on Gaza last year.

“The council becomes an outlet for the government to voice out friendly statements that for political reasons are not issued by its own branches, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” said Ibrahim.