The Regime and Its Constituency
The Egyptian state was by no means "captured" by Egypt's bourgeoisie; it retained its essential autonomy and often put its own interests ahead of those of the upper classes, whether the issue was control of the economy or the need to placate the masses and maintain social peace. But, beginning under Sadat, the regime gradually came to share power with the business, landed, and professional strata that made up a large portion of the most politically active public and represented its main constituency. This power sharing was essentially channeled through parliament, interest groups, the judiciary, and the press.
Egypt had a two-chamber legislature made up of the lower People's Assembly (Majlis ash Shaab), which was the locus of legislative power, and the upper Consultative Council (Majlis ash Shura). Power in the People's Assembly was concentrated in the hands of the leadership, an elected speaker and the chairs of the specialized committees into which the assembly was divided. The president and prime minister began each legislative session, which lasted seven months, with an overview of government policy. Laws proposed by the executive or by legislators were first considered in committee and then, with the consent of the legislative leadership, by the full assembly.
The early parliaments under Nasser were dominated by officials and by owners of medium-sized property. In the 1960s, the regime decreed that half the seats had to be reserved for the lower classes; thus, in each electoral district, one seat was filled by a worker or peasant and the other by a professional or official. Although this provision was never repealed, in practice, since Nasser, those who filled peasant seats were actually either clients of notables or wealthy peasants enriched by such ventures as labor contracting, while most "worker" deputies were trade union officials or government employees. There was no sign of any parliamentary voice speaking for the have-nots, save the occasional leftist intellectual who managed to get a seat but carried no weight. Beginning in 1979, a third seat, to be filled by a woman, was added in thirty constituencies, but this provision was abolished in the 1980s under conservative Islamic influence. The president appointed ten Copts to parliament to make sure this minority had some representation.
Constitutional practice put parliament at a great disadvantage in relation to the executive. The president is above parliamentary authority and appoints the prime minister and his government. Constitutionally, parliament must approve the government. Moreover, it can remove a minister by a vote of no- confidence. It can also, in theory, similarly challenge the prime minister and his cabinet; if it does so, the president must dissolve the government or obtain its endorsement in a popular referendum. In practice, however, governments have changed exclusively at the will of the president and never following a vote of no-confidence. The president can legislate by decree when parliament is not in session and can bypass parliament through a government-controlled plebiscite. Sadat carried out some of his most politically controversial initiatives independently of parliament, including his 1978 repression of the New Wafd Party and his 1979 promulgation of a liberal law of personal status that was resisted by Muslim opinion.
The cabinet and even individual ministers enjoyed, on the authority of very loosely worded laws, what in effect amounted to decree power, which they used to make crucial decisions, including the cut in subsidies that touched off the 1977 riots. The budget must be accepted or rejected in toto by parliament unless the executive consents to amendments. The executive must present its policy agenda to parliament, and ministers are subject to interpolation, but parliament regularly approves executive initiatives.
Because defense and foreign policy matters are reserved to the executive, defense budgets are never debated in parliament. Likewise, during negotiations over the peace treaty with Israel, Sadat rejected, without repercussions, nearly unanimous parliamentary resolutions to break off the negotiations, to give the Arab Defense Pact priority over the treaty, and to permit normalization of relations with Israel to proceed only within the framework of a comprehensive settlement.
The president's trusted confidants were the legislative leaders, and they easily set the agenda. The ruling party, subordinate to the president, dominated the assembly and in a number of cases ousted its own parliamentary peers when their criticism antagonized the government. Many deputies were economically dependent on the government; in the 1980s a third of them were employed by the state. Because the executive can dissolve parliament and through its control of the ruling party and the electoral process replace incumbents with more docile deputies, the legislature was really at the president's mercy. When opposition parties appeared in parliament, it became a less submissive body, but the members of the large government majority did not view challenging the executive as part of their role. Generally, the legislature, lacking all traditions of independence or collective solidarity, had only the most modest capacity to check the government or hold it accountable.
Nevertheless, as limited political liberalization advanced, parliament played a growing, if still subordinate, role in the political system. Two changes fostered this role: first, the government relegated authority over lesser matters to parliament and, along with it, wider scope for debate and expression; second, opposition parties were permitted to win seats in parliament.
The chief result of this liberalization was that parliament became an arena through which the state shared power with its constituency, the dominant landed and business classes, allowing them to articulate their interests, albeit generally within the broader lines of presidential policy. Thus, parliamentary committees were breeding grounds for an endless stream of initiatives that sought to roll back state control or populist regulation of the private sector. For example, the Planning and Budget Committee demanded that the private sector get a fair share of foreign exchange and bank credit, that public sector shares be sold to investors, and that public industry be confined to areas private firms could not undertake. The Housing Committee pressured the Antiquities Department to divest itself of land coveted by developers. The Religious Affairs Committee became a sounding board for conservative religious opinion, pushing Islamization measures, and proposing bans on alcohol, Western films, and even belly dancing. Parliament also played some role in the budgetary process by which public resources were allocated and on a number of occasions blocked measures to levy taxes on wealthy farmers and business people.
Parliament had no record of deciding the big issues, but occasionally it became an arena for debating them. When the regime wished to change policy, parliament was sometimes the arena for testing the waters or for discrediting old policies as a prelude to launching new ones. Sadat encouraged parliament under his confidant, Sayyid Marii, to criticize the statist Sidqi government and used parliament as a vehicle of his de-Nasserization campaign. Once opposition parties took their seats in parliament, they attempted, with mixed success, to raise issues in opposition to government policy.
Parliament also played an "oversight" role, calling attention to shortcomings in the performance of the bureaucracy or bringing constituent grievances to government attention. Ministers were constantly criticized over market shortages and service breakdowns, and deputies who took their role seriously spent a great deal of time intervening with the bureaucracy on behalf of constituents. On occasion, parliament challenged the probity of actions by ministers and high officials. It attacked the Sidqi government over irregularities in the arrangements of a major oil pipeline project and the Khalil government over the awarding of a telecommunications contract. A project to build a resort near the pyramids, although involving persons close to President Sadat, was investigated and rejected in parliament. Whereas such parliamentary activities could serve the leader as a useful way of controlling the bureaucracy and as a safety valve for redress of grievances, if deputies went too far, they invited a reaction. Sadat was so irritated by the rise of parliamentary criticism that in 1979 he dissolved the People's Assembly and called new elections, in which the regime, by a combination of fraud and intimidation, made sure its main critics lost their seats. Finally, however, for those deputies willing to exercise their political skills in support of the government, parliamentary seats could be stepping-stones to political influence and elite careers. Parliamentary seats allowed deputies to act as brokers between government and their constituency, might serve as a base from which to cultivate strategic connections in government, and became something of a political apprenticeship by which certain more influential deputies became eligible for ministerial office. Parliament also served as a repository for high officials out of office who wished to keep their hand in the political pot. Judging by the number of candidates who sought parliamentary seats, these seats were worthwhile for developing connections in the capital and influence at home.
A second chamber was added to the legislature in the late 1970s when the Central Committee of the ASU was transformed into the Consultative Council, essentially an advisory chamber of notables and retired officials. In 1980 the membership was overhauled; 70 members were appointed by the president, and the ruling party won all 140 elected seats. In 1989 the ruling party again took all seats.
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