A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, January 23, 2012

For All its Flaws, a Landmark Parliament Convenes Today

The new Egyptian People's Assembly will convene today on procedural business, only two days before the first anniversary of the date that has come to mark the onset of the Revolution. The January 25 revolution may be turning out quite differently than the young revolutionaries envisioned, with the Muslim Brotherhood in first place (which is not so surprising) and the Salafis in second (which surprised many, not least the Brotherhood itself). SCAF is still calling the shots, and the new Parliament's powers are far from clearly defined. And yet, this is a landmark parliament.

It has been six decades since the military coup of 1952 toppled the monarchy in Egypt, elections have been constrained by the overwhelming dominance of the ruling party. Until the Sadat era there were no opposition parties at all; since the 1970s opposition parties have existed, but only those approved by a committee dominated by the ruling party. While there were occasional moments of liberalization (the 1980s for example), when the opposition won a fair number of seats, they never held enough to block a constitutional amendment, which meant the ruling party could change the rules at will, and frequently did, rejigging the electoral system, limiting who could run, etc. The vote counts were generally rigged as well, but even if they weren't the system was so weighted toward the ruling party they would have won anyway.

There were voting irregularities and imperfections this time as well, but they do not seem to have systematically favored one party. These elections were the most open, free and fair since the 1952 coup, and this Parliament will be something new and different. (Before 1952 women could not vote and there were other inequities such as the ability of large landowners to control the votes of local farmers, and the Parliament was limited — as this one may be by SCAF — by the power of the Palace and the British.) It may not be the Parliament I would have elected, but I'm not Egyptian, and whatever else it may be, it is a Parliament elected by Egyptians. Ex Africa semper aliquid novum.

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