Who does Egypt's Speaker speak for?

Who does Egypt's Speaker speak for?
Comment: The Speaker traditionally acted as a shock absorber between the opposing sides in parliament, but al-Aal appears to have reinterpreted this vital role, writes Robert Springborg
7 min read
21 Jun, 2016
The role of Speaker provides a useful barometer of the political climate, says Springborg [Getty]

Ali Abd al-Aal, a former public prosecutor and law professor who taught at the police academy and military college, became in January speaker of the parliament elected under the tutelage of President Sisi. Al-Aal had played a key role in drafting the parliamentary electoral law that produced an overwhelming victory for pro-Sisi forces.

In the six months in which he has ruled over Parliament with an iron fist, al-Aal has profoundly re-interpreted the vital role of Speaker.

He has instructed deputies that their duty is one of "cooperation rather than confrontation" with the executive. He pledged to use "all of his strength" to prevent criticism of the government, because "in tough times there is no individual legislative or executive authority - rather, all of them should act as a single authority".

Following an uproar on the floor of the Council the very first day of the session, he banned further live television coverage of plenaries. He orchestrated the expulsion from parliament of Tawfiq Okasha, al-Aal's primary opposition challenger to head it. One of the deputies appointed by President Sisi resigned at that time, citing "an inappropriate climate that does not permit me to perform my parliamentary duties."

In May, al-Aal threatened to report to the Ethics Committee any member who criticised the government's monetary policy, simultaneously warning deputies not to speak to the media on this sensitive subject. He followed up that threat with an accusation that efforts to train parliamentarians, even when conducted by Egyptian organisations, such as the prestigious Al-Ahram Strategic Studies Center, constituted "a systematic campaign to destroy the country's constitutional institutions."

It is worth noting that al-Aal himself has received support for his travels and other activities from the international Inter-Parliamentary Union. Sauce for the goose is in his view not sauce for the gander. To those deputies who complained that his dictates violated their freedom of expression, he responded that "freedom of expression should be responsible, and harming the state's interests is not considered freedom of expression."

He has instructed deputies that their duty is one of 'cooperation rather than confrontation' with the executive

From the first parliament of independent Egypt in 1923 until the last of the monarchial era before it was prorogued by the military in 1952, the Speaker was a semi-neutral figure. One of his implicit tasks was to mediate between government and opposition, typically seeking to induce compliance of the latter to the former with both carrots and sticks.

Interestingly, even in Nasser's parliaments a vestige of that mediating role remained, especially when occupied by Anwar al-Sadat, the longest serving Speaker of that era. He was tasked by Nasser to use his role as a bridge to conservative, rural elements represented in parliament whom Nasser distrusted, but did not want to completely alienate.

The same logic and practice prevailed to an even greater degree in the Sadat era prior to 1978, when the relative autonomy of the Speaker was eroded as the regime slid toward ever greater authoritarianism. At the height of the "infitah" (opening), which followed the 1973 War and ended with Sadat's November 1977 trip to Jerusalem, Sayed Marei, whose son married Sadat’s daughter, served for almost four years as Speaker.

Marei was a consummate politician whom I personally came to know as I was writing a biography of him. He explained his conception of the role of Speaker as being a shock absorber between the opposition in parliament, on the one hand, and the executive and its supporters in that body, on the other.

Sitting in his office in the ornate, domed parliament that housed the monarchial era legislatures, I observed first hand his always polite dealings with members on both sides of the aisle. He took care when handing out "carrots", such as trips abroad, to ensure that even critics of Sadat were not entirely excluded.

Marei's relationship with the President began to decline as a result of an event on the floor of parliament, where Sadat precipitously announced a drastic reduction in subsidies, immediately provoking the January 18-19 "food riots" that left almost 100 dead in the streets of Cairo.

Al-Aal, who enjoys zero degrees of freedom from Sisi and the military, is a political cipher, with no independent reputation and no reputation for independence

Marei claimed he had not been informed in advance by Sadat and let it be known he did not support the measure. Privately he confided that he felt insulted to be sitting at the front of parliament when Sadat gave the fatal speech, without having been informed of its inflammatory content. Although closely connected to Sadat personally and politically, he clearly did not see his role as being that of the President's watchdog, barking at and biting the opposition. It was rather the reverse in fact, for he deemed his job to be one of monitoring the pulse of the opposition and reporting it to the President.

Not since that time has a Speaker enjoyed so much prestige and influence, but those who served under Mubarak were men of independent standing with considerable political intelligence. Rifat al-Mahgoub was assassinated by extremists in 1990 in part because he was an outspoken critic of them, while Fathi Surour, the longest serving Speaker in the history of Egypt's Parliament, took care like Marei to cultivate the opposition.

He did this by giving some among them access to the sorts of training programs that al-Aal has recently identified as being subversive. Surour, in fact, was a strong advocate of such programs, believing that deputies skilled in parliamentary practice would be an asset, rather than a threat, as al-Aal obviously thinks.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood's speaker who nominally served during the year in which they held power, Saad Katatni, was by the standards of that organisation, a liberal. Having sat for several years in parliament, he was the primary interlocutor between the Brothers and diplomatic missions, as American and many European diplomats could avoid restrictions on contacts with Brothers by meeting Katatni as a deputy, rather than as a Brother.

Like Surour, he was an advocate of parliamentary development through training and education, so sought to encourage his fellow Brother MPs to participate in US and other countries' programs. Of the leading members of the Brothers he was the most open minded, willing to engage in substantive debates with others. For his troubles he has been locked up for almost three years, facing a death sentence on seemingly spurious charges.

The less autonomy granted by the President to the Speaker, the greater the political pressure the regime seeks to apply to the opposition

That a dramatic change was going to occur in relations between the executive and legislative branches was signaled even before al-Aal became Speaker. Following his election as President, Sisi himself nominated a new Secretary General for the parliament that was then temporarily suspended, awaiting the new election law.

That key administrative position, which can be used to influence parliamentarians by the way in which room and seat assignments, payment of travel vouchers and the like are processed, has always been chosen by the Speaker from among those familiar with parliamentary practice. Sisi's choice, in sharp contrast, was a former military general with no background in parliamentary administration.

This caused such outrage even among the regime's supporters that this shortest serving secretary general in parliament's history was replaced. His successor, however, chosen by al-Aal, was a former police officer, who in turn appointed yet another former police officer as Deputy Secretary General.

Al-Aal's presence reflects the ever growing isolation of the Sisi regime and the mediocrity of those associated with it

The role of parliamentary speaker provides a useful barometer of the political climate. The less autonomy granted by the President to the Speaker, the greater the political pressure the regime seeks to apply to the opposition. Al-Aal, who enjoys zero degrees of freedom from Sisi and the military, is a political cipher, with no independent reputation and no reputation for independence.

He has already discredited himself and the parliament he heads, thereby eroding what has previously been an important institutional link between the regime and the political class, even occasionally the country as whole. Al-Aal's presence reflects the ever growing isolation of the Sisi regime and the mediocrity of those associated with it. It also tarnishes the reputation of the oldest legislature in the Arab world and by so doing, also the country's once proud standing as the leading Arab state.    

Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October, 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations.

From 2002 until 2008 he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he also served as Director of the London Middle East Institute. Before taking up that Chair he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.