New powers for Egypt's upper chamber signal increasing authoritarianism

Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist allies are ushering Egypt to the threshold of a political era that critics fear could be just as authoritarian as Hosni Mubarak's. Analysis by Youssef Hamza

The recent promotion of the Egyptian parliament's toothless upper chamber to a full-fledged legislature was the latest worrying sign that the president, Mohammed Morsi, and his Islamist allies were ushering Egypt to the threshold of a political era that critics fear could be just as authoritarian as the 29-year rule of the former leader, Hosni Mubarak.

Gone, for now at least, is the mass election fraud Egyptians had endured during the Mubarak years, the wholesale torture of regime critics at the hands of his feared security agencies, and the tight control over the media.

What has come in their place, however, is beginning to appear no less authoritarian: an increasingly tight grip on political power by Islamists through the use of religion as a political weapon, elaborate defamation campaigns targeting opposition leaders and media critics, the manipulation of voters through bribery or intimidation and a near total lack of transparency.

Egypt's highest court was set to rule last night on whether the upper chamber, known as the Shura Council, should be dissolved.
Several lawsuits argue that there were irregularities in voting last year for council seats.

Yet if the Supreme Constitutional Court delays a decision, as some court observers expect, a parliamentary body long dismissed as a useless talk shop would continue to be Egypt's legislature until the spring or early summer, when a new house of deputies, the lower chamber, is due to be elected and seated.

In other words, a chamber that was elected by a mere 8 per cent of the nation's 50 million eligible voters, due to the low numbers that bothered to vote, will have an unusually powerful grip over the nation's legislative agenda.

Important legislation now pending includes a new election law; a package of economic reforms to raise funds and meet International Monetary Fund conditions for a US$4.8 billion (Dh17.5bn) loan; a law regulating street demonstrations; and possibly regulations designed to curb the independent media that has been sharply critical of the president and the Muslim Brotherhood, in which he formerly served as a top official.

On the face of it, the promotion of the Shura Council is a concession by Mr Morsi to the opposition, which has been critical of the president holding both executive and legislative powers.

In effect, however, Mr Morsi has surrendered his legislative powers to a body that is heavily dominated by his Islamist supporters, so the move makes little or no difference on the ground. With so much power, the president has also greatly undermined the state's third authority – appointing an ally to the powerful job of attorney general and taking away many of the powers of the nation's highest court.

Two-thirds of the Shura Council's members were elected at the tail end of more than two months of elections, in late 2011 and early 2012, that left Egyptians fatigued and exacerbated.

Furthermore, as president, Mr Morsi was entitled under the 1971 constitution to appoint one-third of the council's 270 members.
He used that power to appoint about a dozen Christians and several independent figures to the council – a move his supporters cited as evidence of his administration's inclusive approach to politics.

In reality, the appointments hardly made a dent in the Islamists' near complete domination of the body.

The Shura Council has replaced the People's Assembly as the legislature. The assembly was dissolved by a court ruling in June on the grounds that the law under which it was elected breached the principle of equality.

Significantly, the Shura Council was elected under the same law and the Supreme Constitutional Court was expected to dissolve it on December 2, along with another Islamist-dominated body: the 100-member panel tasked with drafting the nation's new constitution.

Clearly with the president's blessings, Islamists laid siege to the tribunal's Nile-side building in the Cairo suburb of Maadi ahead of the scheduled hearing and prevented the judges from entering.

The judges responded by declaring an indefinite work stoppage.

Meanwhile, the panel drafting the new constitution hurriedly adopted the charter, voting on its 200-plus clauses during an all-night session in November that, in the view of many Egyptians, made a mockery of a process that should have proceeded with dignity, caution and as much popular support as possible.

The draft has a clear Islamist slant, placing restrictions on freedoms, giving religious leaders a say on legislation, and giving the president powers that chipped away at some of the judiciary's independence.

Just as important, the draft did not enjoy the support of a large majority of Egyptians and was adopted without the participation of the panel's Christians and liberals.

Still, Mr Morsi called for a referendum on the draft last month, breaking a repeated promise never to do so unless there was consensus on the document.

The constitution was adopted by nearly 64 per cent of voters in a poll the opposition claimed was marred by irregularities, many of which were attributed to a boycott by judges who were supposed to oversee the vote. The turnout, however, was embarrassingly low, at about 32 per cent, something that would normally cast doubt on the legitimacy of the document.

Mr Morsi and his supporters, however, declared it to be a resounding victory.