A driver’s guide to parliaments and political reform in the Arab World

By Dr Sue Griffiths and Sameer Kassam

Parliaments in the Arab world were dismissed prior to 2011 as rubber-stamps for their regimes, and afterwards as too dysfunctional to warrant serious consideration, but their stories since have reflected broader trends in those countries. We see four main ‘Roads to Reform’ in the region:

1.The Car Crash: Iraq and Libya

The former regimes in Iraq and more recently Libya were toppled by outside intervention, leaving a chaotic and fragmented political arena with no recent memory of democratic politics. The Iraqi Council of Representatives has suffered from a number of difficulties that can affect newly established legislatures, including:

  • A lack of agreement on rules and procedures
  • An absence of effective oversight – national unity governments have left parliament with no real opposition
  • MPs unsure about their role and focusing on local service provision rather than legislation or oversight

However, there are some small but important signs of parliamentary development in Iraq, with committees functioning better, conducting genuine cross-party inquiries and making tangible difference to policy in areas such as banking, social security provision and water pollution.

The situation in Libya has been even more chaotic, with rival parliaments in different parts of the country. All agree on the need for national unity and the creation of a truly representative parliament that is capable of serving the people’s interests. But once it is established, it too will have to begin the difficult process of showing its worth to the Libyan people.

Such slow and incremental progress will of course not transform Iraqi or Libyan democracy overnight, nor for that matter will it rid those countries of the terrorist threat, but small gains, once established, are hard to reverse. The Iraqi parliament will have an important part in establishing a durable political settlement in the long term, one that brings in, and keeps in, all its stakeholders. It is an encouraging sign that both the new Prime Minister and Speaker in Iraq are former parliamentary committee chairs who earned the respect of all of their Members.

2.The Road Map: Jordan and Morocco

In response to popular protests in Jordan and Morocco – focused mainly on corruption and concentration of power – the Kings of both countries issued their ‘road map for reform’, describing top-down reform rather than dramatic upheaval or revolution.

Unlike Libya and Iraq, both Morocco and Jordan have had a functional parliament for many years, with established logistical structures – staff, buildings and rules of procedure. The issue is that in recent times these tools haven’t been used to exercise any serious oversight or challenge to the Executive. Parliament has been weak and itself implicated in the web of corruption about which the citizens were protesting. The problem is thus one of cultural change – redefining parliament as a place of accountability and oversight; and tackling patronage structures, which have tended to maintain the Member of Parliament in a service-orientated position.

The road map approach envisages more prominent and inclusive political parties, more assertive and expert parliamentary committees, codes of ethics to address corruption and new rights for the opposition. It is a gradual process of moving power from certain vested interests to other, more accountable institutions, including parliament, and accepting that there is a role for constructive opposition to hold the government to account.

The allegation sometimes levelled at both monarchies is that they are merely making cosmetic changes without actually changing anything very fundamental. But if a consensus for change can be established within these parliaments, then there is the possibility that it will be sustained despite any failure of will from the top. This represents a big opportunity for a more powerful parliament, but also a threat to many vested interests.

3.The U turn: Egypt

Egypt’s parliament has a history, but in the Mubarak years only as the legislative vehicle for a one-party state. After the revolution, Egypt’s parliament barely had time to get started before it was suspended by the Supreme Court. For a time, the upper house took over full legislative authority, despite its previous limited remit. Disillusion with President Mursi grew, and finally in June 2013, he was overthrown in what was variously described as a second revolution, a coup, or a counter revolution (in order to preserve our transportation theme, we will call it a U turn). Fresh parliamentary elections are now scheduled for early 2015, almost three years after the last occasion.

So what are the prospects for parliamentary democracy in Egypt? One route, foreseen by some, is a strong President commanding a weak and biddable parliament. A recent opinion poll that we commissioned finds that people have little confidence that parliament can solve their problems. Nor do they have much idea of what the political parties stand for, or what differentiates them from one another. The main ‘party’ represented in the last parliament, the Muslim Brotherhood, has all but disappeared from the scene.

However, in the period between the last parliament and this one, two successive revisions of the constitution have changed its role, and given it powers it previously did not possess. For the first time, parliament cannot be unilaterally dissolved by the president, and there is scope for a stronger oversight role. The parliament’s ability to dismiss the president has also changed – a key missing element from the events surrounding Mursi’s departure. This means that relations between parliament and the presidency will be crucial – how will parliament use its new constitutional powers? It risks both overplaying and underplaying its hand. Equally, relations between parties will be key – the need for collective action must be recognised to prevent a parliament that may well be dominated by independents from grinding to a halt.

4.The Driving Instructor: Tunisia

Tunisia could be seen as the driving instructor for other Arab transitions, although the rosy image of a country enjoying a widely-accepted new settlement disguises a path paved with crises, including assassinations, mass-resignations and the rise of domestic extremists.

Two main factors help explain what has preserved Tunisia’s parliament’s standing as a credible forum for political deliberations. Firstly, the strength and organisational capacity of civil society meant that parliament was not left to its own devices and that ordinary citizens’ voices kept the more controversial tendencies of one party or another in check. Secondly, its members placed a great deal of importance on agreeing the rules of the game before actually getting into the details of constitution drafting or executive oversight. In this way, even if an individual article, however controversial, was disputed, the procedure by which that article was drafted was beyond question.

Of course, this alone does not guarantee the success of the parliamentary system, but coupled with the pluralist ethos that rests as the heart of the transition, developments in Tunisia can certainly be seen in a positive light.

The Road Ahead

Over the past few years, Global Partners has been privileged to work with MPs and staff in all these countries to assist them in tackling some of their challenges, and the results, albeit on a small scale and in specific areas, have been encouraging. Dedicated MPs and senior staff have shown a real willingness to take a leadership role and to work to strengthen the role of parliament, which suggests to us that though the task before them may be Herculean, it is not Sisyphean. The road to reform will no doubt remain rocky, but these parliaments have demonstrated that it is possible to fill in some of the potholes.

About the authors:

Sue Griffiths is Deputy Director and Sameer Kassam is Senior Projects Manager (Iraq) at Global Partners Governance, a social purpose company working to strengthen political institutions and improve the quality of political representation in countries around the world. This post is adapted from a paper delivered at the Eleventh Workshop of Parliamentary Scholars and Parliamentarians, held at Wroxton College, Oxfordshire, 26-27 July 2014.

W: www.gpgovernance.net T: @GPGovernance E: hello@gpgovernance.net

Image: “What lies ahead for Arab parliaments?: A road sign in Tataouine, Tunisia marked with a sticker encouraging voter registration”.  Courtesy of Amine Ghrabi CC BY-NC


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