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Underrated legislations: Arab parliaments could play a crucial transformational role

Arab parliaments have traditionally played a largely ceremonial and self-serving role in politics. But now, they must take a leading role in the renewal of democracy in the Middle East.

Jan Völkel
29 April 2013
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The Egyptian Parliament in 2012. Demotix/hanafy. All rights reserved.

On 11 and 12 April 2013, parliamentarians from the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) member states came together for the 9th plenary session of the UfM’s Parliamentary Assembly (UfM-PA) in Brussels. On this occasion, Martin Schulz, EP president and until this session chairman, expressed his hope not only for closer cooperation among the parliaments around the Mediterranean but also for the higher standing of the individual legislatives in their respective political systems: a “strong, active, and successful parliamentarism” would fulfil people’s current high expectations best, Schulz pointed out, shortly before the convention. In a similar motion, Joseph Daul, chairman of the European Parliament’s EPP group, expressed his wish that UfM-PA would “become a driving force in the Euro-Mediterranean partnership”.

So far, parliaments in the Arab region have experienced widespread disdain. Embedded in mostly undemocratic polities, their roles and functions were rather restricted. A parliamentarians’ job was mostly to confirm governmental policies and to help keep us the pretence of pretend some democratic (façade) institutions. Free and fair elections, the basic condition for having functioning democratic parliaments, were sufficiently realised only in Lebanon and Yemen during the 1990s and, with the 2006 elections, in Palestine. The primarily economic liberalization measurements in many Arab countries since the mid-1990s, meanwhile, led to an increased importance of free media discourses and a mushrooming of civil society organisations, but left parliaments’ importance almost unchanged.

Even worse, the flowering NGO landscape in many Arab countries could be perceived as a sign of parliamentary failure: because people did not feel sufficiently represented in their parliaments, they looked for alternatives and engaged themselves in multiple voluntary associations. This led to the paradox that the observable liberalization steps throughout the 1990s and after, though bringing greater freedom to media and people, left the political systems in their core mostly unchanged; the Arab world remained autocratic.

As Arab parliaments had a subordinated role to play on the national level, parliamentary cross-border activities were even less important. The Arab Inter-Parliamentary Union (A-IPU), founded in 1974 and comprising parliamentarians from all 22 Arab states, convened for the last time in 2007. Its main achievements – as listed on its own webpage – included the 1975 acceptance of the Palestinian National Council as observer to the (umbrella organisation) Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), and the acceptance of Arabic as the official language in IPU meetings since 1993. Further achievements were yet to be seen. Similarly, the Arab Parliament, founded by the League of Arab States in 2001, has still not overcome its 'provisional status' and is so far busier with fully establishing itself than with contributing to any political decision-making.

The Arab spring has changed this picture dramatically, by also opening up new chances for parliamentary activities in a more democratic environment. Since 2011, free and fair elections have taken place in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, and less open elections were staged in Jordan and Morocco. However, parliaments have not found their full power and effectiveness yet, whether this is due to internal struggles and weak external circumstances, as is the case in Libya, or due to legal constraints as imposed by Egypt’s Supreme Court on the newly elected parliament in June 2012 that led to the momentary dissolution of Egypt’s lower house; after several postponements, early elections are now expected for October 2013. 

The ongoing malfunction of parliaments is a major obstacle for successful democratization in the Arab spring countries. Inside and outside the countries, debates have begun about how to strengthen parliaments as institutions and individual parliamentarians as the 'vehicles' of peoples’ will. The latter is a serious problem: parliaments as well as MPs are faced with declining trust rates, with an average of 10% for the Arab countries, as reported in a 2012 IPU study. This might be rooted in three causal factors.

First, after initial enthusiasm, Arab citizens are mostly disillusioned and disappointed; many have lost their faith in democracy and hence, in parliaments. This is especially the case for countries where parliaments are currently in limbo. Second, during their recent authoritarian times, parliaments were often perceivedas not much more than a "self-service shop" for those who had a privileged relationship with the ruling elites. This perception lingers on until today, and voters often expect their representatives to “pay back” support shown for them at the ballot box in terms of jobs, money, and similar privileges. Third, Arab parliamentarians are, with an average age of 55, the oldest MPs in the world; this conflicts with many ideals of the Arab revolutions which were associated with youth, spontaneity and anarchy, and might result in another 'generational conflict' about the countries' future political leadership.

All these obstacles notwithstanding, raising the status of parliaments in their respective political system as well as securing a higher commitment to their work on the part of the public, alongside other decision-making institutions, would be a worthwhile enterprise. Stronger parliaments would have three positive effects. First, they would contribute to a restructuring of the MENA countries' political systems, which are far too executive-heavy. Getting other actors beyond ministries and governmental agencies into the policy processes would broaden competence within the country. At the same time, better-functioning parliaments would increase the standing of the parliamentarians in public perception within MENA societies, hopefully ending the one-sided view of MPs as self-motivated cash cows. And finally, this development would bring the newly gained people’s power back to the place where it simply belongs: to parliament as the centre of the nation's democratic will.

Besides, the strengthening of parliaments would open up new options for international actors who often look for suitable strategies to support the nurture of democratic processes between the governmental and the grass-root levels. The European Union, for example, has repeatedly offered election observation missions to the young Arab democracies, with at least in Egypt no affirmative reply as yet. Training of parliamentarians, however, could be done effectively by European party and parliamentary representatives. Accordingly, the EU has repeated its new commitment to stronger parliaments and cross-border parliamentary ties in the post-Arab spring on several occasions, most lately during the visit of EU High Representative Catherine Ashton to Cairo on 7 April 2013.

Here, a revitalisation of the Euro-Mediterranean Parliamentary Assembly (EMPA) would be a promising step forward and one where the EU could offer a helpful hand. Having remained in a deep sleep so date, inter-parliamentary meetings such as the EMPA have often been criticized for their ‘talking shop’ characteristics – but by seeing these as instances of the EU implicitly wishing to share its view of democracy, they are potentially powerful tools for sensitizing partners to the nature of democracy in the EU. 

In sum, the green shoots of democracy in the Arab world have to be strengthened now, as not only the regimes have changed, but also the societies, as Eberhard Kienle recently argued: “Whatever the longer-term successes or failures of these protests, oppressed subjects transformed themselves into confident citizens.” These citizens deserve a functioning representation of their will in their respective national parliaments.

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