How does the People’s Assembly work? Your questions answered

The People’s Assembly (PA) has been under intense scrutiny since the first session of the post-Mubarak body on 23 January, but even more so since a special session was called in the wake of the Port Said stadium tragedy on 1 February. The People’s Assembly is currently the only elected government body in Egypt and its day-to-day operations have an effect on what comes next for the country.

PA activity is governed by an internal statute that opposition parties say places too much power in the hands of the Speaker. This PA’s speaker is Saad Katatny, formerly secretary general of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

Last week, the FJP, which controls nearly 40 percent of the seats in the PA, announced that it would amend the statute, which was promulgated in 1979 and remained the same under nearly 30 years of Mubarak’s rule.

In the meantime, Egypt Independent hopes to give its readers a better idea of how this important body works. What follows is a look at the main provisions of the statute, which in its preamble declares that it seeks to “ensure freedom of expression and thought to all MPs.”

What are the PA’s main bodies?

1.      Speaker

2.      PA Office

3.      General Committee

4.      Ethics Committee

5.      19 Specialized Committees

6.      Ad hoc and Combined Committees

7.      Parliamentary Chapter

How is the speaker elected and what does he do?

The speaker and two deputies (together known as the PA Office) are elected by an absolute majority of votes at the start of an ordinary session, chaired by the oldest MP present.

The speaker’s duties are to represent the PA, maintain “peace and order in it” and “preserve its dignity and that of its members.” Numerous incidents of shoe-raising during the era of National Democratic Party (NDP) Speaker Fathy Sorour demonstrate that this is no mean feat.

She or — as is more likely  he also has the unenviable task of making MPs stay on topic during discussions. While the speaker is allowed to take part in debates, he must give up the presidency while he does so to one of his deputies.

The speaker is a central hub through which all correspondence between PA committees and government bodies pass. He or she also enjoys extensive powers in disciplinary matters and composition of PA committees.

The PA Office may ask a particular committee to study a particular issue and report back. It may then present the results to the PA should it choose to do so.

The PA Office draws up the PA’s agenda with priority given to draft laws submitted by the government and already studied by the relevant PA committee, as well as “important current issues.”

Under article 84 of the 1971 Constitution the speaker becomes president of the republic when the post is vacant.

How does the PA vote?

By electronic voting, the raising of hands or by standing up and sitting down where the speaker cannot gauge the exact number of votes through the raising of hands.

When does the PA meet?

Regular meetings are held in public on Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays every two weeks unless the PA decides otherwise. A parliamentary term last for five years, between parliamentary elections, and is divided into five parliamentary cycles, each cycle lasting a minimum of seven months. 

A meeting may only begin when the majority of MPs are present.

If the minimum number is not met, the speaker must delay the meeting for one hour. If the minimum is still not met the speaker postpones the meeting until a date he announces.

The speaker opens the meeting “in the name of God and the name of the people” and then recites the following verse: “Act! God will behold your actions and (so will) His messenger and the believers.”

Can PA meetings be held in private?

Yes. Upon the request of the president of the republic, the speaker or at least 20 MPs, the PA decides after a discussion in which two supporters of secrecy and two opponents of it speak.

How are party blocs represented in the PA?

Each political party tells the speaker at the beginning of each session who has been chosen to represent it in the PA. The representative has priority to speak in the PA and committees over other MPs.

What is the PA General Committee?

At the top of the committees pyramid is the General Committee, made up of:

–          the two deputy speakers

–          chairmen of the 19 PA committees

–          representatives of all the political parties elected to the PA

–          five MPs selected by the PA Office, one of whom must be an independent MP if there are more than 10 independent MPs in the PA

Its members are elected at the start of PA cycles.

The speaker calls for General Committee meetings, sets the meetings' agendas, manages discussions and announces decisions taken by it. The General Committee must hold a regular meeting at least once a month. The PA Speaker may call for an extraordinary session.

The PA Speaker may order that the minutes of the General Committee’s meetings be published “in the manner which he deems appropriate”.

The General Committee’s tasks are to:

–          discuss general issues raised by the president of the republic, the speaker or the prime minister;

–          examine periodic reports submitted by PA committees on the implementation of laws or important “petitions and complaints that represent a social or economic phenomenon”;

–          study reports referred to it by the Central Auditing Agency and other bodies;

–          discuss MP disciplinary cases referred to it by the Ethics Committee;

–          and select seven MPs at the beginning of every session in accordance with article 194 of the 1979 Constitution. (Under this article, a joint committee composed of seven MPs, seven Shura Council members and the speakers of both houses convenes where a dispute arises between them over a legislative matter.)

Can the General Committee summon ministers?

The General Committee “may invite” the prime minister, other ministers and the head of the Central Auditing Agency to “listen to them.”

The statute says that the committee may invite the Socialist Public Prosecutor, but this position was abolished by the 2007 constitutional amendments.

It may also summon MPs “to introduce an important or urgent issue or to clarify an issue presented to it.”

What do PA specialized committees do?

There are 19 specialized committees.

They are:

1.      Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee

2.      Budget and Planning Committee

3.      Economic Affairs Committee

4.      Foreign Affairs Committee

5.      Arab Affairs Committee

6.      Defense, National Security and Mobilization Committee

7.      Proposals and Complaints Committee

8.      Manpower

9.      Industry and Energy Committee

10.   Agriculture and Irrigation Committee

11.   Education and Scientific Research Committee

12.   Religious, Social and Religious Endowments Committee

13.   Culture, Information and Tourism Committee

14.   Health and Environmental Affairs Committee

15.   Transportation and Telecommunications Committee

16.   Housing, Public Utilities and Reconstruction Committee

17.   Local Government and Public Organizations Committee

18.   Youth Committee

19.   Human Rights Committee

The total membership of each committee is determined by the PA at the beginning of each term, “based on the nomination of the PA Office to ensure the high performance of these committees.”

The number of members who come from the same governorate in one committee must not exceed one quarter of its membership.

The speaker receives nominations for membership of the committees at the beginning of each ordinary term. The PA Office “coordinates these nominations giving priority to the oldest members of the committee, and then to people with expertise and specialization in the committee’s field.”

The speaker announces nomination lists to the PA. MPs may submit written proposals and objections to the speaker.

Government ministers may only become committee members with permission from the PA Office.

Individual committees elect chairmen, deputies and a secretary through majority vote within ten days of the start of each parliamentary term.

One third of a committee’s members must attend a committee meeting for it to be valid. Decisions may only be taken when a “majority” of its members are present.

Committee tasks include:

–          submission of draft laws to the PA and giving feedback on draft laws, and

–          following-up on ministerial statements before the PA, PA committees or to the media and submitting reports to the speaker “showing to what extent promises and recommendations are implemented.”

Committees may also request that the speaker organize a meeting with a minister, heads of central departments, heads of public bodies “and others involved in the management of any sectors or activities in the community” for clarifications or input on a topic.

Who can attend specialized committee meetings?

Only its members, secretariat staff, advisors and experts. The media may only attend with the permission of the committee's chairman.

MPs have the right to attend the meetings of a committee of which they are not a member provided that the issue being discussed does not relate to the MP or his/her personal interest.

Ministers may attend committee meetings where issues falling within their competence are being discussed.

Can committees summon government ministers?

Committees can “invite” government ministers and public officials to a meeting through the speaker.

Can committee minutes be made public?

Minutes may be made available to the PA if the majority of committee members agree, or upon the request of the speaker or the government.

The speaker may decide to print these minutes and publish them “in an appropriate manner.”

Copies of minutes are available in the office of the speaker, his deputies and the PA secretary general.

What other types of PA committees exist?

Special committees are formed upon the proposal of the speaker to study draft laws. They submit reports on draft laws to the PA.

Joint committees of two or more of the specialized committees are formed at the proposal of the speaker or at the request of the government. They are chaired by either a PA deputy or the longest-serving chairman, and then the oldest chairman.

Ad-hoc committees such as fact-finding committees are formed to “find facts on a general issue of great importance” or “examine the activities of any of the administrative departments.”

Ad-hoc committees are formed at the request of a PA committee or if a written proposal signed by at least 20 MPs is submitted to the speaker.

Fact-finding committees consist of seven to 25 members elected by the PA following nominations by the speaker.

The current PA has formed fact-finding committees on topics including the Port Said stadium massacre, the rights of individuals killed and injured in the revolution, and the Interior Ministry clashes in early February.

Lastly, exploration and confrontation committees consist of between three and 10 members chosen by the speaker. These committees are tasked with examining shortcomings in legislation, clarifying “the facts of the state’s general policy” and listening to citizens’ suggestions.

How are MPs kept in check?

The Ethics Committee is responsible for disciplining MPs. Chaired by one of the speaker’s deputies, the Ethics Committee is made up of:

–          The chairmen of four committees: the Constitutional Affairs and Legislation Committee; the Religious, Social and Awqaf Affairs Committee; the Proposals and Complaints Committee; and the Human Rights Committee,

–          five members of the General Committee, of whom at least two are drawn from opposition parties, and

–          five MPs chosen randomly, including at least one woman.

The Ethics Committee examines violations committed by MPs against “Egyptian society’s code of behavior on religious, moral or social values and fundamental political and economic principles.” (No definition is provided of these terms.)

Ethics Committee meetings must be attended by a minimum of at least seven of its 15 members.

An MP may be referred to the committee by the PA Office. An MP must be notified at least a week before the committee meets, and she or he may may select an MP to assist in his or her defence.

An MP who fails to attend is notified again. An MP’s failure to attend without a reasonable excuse after this second notification results in their foregoing the right to defend themselves.

The Ethics Committee either conducts the investigation itself or assigns one of its members to do it. It has the authority to impose three penalties. It can:

1.      reproach the MP,

2.      ban him or her from taking part in parliamentary delegations for one parliamentary cycle, and                              

3.      ban him or her from taking part in PA activities for not less than two, and not more than 10 sessions.

Where a majority of Ethics Committee members see that a harsher penalty is in order they refer the issue to the General Committee, which must adjudicate on the issue within ten days.

The General Committee may impose one of the three penalties listed above or impose a fourth penalty: banning the MP from taking part in PA activities for no less than 10 sessions and for a period not exceeding the end of the parliamentary cycle, which is a year minus a three-month summer holiday and the month of Ramadan. It may also shelve the matter.

A disciplined MP has the right to appeal a decision made by the Ethics Committee or General Committee by submitting a grievance to the speaker within seven days. The PA adjudicates on the matter.

If the majority of Ethics Committee members believe that the MP has committed a “huge violation” for which his or her PA membership should be terminated, they refer the issue to the PA Office, which in its turn sends it to a joint committee composed of the General Committee and the Committee on Constitutional and Legislative Affairs.

While the joint committee has the power to terminate an MP’s membership, the PA may substitute this penalty with one of the four other penalties listed above.

In an article published in 2008, Al-Masry Al-Youm described the Ethics Committee as the “majority’s whip” used to “discipline the opposition.”

The article described NDP MP Haidar Boghdady being sent before the committee after a leaked CD revealed pictures of the MP dancing with a belly dancer at a party.

Can the PA summon a government minister to appear before it?

There are three ways in which the PA can seek out information from a minister.

MPs can meet and direct a question at a government minister on any issue “within the scope of their competence.” Only one MP can ask a question, and MPs are allowed to ask a maximum of three questions per month.

1.      The minister answers the question verbally in the meeting, or answer later in writing where certain conditions apply. The MP who asked the question may seek clarification from the minister and may comment on his response in brief.

2.      Information requests allow MPs to ask a minister for information on “an urgent matter of public importance.” Information requests are submitted in writing to the speaker and recorded in a “special register.” The PA Office puts information requests on the agenda of the upcoming meeting within a week of their receipt.

The MP presenting the information request makes a statement and the minister responds to him in brief.

3.     Interrogations allow MPs to cross-examine ministers. MPs present a request for an interrogation to the speaker together with an explanatory note describing the “main points of the interrogation, the reasons behind this interrogation, the difference in views between the interrogator and the interrogated, and the reasons that support the interrogator’s point of view.”

The interrogation must not include “any improper words.”

Unlike information requests and questions, the interrogating MP is permitted to engage in a dialogue with the minister.

How can ministers be held to account by the PA?

A minimum of five MPs can submit to the speaker a proposal to charge a minister with a specific act, listing the facts upon which the charge is based.

The speaker presents the accusation to the PA and it is then referred to the General Committee, who summons the minister. A decision to charge the minister is passed by a majority vote of the committee.

The PA issues a resolution to charge the minister after discussing the General Committee’s report.

The speaker informs the president of the republic of the indictment and the PA forms two committees to investigate and prosecute the minister according to the Law on the Trial of Ministers.

Do MPs enjoy immunity from legal action?

While Parliament is in session and other than where the MP is caught in the act of committing a crime, legal measures may only be taken against an MP with prior permission from the PA.

When Parliament is not in session permission is needed from the speaker.

Can MPs question the president during appearances before the PA?

Once the president has delivered a statement the PA adjourns. The speaker then invites the General Committee to a meeting to review the contents of the statement and MPs’ proposals to discuss the statement.

Fifty MPs can submit a written proposal to the speaker to discuss the statement including justifications for this decision (compare this with the only five MPs needed to raise charges against a minister).

The speaker presents the request to the General Committee. If approved by the General Committee the speaker then presents it to the PA. A majority must vote in favor for a discussion of the statement to be held.

If the PA votes in favor, it refers the statement to the General Committee or a special committee formed at the proposal of the speaker that includes at least one representative of the opposition. The committee reviews the statement and submits a report on it to the PA.

MPs interested in speaking during the discussion of the statement submit a written statement to the speaker. The requests must include the specific issues to be discussed and must be submitted 48 hours in advance of the discussion.

The PA Office may choose not to approve these requests.

How can MPs control PA debates?

Information requests on urgent and serious issues allow an MP, committee chairman or party representative to ask the speaker to agree to his making a statement on a subject that is not included on the agenda, “if it is a serious or urgent matter of public importance.”

Requests for general discussion allow a minimum of 20 MPs to ask to raise a general topic for discussion in order to “clarify the government’s policy and exchange views thereon.”

The PA may decide “without discussion” to deny such a request if it considers the topic of the request an illegitimate subject for discussion after listening to one of its sponsors.

MPs may also submit a motion regarding a matter of public interest to be passed on from the PA to the government, or submit a proposal for a decision to be issued by the PA within the scope of its competence.

The speaker may refer proposals to the Proposals and Complaints Committee or any other relevant committee, which in their turn may request the speaker to send the proposal to the relevant ministry.

How are constitutional amendments proposed by the president made?

When a speaker receives a request from the president of the republic for the amendment of an article of the Constitution he distributes copies of the proposed amendment to all MPs.

A special session of the PA is then convened within a week during which the speaker presents the amendment. It is then sent to the General Committee, which presents a report on it within 15 days. A majority of General Committee members must approve the report for it to be sent to the PA.

The report is then distributed to MPs at least seven days before it is scheduled to be discussed. MPs' feedback on the report is taken by roll call.

After approving an amendment in principle, the PA may decide to refer both it and the General Committee’s report on it to the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee for review.

The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee’s report eventually ends up back with the PA who vote on it by roll call. A two-thirds majority of MPs’ votes is needed for an amendment to be approved.

It is then the subject of a public referendum (under article 189 of the 1979 Constitution).

How can an MP propose a constitutional amendment?

A written request submitted to the speaker and signed by at least one third of MPs is required.

The request is presented to the General Committee within seven days. The General Committee considers the justifications submitted for the amendment request. Where the majority of General Committee members conclude that the request does not meet “constitutional requirements” it submits a report to the speaker, who in his turn presents the report to the PA.

The PA makes a decision on the matter after hearing submissions from the General Committee rapporteur, 10 MPs in favor of the request and at least 10 opposed to it.

Where the PA decides that constitutional requirements are met, the speaker refers the request to the Shura Council, Parliament’s upper house. He also notifies the president and a referendum is held.

How do bills presented by the government become law?

The speaker presents draft laws to the PA, which then refers them to the relevant committee. The speaker may refer them directly himself and notify the PA of this.

MPs may propose amendments to the law, in writing, to the speaker 24 hours before the amendments are considered. The committee rapporteur presents the committee’s views during the discussion.

The PA may decide to refer the proposed amendment to the committee, which later submits a report on it within a period of time specified by the PA.

With the permission of the speaker, the government or the rapporteur, the PA can consider the proposals for amendment if presented immediately before or during the meeting.

Deliberations on draft laws start with a discussion of the “principles and foundations of the whole draft law in general.” If the PA does not approve the draft in principle the bill is considered rejected.

Individual articles are then discussed and proposals for amendments presented.

Discussion of a proposal is restricted to the MP who proposed it, one opponent, the government, the committee rapporteur and the committee chairman. The speaker may, however, allow other MPs to speak if the PA does not oppose this.

A final opinion on a draft law is taken at least four days after the end of deliberations.

In urgent cases, and with the consent of the speaker, it may be taken during the same session in which the draft is approved following at least one hour of review of the draft law, and provided that a majority of the PA does not object to this.

A second debate on the draft law is conducted upon a written request submitted to the speaker by the government, the committee rapporteur, the committee chairman, one of the representative of the political party blocs or at least 20 MPs. This request must be submitted before the date specified for taking final votes on the draft law, and must include the article or articles to be amended and reasons why.

If the president of the republic objects to the draft law passed by the PA and refers it back to the PA (in accordance with article 113 of the Constitution) the PA holds an urgent meeting.

The PA refers the objection to the General Committee, which writes a report which is then presented to the PA. If two-thirds of the PA approves the draft law it is passed.

How do bills proposed by MPs become law?

Proposals are submitted to the speaker. A proposal may not be submitted by more than 10 MPs.

The speaker may find that the proposal is in violation of the Constitution or does not comply with the required format, in which case he asks the MP to modify the proposal.

If the MP rejects this he sends a note to the speaker explaining his point of view. The speaker refers the matter to the PA Office for consideration. If the MP rejects the office’s decision, the matter is brought before the PA.

The speaker refers proposals for draft laws to the Proposals and Complaints Committee, which may advise the PA to reject the proposal “for general reasons related to the subject of the proposal.” If the PA approves the proposal it is sent to the relevant committee.

What is the Parliamentary Chapter?

A group of MPs that represents the PA in international parliamentary conferences.

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