The term majlis (assembly) has been used for elected parliaments in the Near and Middle East since the 1860s. The first modern constitution in the Muslim world, proclaimed by the bey of Tunis in 1861, provided for a grand assembly, but it was to be selected by the king and was intended for the supervision of administration and adjudication. The first elected majlis, which was inaugurated in Egypt in 1866, was purely consultative, but the Ottoman parliament was given some legislative power a decade later. The Ottoman parliament was created by the Ottoman constitution of 1876 and included representatives from the Balkan and Arab provinces, as well as the Turkish of the Ottoman Empire. It was dissolved, however, in less than two years. The ruler of Egypt was forced by constitutionalist parliamentarians to proclaim a more liberal constitution than the Ottoman one in 1882, but the effort came to naught with the British occupation of Egypt later that year.
The next wave of constitutionalism in the Middle East began with the revolution of 1906 in Iran, which forced the shah to proclaim a constitution that included a parliament with full legislative power. The Iranian National Consultative Assembly (Majles-e Shura-ye Melli) was elected in the same year. After the Islamic revolution, Iran was declared an Islamic Republic, but its new constitution of 1979 retained the majlis, and it was only after it met in 1980 that the majlis changed its name to the Islamic Consultative Assembly.
In 1908, the Young Turks revolution forced the sultan to restore the Ottoman constitution. A year later, the constitution was amended to make ministers fully responsible to the parliament. After the Kemalist revolution, the last Ottoman parliament was dissolved by the sultan in 1920, and was replaced by the Grand National Assembly (Buyuk Millet Mejlisi) of Turkey, which passed the republican constitution of 1924.
In the period between the two world wars, constitutional monarchies with elected parliaments were established in independent Egypt (1923) and in Iraq (1925) and Jordan (1928) under the British mandate. In 1938, the emir of Kuwait proclaimed a five-article constitution. It included an assembly whose president was to have executive authority, but the assembly was soon dissolved and the experiment abandoned. A new Kuwaiti constitution was promulgated in 1962.
Republican constitutions came to force in Syria and Lebanon in 1943, Egypt in 1956, Tunisia in 1959, and Algeria and Yemen in 1962, whereas the Moroccan constitution of 1962 declared the nation to be a monarchy. Ministerial responsibility to parliament had been the main bone of contention between the executive branch of government and parliaments under constitutional monarchy, and parliaments had usually lost the contest. Securing meaningful accountability of the executive became even more difficult under the republican constitutions of the postcolonial era, which weakened the rights provisions by their commitment to the ideologies of socialism and nationalism and gave the presidents emergency powers and the right to rule by decree.
The Gulf states other than Kuwait gained their independence from Britain in the 1970s with constitutional documents, but usually without elected parliaments, except for Bahrain and, more recently, Qatar. Oman promulgated a constitution in 1991, and Saudi Arabia in 1992—sixty years after it had first been promised. A Palestinian parliament was set up in accordance with the 1993 Oslo Accords. With rare exceptions, Near and Middle Eastern parliaments have remained weak institutions, and have not succeeded in taking the initiative in legislation or in establishing enduring accountability of the executive branch of their respective governments.
Brown, Nathan J. Constitutions in a Nonconstitutionalist World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
Saïd Amir Arjomand