Several critical pieces of draft legislation are being debated in Egypt at the moment. Very visibly, the debate couldn’t be more fierce and heated, its tone any more existential, more filled with a remarkable blend of fact, confusion, hyperbole, political proclamations of great national progress and powerful accusations of political self-empowerment. In fact, the debate is fierce to the extent that even the legitimacy of the body tasked with legislation itself at the moment, the Islamist-dominated Shura Council (parliament’s upper house), is itself a matter of contest and debate. The Shura council, which remained (as of yet, as a case pertaining to it is currently in the constitutional court) undissolved following the lower house’s dissolution last year, was tasked under the new constitution with temporary legislative powers till the new parliament was elected, with the promise it would only debate urgent matters and pass national consensus legislation. The reality, nonetheless, couldn’t be any further from that. Shura is virtually conducting itself like a full parliament, and its legislative agenda has been anything but a source of national consensus.
Out of the myriad draft laws out there, whether already in Shura or due to head there for debate, seven key laws currently stand out, each of which would have radical impact on Egypt, all varyingly denounced by the opposition and other independent groups. Here’s a brief overview:
The Demonstration Law: The draft is positive in certain ways, including reaffirming the right to peaceful protest, officially stating that protests would only require “notification” to the authorities (not permission from them) and specifies the police’s duty to protect the protest. The latest draft (March 26) is also more evolved than the previous versions, which included controversial restrictions on issues such as protest hours and sit-ins involving employees of state institution and public enterprises. But the current law is being criticized as containing vague restrictions on protests, including not disturbing the “general order” or threatening to disturb it, potentially turning the “notifications” into the need for permissions. It also does not allow much room for spontaneous protest, gives ample space for authorities to amend or cancel a protest, has certain other restrictions that include not being allowed to wear a mask during the protest (which also opened a debate on the right of women in full facial cover, niqab, to protest,) and more.
The Practice Of Political Rights Law and
The Electoral Law: The two complimentary draft laws, which recent reports suggest the constitutional court will strike down yet again soon, have been criticized on several grounds. Opposition and critics argue against — among other things — what is seen as an unfair distribution of parliamentary seats that does not give sufficient weight to national population centers, a lack of positive discrimination for women and Christians to ensure a minimum fair representation (for example, mandating a minimum percentage of women in electoral party lists), a lack of strong controls against illegal campaign contributions (including foreign donations) and some also call for a cap on campaign advertising spending so as not to give an outsized advantage to wealthy or backed candidates. Most notably, the draft is criticized for removing the former ban on using religious slogans and religious-based campaign material, allowing — for example — the Brotherhood to use once more their traditional and controversial campaign slogan, “Islam Is The Solution.”
Judicial Authority Law: A topic I had written recently on in more detail. Everyone more or less agreed that the body of laws governing the judiciary is in need of some overhaul, most notably how inspection and evaluation of the judiciary should be fully separated from the Ministry of Justice, which falls under the executive branch. But the dramatic showdown as of late regarding the Judicial Authority Law involves the move by the Brotherhood to set the maximum age for a judge at 60 instead of 70, immediately forcing the retirement of around 3,000 of the oldest judges. The claim is that most of the older members of the judiciary were closely vetted or brought in line by the former regime, and are thus hostile now to the Brotherhood and the Islamists. Critics argue this is nothing less than a second “massacre of the judiciary” (the first being that of Nasser in 1968) and an attempt to replace experienced judges with new ones whose political sympathies would be closer to that of the Brotherhood and the Islamists. Debate on the law has not yet started in the Shura Council, and the judges' association is refusing to even open the debate on the draft law in Shura, at least as it is.
The NGO Law: the source of major international as well as local outcry. Freedom House said the draft law would “cripple Egyptian civil society,” Amnesty International said the draft was a “new low on NGO restrictions,” while some have argued the draft is even “more restrictive” than the existing Mubarak-era law 84 of 2002. Common critiques of the law include expanded judicial and administrative state oversight of civil society organizations, a more demanding and difficult registrations process, more stringent security oversight of the organizations and their activities, severe restrictions and oversight on foreign funding and cooperation with foreign NGO and associations (all foreign funding would be approved, per operation, by a government committee) and more.
Suez Canal Corridor Law: Egypt’s “next big national project” has been widely touted as the development of the Suez Canal region, which mainly includes the canal area itself and the cities of Port Said, Ismailia and Suez. The project also plans to create, for example, a “technology valley” in Ismailia (a la Silicon Valley), an Industrial Zone west of the Gulf of Suez, and a new seaport in Port Said. But critics argue the law creates a state within the state, citing how the new zone will be under the full direct control of the presidency and independent of much of the legal framework of the state. The president would appoint a 15-member council to oversee the zone, and they would have full Cabinet authority within the region (but still under the influence of the national justice, interior, and defense ministers) and even much legislative authority, and the new zone ostensibly could exempt itself from certain national laws (such as labor laws and so forth) and develop its own alternatives. The president can even, according to jurist Tarek Al-Bishry, expand or decrease the size of the project’s zone at will, without parliament’s interference.
- Freedom of Information Law: The current draft “Freedom of Exchange of Information” law theoretically brings many benefits. It’s the first official recognition of such a right, obliges state institutions to fully document their work and index it in a manner that makes information-retrieval easy and gives the right to every citizen to address state institutions for information at little-to-no cost. The law even penalizes state officials who withhold or destroy relevant information. But the law has several critiques, including by Khaled Fahmy. Chief among them: The law fails to define “national security” matters under which exemptions to the law could be made (civil society has presented a later-rejected proposal, with the definition being focused on specific military issues). Critics also argue that much of the composition of the commission tasked with overseeing the process comes from, and is influenced by the executive branch, the very same entity it is supposed to help shed light on (the current draft improves the situation a bit, adding more members to the National Information Council from civil society and parliament, but still remains under some criticism). Another criticism is that the military and the intelligence establishment could theoretically censor information for up to 50 years, not just the normal 25-year temporary exemption normally granted to other institutions.
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