Many of the laws which parliament passed in 2019 provoked controversy in local and foreign circles, not least the NGO law which MPs voted on an hour before parliament adjourned for its summer recess on 15 July, reports Gamal Essam El-Din.
Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal insisted squeezing the debate and vote on the law into a single day was not a result of foreign pressure.
While Mohamed Abu Hamed, the deputy head of parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that Western capitals, including Washington, had lobbied Cairo to amend the restrictive NGO law of 2017, “MPs’ passing of the new law was motivated by national interests and not foreign pressure.”
The new NGO law passed in July was a more liberal “piece of legislation which serves both the interests of civil society and national security,” he said.
At the time, Abdel-Aal had told MPs that foreign interests could never dictate the policies or agenda of the Egyptian state.
“We decided to postpone parliament’s summer recess for a week in order to discuss this law because it is in the public interest and will help polish Egypt’s image in international circles, particularly in the areas of civil society and human rights,” said Abdel-Aal.
In November the Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Omar Marwan told the media that the majority of member states of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva had accepted Egypt’s report on human rights.
Members said the NGO law passed in July was “generally acceptable, though they advised more constraints on the operation of NGOs could be abolished,” said Marawan.
Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), told the Weekly that the amended NGO law passed in July had met 90 per cent of the demands made by foreign and local NGOs.
It comprised major changes, including that the activity “of an NGO can only be suspended by a judicial ruling not by administrative order, and that NGOs can be licensed upon notification, as is specified in the constitution.”
Other positive changes included placing the activities of “NGOs under the supervision of the Ministry of Social Solidarity rather than a special apparatus to be set up by parliament and the elimination of custodial sentences for a host of violations.”
During the same 15 July session, MPs passed legislation regulating the performance of the Bar Association. According to a report prepared by parliament’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, the law, which had been drafted by MP Tharwat Bekhit, aimed to reinforce the independence of lawyers.
“Lawyers will be treated with all due respect,” said the report. It added that, “lawyers can be arrested or placed in custody only if they are caught red-handed, and even in such cases they will face a closed-door trial which representatives from the Bar Association must attend.”
Leftist MPs were critical of Bekhit’s law, arguing it had been tailored to strengthen the position of the current chairman of the Bar Association, Sameh Ashour.
“Laws should serve general and public interests not personal ones,” said MP and lawyer Diaaeddin Dawoud. “Article 136 of the old law, which stipulated that the head of the association can serve a maximum of two terms, was revoked in violation of all democratic principles.”
Before the summer recess, MPs passed amendments to laws regulating the residence of foreigners in Egypt (Law 89/1960), and Egyptian nationality (Law 26/1975). A report by parliament’s Defence and National Security Committee outlined the new mechanism introduced in the legislation allowing for the granting of Egyptian nationality against the payment of a fixed sum. This led some MPs to charge that Egyptian nationality was being sold.
Committee head Kamal Amer insisted the provision was only to encourage foreign investors, and even then “foreign investors will be offered Egyptian nationality only if it is approved by the prime minister and after a payment of $10,000 or its equivalent in Egyptian pounds, to be refunded should the application be rejected.”
In June, parliament approved changes to six laws regulating the performance of judicial authorities — the Supreme Constitutional Court (Law 48/1979), the Administrative Prosecution Authority (117/1958), the State Cases Authority (57/1963), Military Justice (25/1966), the Judicial Authority (46/1972) and the State Council (147/1972). Abdel-Aal told MPs the laws were necessary to implement constitutional amendments passed by the House of Representatives on 16 April and approved in a public referendum on 23 April.
Bahaaeddin Abu Shoka, head of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, indicated the changes were intended to ensure the selection of heads of judicial authorities complied with April’s constitutional amendments.
Changes to the constitution will also dictate the 2020 legislative agenda, with new laws needed to regulate the House of Representatives, the Senate, local councils and the exercise of political rights. Abdel-Aal has indicated that extensive consultations will be held before any draft laws are presented to MPs.
Al-Ahram political analyst Amr Hashim Rabie told the Weekly that parliament should be commended for its work in passing constitutional amendments and essential laws on NGOs and judicial authorities.
“The dialogue that was held on the amendments gave opposition forces ample opportunity to voice their concerns,” said Rabie. “Next year we will need a similar dialogue on political laws which should be drafted in a way that ensures young people have more of a voice in politics, and that allows for a more vibrant and dynamic parliament.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the title: Legislative agenda