Parliament is mulling the possibility of holding its coming plenary meetings via video conference due to coronavirus fears.
Independent MP Osama Sharshar told Al-Ahram Weekly that the government of Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli held its weekly cabinet meeting on Thursday 26 March via video conference.
This comes in line with the partial curfew and social distancing rules imposed on 25 March to help contain the spread of the coronavirus, Sharshar said, adding that parliament has a heavy legislative schedule in the coming period, not to mention that it should discuss the new fiscal year’s 2020-21 budget as soon as possible and before it goes into effect on 1 July.
Egypt’s new budget was approved by the cabinet in its weekly meeting on 26 March and constitutionally it should reach parliament 90 days before it goes into effect.
Mustafa Salem, deputy chairman of the Budget and Planning Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that in line with parliament’s internal bylaws, the committee shall begin discussing the state’s new budget and development plan only after the minister of finance delivers to the House a detailed statement on it in a plenary meeting. That statement will then be referred to the committee to begin holding a series of meetings on the budget, at the end of which a report will be prepared to be discussed and voted on in a plenary meeting before 30 June, Salem said.
Deputy Parliament Speaker Al-Sayed Al-Sherif, however, argued it was difficult to use video conferencing in holding parliament’s plenary meetings.
There are two obstacles in the way of parliament holding plenary meetings by way of a video conference, Al-Sherif said, explaining that Article 114 of the constitution states that the location of the House of Representatives shall be in the city of Cairo, and that the House may hold its sessions elsewhere only in exceptional circumstances and upon the request of the president of the republic or one-third of MPs, and that any meetings held otherwise and any resolutions passed thereby shall be considered null and void. Al-Sherif said Article 121 also states that meetings of the House and resolutions passed shall not be considered valid unless attended by the absolute majority of its members.
Acknowledging the need to take precautionary measures to contain the coronavirus, Al-Sherif said parliament is scheduled to hold its plenary meetings on 12 April, “and if things do not get worse, we can meet on this day under new rules.
“These necessitate that MPs will not meet in one hall, but in at least two halls and that microphones will be used so that MPs in the halls can listen to the debate and take a vote.”
According to Al-Sherif, for parliament meetings to be valid, there should be a quorum of at least 298 MPs attending. “We have four big halls in which this necessary quorum of MPs can sit and listen to the debate,” Al-Sherif said, adding that “MPs can sit apart from each other. They will also be required to use facemasks and wear gloves as additional precautionary measures.”
Parliament’s Secretary-General Mahmoud Fawzi said on Sunday that parliament took strict measures such as disinfecting the House, closing the House’s mosque and reducing staff by half.
On an optimistic note, Ihab Al-Tamawi, deputy chairman of parliament’s Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, hoped that the coronavirus scare would soon be over and that parliament would be able to meet “very soon”. Al-Tamawi said he believed parliament does not have a heavy schedule and that the issues it is looking into could be covered if parliament is back in session by May.
He too agreed it would be difficult for parliament to resort to video conferencing. “We have the option of holding plenary meetings in the Grand Conference Hall in east Cairo’s Nasr City, parallel with precautionary measures,” Al-Tamawi said, adding that the Grand Conference Hall is in Cairo, “as Article 114 of the constitution stipulates.”
Al-Tamawi said Article 271 of parliament’s internal bylaws also allows the House to meet in exceptional circumstances in a big venue that can accommodate all MPs. “In these circumstances, MPs will meet and abide by all precautionary measures,” Al-Tamawi said.
In a statement on Sunday, parliament said heads of the House’s committees will send periodical reports to the speaker on the issues they should discuss and the reports they should prepare in the coming stage. “Committee heads will also make contact with concerned cabinet ministers to follow up on recommendations and measures necessary to contain the virus,” said the statement.
Salah Fawzi, a professor of constitutional law and advisor to Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal, said parliament has three options. Given the fact that it will be difficult to accommodate 596 MPs in the main hall and seat them one metre apart, he proposed resorting to video conferencing.
“Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal will stay in his office inside the House in Cairo, while MPs will able to follow the debate online,” Fawzi said, indicating that this will allow MPs “to follow the debate behind video screens, deliver statements and make comments, and take a vote.”
Fawzi said if video conferencing proves to be technically difficult, there was another option: “MPs could meet in the two halls of the House and Shura Council. The House has three floors of halls and the Shura Council has a big hall. MPs can sit there, at least one metre apart, wearing a facemask.
“A third option that abides by Article 114 of the constitution is that parliament hold longer meetings so that it can finish its legislative schedule on time,” Fawzi said. “But this option will be possible only when coronavirus fears subside, perhaps by the end of April or May.”
Parliament’s activities were suspended until at least 12 April. A statement issued by parliament’s Secretary-General Fawzi on 23 March said the House’s next plenary meetings will be held on 12 April instead of Sunday 29 March.
“The postponement matches state efforts to ban gatherings that might lead to an outbreak of the coronavirus,” the statement said, noting that “as MPs come from different governorates, it has become a necessity that they should not gather in one place.”
Fawzi indicated that the decision is also in tandem with Article 277 of the House’s internal by-laws which grants the speaker a mandate to change the date of plenary meetings whenever necessary.
As a result, Abdel-Aal decided that the House’s plenary meetings which were scheduled for 29 March be postponed to 12 April.
Meanwhile, MPs have been praising the government’s measures aimed at containing the coronavirus.
Deputy Parliament Speaker Suleiman Wahdan said the government of Prime Minister Madbouli was doing well in combating the spread of the virus.
“The government’s approach was also necessary in order to not let the country face the disastrous consequences we saw in Italy and Iran,” Wahdan said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly