MPs met on Tuesday and Wednesday this week to discuss legislation necessary to help the state contain the spread of COVID-19 and reduce its impact on the economy.
Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said it was necessary for the House of Representatives to convene this week in order to discuss legislative amendments needed to help the state in its fight against the virus.
Eight legislative amendments and one new law were up for discussion, with changes to the emergency law topping the list.
Bahaaeddin Abu Shoka, head of the parliament’s Legislative Committee, told MPs that the changes involve four articles of the State of Emergency Law 162/1958, which aim to give the president the power to take measures necessary to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
“When the emergency law was drafted no one had envisaged the critical health conditions Egypt now faces,” said Abu Shoka. It focused on ensuring the president has the powers needed to fight terrorist threats and drug trafficking: it was not devised to help battle pandemic threats.
Abu Shoka said the amendments would give the president the authority to close schools, universities and ministries and authorities, postpone or cancel the payment of water, electricity and gas bills, and compel arrivals in Egypt to undergo health tests and quarantine measures.
The amendments also give the president the right to allocate cash and in-kind assistance to individuals and families, ban private and public assemblies, processions and festivals, offer financial support to medical research, provide financial and in-kind support to damaged economic sectors, postpone the payment of taxes, and turn schools and youth centres into field hospitals.
“The amendments allow the president to impose restrictions on exports and the handling of certain goods, commodities, and services and to regulate the collection of financial and in-kind donations to contain the pandemic,” said Abu Shoka.
The new presidential powers include greater control over scientific research and laboratory work; toughen restrictions on the possession, use, handling and disposal of biological material; and allow the suspension of custodial sentences and rulings and appeals filed against them.
Egypt’s current state of emergency expires on 27 April. Its renewal is seen as a formality.
Alongside the emergency law, MPs were expected to approve legislation to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the national economy.
A report prepared by the Budget Committee said a seven-article government-drafted law on “financial measures necessary to contain the negative impact of the coronavirus on the productive, economic and service sectors” gives the cabinet the power to order a three-month renewable suspension of the payment of a raft of business taxes and other financial obligations, including social insurance, or else allow them to be paid in installments.
Parliament was also asked to approve amendments to four articles of the Income Tax Law 91/2005.
Minister of Finance Mohamed Maait told MPs that the amendments promote social justice and will benefit limited-income income citizens and state employees.
“The amendments help relieve some income tax burdens. They will help low-income state employees raise their salaries by LE2,000 a month,” said Maait.
The 2019-20 budget has been changed to earmark LE10 billion to fight the coronavirus and stimulate the economy.
“The additional allocation aims to help day and seasonal labourers and to support production,” said Maait. The sum is part of a LE100 billion emergency package approved by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi on 14 March.
“Egypt’s economy has shown a lot of resilience in the face of the coronavirus storm… We are one of very few countries, and the only country in the Arab world and the Middle East, which will achieve a high economic growth,” said Maait. “Once the pandemic is over, Egypt’s economy will be quickly back on track.”
Parliament also approved government-drafted amendments to the Real Estate and Property Tax Law 196/2008.
Maait told MPs that the changes will exempt industries and businesses negatively affected by precautionary measures taken to fight the coronavirus.
“These amendments were approved by the cabinet with the aim of relieving industries and businesses of some of the tax burdens they face and thus help them weather the current economic storm,” said Maait.
The amendments exempt land owned by industries and businesses from real estate tax provided it is used for production.
The executive regulations give the finance minister the power to estimate the value of tax exemptions and determine how long they stay in place.
“Based on a report to be submitted by the finance minister, the cabinet will decide which lands are eligible for exemption from real estate tax,” said the government report on the amended law.
Parliament approved amendments to five articles of Law 148/2019 on social insurance pensions. The law will help add five bonuses to pensions and so increase their value by 80 per cent, said a parliamentary report, adding that “the five bonuses have been decided since 1 June 2006, and President Al-Sisi gave orders that this is the time to be added to pensions, particularly after courts ruled that these bonuses should be added to social insurance pensions.”
Parliament also voted in favour of increasing the monthly bonuses given to state employees under the civil service law, and to others, such as journalists, not subject to this law.
“The law will increase the periodic bonuses offered to employees subject to the Civil Service Law 81/2016 by LE75 a month, and increase bonuses paid to employees not subject to the civil service law by 12 per cent, payable from July,” said a report prepared by parliament’s Labour Committee.
Parliament also approved amendments to 19 articles of Law 71/2009 which regulates the exercise and licensing of psychiatric services.
MPs have also begun discussing legislation regulating the performance of small, micro, and medium-scale enterprises. The 113-article law offers soft loans, tax incentives and other subsidies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly