Reviewing parliament’s fifth session (2019-2020), Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal told the media that despite the difficulties caused by the global coronavirus pandemic MPs were able to pass a mix of political, socio-economic, financial, and security laws, reports Gamal Essam El-Din.
Parliament’s Secretary-General Mahmoud Fawzi provided more details: the House had passed 891 laws, including a total of 8,287 articles, in the last five years, and of this total “passed a record number of 233 laws, including 2,490 articles, in the fifth session (2019-2020)”.
In supervisory terms, Fawzi said the House had discussed 1,278 urgent statements, 6,008 information requests and 4,133 questions in the last five years.
Since the fifth session was the last before parliamentary elections were held between October and December 2020, it was only to be expected that political laws should have dominated the agenda. In July, parliament approved changes to legislation covering the exercise of political rights, the formation of the House of Representatives, the formation of the Senate, the redrawing of electoral districts, and the performance of the National Election Authority.
Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, leader of the majority Support Egypt coalition which drafted the amendments, said the House law, in line with the constitution, set the number of MPs and stipulated that 25 per cent of the 568 elected seats be reserved for women. The Senate law, on the other hand, reserved just 10 per cent of the Senate’s 300 seats for female candidates.
The law which directly paved the way for the House elections was the one redrawing electoral districts. It divided Egypt into 143 individual districts each returning two MPs, and four party list districts with another 284 seats between them.
In April the House made changes to the emergency law. The amendments, said Al-Qasabi, “were necessary to grant the president greater powers to help contain the coronavirus pandemic and security threats”. They grant the president new emergency powers such as closing down schools, universities, ministries and government offices, and offering financial help to sectors negatively affected by the pandemic.
Indeed, parliament’s fifth session included several laws prompted by the pandemic. The Health Committee proposed changes to the law on the prevention of epidemic diseases, approved by MPs in May, which allowed the Minister of Health to make face masks and other protective measures obligatory, with fines ranging between LE300 and LE5,000 for non-compliance. The changes also stipulated that the bodies of coronavirus victims be dealt with in a manner that prevents the spread of the disease while respecting the dignity of the deceased and their religious and social traditions.
The government moved on multiple fronts to contain the economic fallout of the pandemic. Minister of Finance Mohamed Maait told MPs in May that “the outbreak hit just as Egypt was moving towards building a strong economy capable of absorbing shocks and winning the confidence of international institutions and investors.”
Parliament moved to introduce changes to the 2020-21 budget, increasing healthcare allocations by LE78.9 billion and the education budget by LE166.6 billion.
In May MPs approved a controversial legislative amendment seeking to boost government revenues. While most MPs said the amendment came at the wrong time, Maait insisted the law was necessary to contain the economic impact of the pandemic. An amendment to Law 147/1984 was approved increasing levies on a wide range of items including diesel, pet food, tobacco products, and mobiles.
The government took MPs by surprise in June and July when it submitted two laws tailored to reducing the pandemic’s impact on state coffers. The first set an additional LE80 billion allocation to the 2020-21 budget, a sum Maait said was needed to allow the government to settle a portion of its outstanding debts.
More significant was parliament’s approval of legislation setting up a mutual fund to mitigate the impact of pandemics and viruses. The Mutual Support Contribution Fund to Mitigate the Economic Consequences of the Spread of Pandemics aimed to generate additional revenues necessary to contain the economic impact of the coronavirus. It provided for a one per cent deduction from the monthly net income of each state employee, and a 0.5 per cent reduction from the pensions of retired employees. The deductions, which began to be applied on 1 July, will continue for one year and are expected to raise between LE8 billion and LE10 billion.
According to Fawzi, 50 per cent of laws passed in the House’s fifth session addressed financial and economic issues. In July, parliament approved major laws regulating the performance of the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE) and the Public Enterprises Sector, seeking to raise the CBE’s capital to LE20 billion, and allowing the president to name the CBE governor, who must then be ratified by parliament. The governor’s term was set at four years, renewable once.
A new law stipulated that banks operating in Egypt should have capital of at least LE5 billion, and those maintaining representative offices capital of at least LE150 million, and created a new regime for dealing with defaulting banks and protecting deposits.
MPs voted in favour of government-drafted amendments to 29 articles of the Law on Public Enterprises 203/1991 despite ferocious objections from workers and their representatives in parliament. Independent MP and General Federation of Trade Unions Secretary-General Mohamed Wahba said the amendments opened the door to the privatisation of public-sector companies in a way that undermined the interests of employees and “would push 40 per cent of companies into liquidation and harm thousands of workers”.
In August, parliament ratified the maritime border demarcation deal with Greece which was signed by the Egyptian and Greek foreign ministers in Cairo on 6 August.
“The deal permits Egypt and Greece to maximise benefits from the gas and oil reserves in the exclusive economic zones of both countries in the Mediterranean,” said Abdel-Aal.
The piece of legislation which cause the greatest controversy was probably the law on reconciliation in construction offences, passed first in March 2019, subsequently amended and finally ratified by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in January 2020 (Law 1/2020).
Under the law citizens who have violated construction codes are required to submit a reconciliation request and, if it is accepted, pay a fee, fixed according to the square metre, to have the status of their building regularised.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.