The House of Representatives, the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, approved legislation in mid-November on forgiving a number of building violations.
This is the second iteration of the law designed for exceptional application within a specific timeframe and on a one-time basis. It was issued in order to address unlicensed constructions or those violating building codes, such as on height regulations and street widths.
The 2008 Unified Building Law originally prohibited the state from forgiving any construction violations. However, persisting violations compelled the state to draft an exceptional law that could be applied for a specified period and on a one-time basis.
The law ratified in November is meant to tackle the shortcomings of its predecessor from 2019. The initial version fell short of its objectives due to the administration’s inability to compile a list of violation types and to assess the amount of the fines to be paid as a result of the violations.
MPs have made various announcements to inform people about the new law and what it offers and to encourage them to apply for the forgiveness of any violations.
Mohamed Ragab, a member of the House of Representatives’ Local Administration Committee, said the new law will enhance social stability by legalising buildings inhabited by hundreds of thousands of families.
Besides resolving conflicts with the local administration in various governorates responsible for providing services and facilities, residents will be able to acquire legal ownership of the buildings, he added.
A key focus of the new law is curbing violations on agricultural land. Article 2 of the law was amended to allow the government to forgive nine types of violations. Criticisms were levelled against the 2019 law for not regularising the situation of nearly a million families residing in units constructed on agricultural land.
During discussions of the 2019 law, local administration bodies said that there had been 2.8 million building violations, including 920,000 encroachments on agricultural land. Forgiveness was not permitted in such cases, Ragab noted.
The November amendments allow the Ministry of Agriculture to submit proposals to the prime minister recommending the forgiveness of construction work carried out in designated agricultural areas, he added.
In order to encourage violators to regularise their situations, Ragab stated that the minimum and maximum fees under the new law have been fixed at LE50 and LE2,500, respectively, despite inflation and the depreciation of the local currency.
Moreover, the grace period to apply has been extended and the option of paying the fee in installments over three years without interest, or five years at a low rate of interest, has been introduced, he added.
The fee for forgiving a violation should not be lower than the cost of obtaining a licence, said Osama Al-Said, a former dean of the Faculty of Commerce at Beni Sweif University. Otherwise, the law might be perceived as a reward for violators and an incentive to stay on the wrong side of the law, he added.
Al-Said said that the construction sector has significant economic impacts. Illegal construction constitutes 60 per cent of Egypt’s informal economy, and the sector is tied up with job opportunities and a substantial market for building materials.
As a result, all the ministries should participate in solving the problem of violations, he said, refusing to leave this responsibility in the hands of the Ministry of Housing alone.
Illegal construction is fundamentally an administrative-technical challenge, he said, explaining that while the technical aspect is non-negotiable, given its connection to the structural safety of buildings and the well-being of residents, the administrative challenge lies in the number and forms of any violations.
This puts a burden on the state’s administrative apparatus, he said.
Mohamed Abdel-Aal, a lawyer specialising in housing rights issues and a former director of the Egyptian Centre for the Right to Housing, said the primary reason for the proliferation of illegal construction, including on agricultural land, was the lack of discipline within the state’s administrative apparatus.
Power should not be extended to such administrative bodies, as they are a fundamental cause of the problem, he added.
Abdel-Aal said that the expansion of authority granted to the prime minister, ministers, and governors in determining the violations to be forgiven could lead to weak and inconsistent regulation.
One governor could approve the legalisation of certain cases, while another could reject similar ones, he said, creating inconsistency in the treatment of identical situations. In such instances, individuals aggrieved by the decision could seek judicial recourse and appeal against the administrative decision.
The regulations, considered as administrative decisions, are subject to appeal before the administrative courts, Abdel-Aal explained.
Mohamed Abu Samra, a former expert at UN-Habitat, said that forgiving building violations undermines the rights of law-abiding citizens who have obtained building permits despite the administrative challenges, procedural complexities, and bureaucratic hurdles involved.
In Abu Samra’s view, the problem stems from the laxity of the local administration in enforcing the law. Complying with the Unified Building Law and putting into effect strategic plans for villages and cities that regulate urban expansion would mean that illegal construction can be averted in the future, he noted.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 December, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly