Egypt's new parliament to tackle key laws

Gamal Essam El-Din , Thursday 9 Dec 2010

As the newly-elected People's Assembly opens its first session Monday, topping the agenda is amending a number of laws, including emergency law

The newly-elected People's Assembly will open 13 December the first session of its five-year term. At the opening procedural sitting, the Assembly will elect a speaker, two deputies, and chairmen of 29 parliamentary committees. Nominations for these posts will be set at a special meeting of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) with its chairman President Hosni Mubarak on Sunday.

Following the procedural sitting, the Assembly will plunge into business. Several NDP and government officials said they are keen to see a number of key political and economic draft laws passed.

Topping the political agenda are three long-awaited draft laws. The first aims to introduce an anti-terror law to replace the 29-year-old state of emergency that gives the government the right to arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a system of exceptional security courts. 

In his presidential election programme in the summer of 2005, President Mubarak vowed that emergency law, in place since the October 1981 assassination of President Anwar El-Sadat, would be abrogated in favour of a Western-style anti-terror law. The state of emergency, however, was extended twice for two years by the People's Assembly. In 2008, the state of emergency was extended for two years and in May 2010 it was extended again until 2012. Many believe that the newly-elected People's Assembly — dominated by the ruling NDP and free from vociferous opposition  could be best placed to pass the promised anti-terror legislation.

In May 2010, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif told the People's Assembly that since 2005, when President Mubarak promised that anti-terror law would replace emergency law, new factors had emerged. Nazif cited terrorist acts and regional conflicts in the Middle East to justify the extension of the state of emergency. Nazif, however, promised that the application of the emergency powers would be restricted to terrorist and drug-trafficking crimes and that procedures would "completely fall under judicial supervision”.

Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Moufid Shehab has insisted often that the drafting of an anti-terror law is by no means an easy task. “In this law, we should make sure that there is a right balance between personal freedoms and the necessities of national security,” said Shehab, arguing that “the legislation of anti-terror laws in several Western countries, especially England, was not enough to foil terrorist acts and caused an outcry from human rights activists.” "Right now," Shehab added, “emergency law has proved highly effective in thwarting terrorist crimes and until we have a well-drafted anti-terror law, we will not hesitate submitting it to parliament.”

Rumours are rampant that the anti-terror law faces strong opposition from certain sectors, especially the Interior Ministry which strongly believes that emergency law has played a very effective role in keeping Egypt safe from terrorism in recent years and that this law should stay in place regardless of local and foreign objections. Some wings in the ruling NDP, however, believe that “the continued application of emergency law has tarnished the image of Egypt in foreign circles, in spite of the fact that many countries in the region, including Israel, are living in a state of emergency and that effective anti-terror law to replace emergency law would be a very good step, to get rid of the headache caused by the notorious emergency law.”

But the concept of terrorism is so broad in Egyptian law and the language of the new draft law so malleable, say human rights groups, that political activists and independent human rights monitors expect little to change.

Another long-awaited law is one aimed at upgrading the performance of local councils. The Local Administration Law, in place since 1979, has never been amended. The NDP Policies Committee, led by Gamal Mubarak, indicated that the law was heavily discussed and that the recommendations of these discussions would be presented to the government. Minister Shehab said: “The draft [amendment] aims at decentralising the local administration system and strengthening the supervisory powers of popular municipal councils in terms of turning them into mini-parliaments capable of expressing the will of citizens in the different provinces of Egypt,” adding that “in most probability, the draft will be submitted for discussion before parliament in its first session.”

A third long-awaited law is the one regulating the performance of professional syndicates. Minister Shehab indicated that the NDP's Policies Committee and the government have heavily debated the 17-year-old law regulating professional syndicates and have drafted a new law. 

The professional syndicates law — officially entitled the Law on the Democratisation of the Professional Syndicates — was passed in 1993 in an attempt to stem the growth of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that began controlling the elected boards of such syndicates. The 1993 law impose tough restrictions on how syndicate boards are elected. As a result, opposition political parties and the Muslim Brotherhood took the 1993 law to task. Several professional syndicates, including the Engineers Syndicate, were not easily able to elect boards and as a result fell under the supervision of judicial committees. 

Minister Shehab indicated that the restrictions imposed in board elections would be softened to help smooth the functioning of the syndicates and help them serve their members better.

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