File Photo: A general view of the Egyptian parliament during a working session (AP)
Before it adjourns for summer recess this week, parliament discussed two controversial laws regulating the Bar Association and NGOs.
The articles of the first law were approved in a plenary session on Monday after a stormy debate.
Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal said the final vote on the law will come only after it is revised in constitutional and legislative terms by the State Council.
According to a report prepared by parliament’s Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, the law, drafted by MP Tharwat Bekhit, aims to reinforce independence of lawyers and affords them greater protection and immunity while working in courts.
“Lawyers should be treated with all due respect,” said the report, adding that “lawyers shall be arrested or placed in custody only if they are caught red-handed, and even in such a case they will face a closed-door trial which representatives from the Bar Association should attend.”
The report said only senior members of the prosecution-general will be allowed to search and inspect a lawyer’s office. “In such a case, prosecution authorities should inform the head of the Bar Association in advance,” the report said.
Bekhit said the current law regulating the Bar Association was passed in 1983. “This means it is 36 years old, a long period which makes it necessary to amend the current law in order to go in line with changing conditions,” Bekhit said, adding that “justice in Egypt has two wings: judges and lawyers”.
“While laws in the judiciary have been modernised in recent years, it is necessary to also streamline those related to regulating the lawyers’ profession,” Bekhit said.
According to Bekhit, the lawyers’ profession is a national one, not to mention that the stability of the Bar Association means a lot to the stability of Egypt in general.
Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, leader of the majority coalition, said it is high time that the law regulating the Bar Association be amended. “Please remember that many of the current law’s articles were invalidated by the Supreme Constitutional Court, and so we can’t live with a flawed law any longer,” Al-Qasabi said.
Leftist MPs, however, launched scathing attacks against Bekhit’s law, insisting that it was tailored to serve the personal interest of the current chairman of the Bar Association Sameh Ashour. “Laws should serve general and public objectives, not personal interests,” said leftist MP and lawyer Diaaeddin Dawoud, adding that “Article 136 which currently stipulates that the head of the association can’t be elected more than two times, was revoked by the new proposed draft.”
Bekhit’s law also states that it is optional that the elections of the Bar Association be placed under full judicial supervision. “The law does not make this matter obligatory and rather leaves it for the board to decide whether there should be complete judicial supervision on association elections,” Bekhit said.
Speaker Abdel-Aal agreed, arguing that full judicial supervision should not be obligatory because this could be ruled unconstitutional.
MPs also approved that the members of the board of the association be reduced from 57 to 29. “This is necessary to give the board the flexibility necessary to take decisions on urgent matters and without conflict of opinions,” Bekhit said.
Heated debates also erupted on the new chapter related to setting up the Academy of Law and Legal and Judicial Studies. “To be affiliated with the Bar Association, the proposed academy will have complete technical, financial, and administrative independence,” Article 23 states, adding that “those seeking to join the association for the first time should pass a one-year study period at the academy which is expected to open in January 2022.”
Bekhit said the draft law also hinders graduates of so-called open education universities from joining the association. “Since these kinds of graduates receive low-standard education, they should not be allowed to join the Bar Association.”
Abdel-Aal said, “lawyers should have a high-school certificate and be graduates of any of the faculties of law in Egypt. This is necessary in order to keep the lawyers’ profession at high quality standards,” said Abdel-Aal, indicating that “in the US and France those who aim to join the Bar Association must meet very stiff conditions, and if we adopted these conditions in Egypt, nobody would be able to join the association.”
According to Abdel-Aal, there are 27 faculties of law operating in Egypt. Since most of them do not offer high-quality education, graduates must first pass difficult exams and receive studies in the proposed academy in order to be allowed to join the Bar Association.
MPs also approved Article 14 which stipulates that lawyers cannot be named as speakers of any of parliament’s two chambers — the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Meanwhile, parliament’s Social Solidarity Committee began discussing a newly-drafted law (70/2017) on the performance of NGOs in Egypt on Monday and Tuesday.
Abdel-Hadi Al-Qasabi, head of the committee and chairman of the parliamentary majority coalition Support Egypt, told reporters Monday that the law was redrafted by the Ministry of Social Solidarity and referred to parliament last week.
Mohamed Abu Hamed, deputy chairman of the committee, told reporters that “the committee will be very careful in studying the articles of the new draft of the new NGOs law. Our first reading and discussion of the new draft shows it meets the demands of civil society organisations,” said Abu Hamed, adding that “after the final discussion, the committee members will have to sit down with the government to reach a final formula of the law.”
The current NGO law, drafted by Al-Qasabi’s Social Solidarity Committee and passed by parliament in November 2016, was ratified by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in May 2017. It, however, triggered sharp criticism from civil society organisations operating inside and outside Egypt. It also drew criticism from foreign countries, particularly among US congress members, including Lindsey Graham.
Opponents called for a new law to replace that drafted by parliament which they describe as highly restrictive and leads to the undermining of activities of NGOs in Egypt.
As a result, Al-Sisi asked officials of the Ministry of Social Solidarity, during the World Youth Forum in November 2018, to hold a national dialogue on the law and to discuss a new one.
Following a series of national dialogue meetings between January and April in 2019, the main outlines of the new NGO law were approved by the cabinet in a meeting on 3 April. Minister of Social Solidarity Ghada Wali told reporters that the new law differs to a large extent from that drafted and passed by parliament.
Wali said the draft law permits foreigners who have permanent or temporary residence in Egypt to be members of NGOs or their boards of directors, at a limit of 25 per cent of overall members.
The new draft law allows associations to open branches outside Egypt and gives them the right to receive financing, grants or donations from Egyptian or foreign individuals or entities authorised to operate in Egypt.
The law also allows NGOs to use their surplus revenues in investing in other production and service projects, and establish or contribute to the establishment of charitable companies and funds.
Wali also stressed that the draft law does not include freedom-depriving penalties for violations and exempts NGOs from registration fees in contracts which they are part of. “The law also exempts NGOs from real estate taxes in buildings where they operate,” Wali said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Modernising the Bar Association and NGOs