The Islamist-dominated Shura Council – Egypt's upper house of parliament, currently imbued with legislative powers – rushed on Tuesday to approve, in principle, two controversial government-drafted laws regulating parliamentary elections and protests.
The first legislation, an amendment of a 1972 law on the People's Assembly and a 1956 law on the exercise of political rights, was approved in principle during the morning plenary session of the Council on 26 March.
The draft law was rushed through the Council so fast that the government failed to attach to it an explanatory note detailing its objectives. Omar El-Sherif, deputy justice minister, regretted that "the government was forced to submit new amendments of the election law in a very short time," vowing that the law would be attached with an explanatory note when it comes up for an article-by-article debate before the Council.
The draft law, which was approved in principle in a process that took just an hour and half, did not go down well with representatives of three liberal-oriented political parties.
Nagi El-Shehabi, chairman of the Generation Party argued that "the Shura Council should have waited until the High Constitutional Court (HCC) decided whether the first election law [passed on 21 February] is constitutional.” El-Shehabi decided to walk out of the session in protest at justice minister Ahmed Mekki’s refusal to attend the parliamentary debate or respond to MPs' questions.
Taher Abdel-Mohsen, deputy chairman of the Council's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee and a leading official of Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), explained that "the government-drafted election law does not differ much from the law passed by Shura Council on 21 February [which is currently a subject of appeal before the courts]."
"The new law adopted the Constitutional Court's views on three issues: that anyone who failed to perform military service for national security reasons be excluded as a candidate in elections; that voting by Egyptians living abroad in parliamentary elections be placed under full judicial supervision; and that electoral districts be redrawn in a fair way.”
Chairman of the Shura Council and leading FJP official Ahmed Fahmi indicated that "the law will be discussed article by article next Monday and MPs are allowed to propose amendments to its articles until the end of next Thursday."
The deputies of Muslim Brotherhood's FJP rallied behind the law. FJP's parliamentary spokesman Essam El-Erian vowed that the law would be referred to the High Constitutional Court to give its opinion in accordance with Article 177 of the constitution and that the court's opinion and remarks would be fully respected. "We will not give a chance to political forces who want to bring the democratic march of this country to a deadlock," warned El-Erian.
The draft law was also approved by deputies of the ultraconservative Salafist Nour Party. The party's spokesman Salah Abdel-Maaboud, however, blamed Fahmi for refusing to refer the 21 February election law back to the High Constitutional Court. "This would have saved time and made the February law immune to judicial appeals," said Abdel-Maaboud.
By contrast, the deputies of two Islamist political parties launched scathing attacks on the High Constitutional Court. Safwat Abdel-Ghani, the representative of the Islamist Building and Development Party – the political arm of Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya - urged deputies "not to give too much weight to the High Constitutional Court or allow its judges play havoc with political laws."
Atef Awad, the representative of the Wasat Party – a Brotherhood splinter group – asserted that "the High Constitutional Court is politicised and we should not waste time referring laws to it several times."
Copt Rami Lakah, an appointed MP and chairman of Our Egypt party, rejected the law for dividing electoral districts on sectarian lines and for redrawing those districts according to number of registered voters rather than on the basis of the size of the population.
Also on Tuesday, the Shura Council rushed to approve a new protest law in principle. The so-called "Protest Right Protection Law" was rammed through the Council in just one hour. It was rejected by seven liberal political parties, accusing it of turning Egypt into "a police state." Non-FJP Islamist political parties also urged that the draft law be a matter of intense public debate and national dialogue.
In response, Chairman Ahmed Fahmi indicated that deputies would be allowed to amend the draft protest law's articles without a definite deadline.
The draft law gives the police sweeping powers to disrupt and disperse street protests. It also stipulates that the interior ministry be notified of the time and venue of any protest at least 24 hours in advance.
Besides, according to Ezzeddin El-Komi, deputy chairman of Shura Council's Human Rights Committee and a leading FJP official, the interior ministry can prohibit any protest gatherings it deems a threat to public order, and demonstrations must keep a 500 metre cordon between protesters and vital state institutions.
El-Komi indicated that "these institutions include the headquarters of the country's main legislative, executive and judicial authorities."
"This draft law isn't different from the ones adopted in democratic countries which exercise a legal clampdown on saboteurs who infiltrate peaceful demonstrations and torch state buildings," said El-Komi.
He argued that "the law was not rammed through the Council with the backdrop of recent violent clashes around the headquarters of Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo's Mokattam district."
"This bill comes after saboteurs torched several buildings in Cairo in recent weeks, such as the Egyptian Football Association building and the Police Club," he said.
El-Komi also indicated that "in implementing this law, police forces will not be allowed to open fire or live ammunition on protesters." The bill grants police the right to first use water cannons on protesters, then teargas and bludgeons to disperse them.
As expected, Brotherhood's FJP deputies rallied behind the bill. Saad Emara, deputy chairman of the Council's National Security Committee, said "recent days saw a third wave of violent acts aimed at disrupting state institutions."
FJP's El-Erian said that "there is a desperate need for this bill in order to stem the tide of chaos, and we urge police forces to use this legislation to strike with an iron first against saboteurs and provocateurs."
Joining forces, deputy interior minister Ali Abdel-Moli commented that "police forces are being dragged into a war of attrition with armed protesters and this makes it very hard for the interior ministry to fight criminal acts."
The draft law, however, was vehemently rejected by most liberal political parties. Mohamed El-Hanafy, spokesman of the Wafd Party, said "the bill is rejected because it reflects the regime's failure to find political solutions for the country and represents a move back to the police state practices."
Abdel-Shakour El-Sayed, representative of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said "the draft protest law is a step back to the old dark policies adopted by [former president] Hosni Mubarak." He added that his party can never approve a law that launches a severe crackdown on peaceful protests.
In the words of Rami Lakah, "I did not believe my eyes when I saw this law; I thought it was written by Habib El-Adly [Mubarak's notorious interior minister.] This bill directs a complete assault against liberties and rights of Egyptians."
Nagi El-Shehabi, chairman of the Generation Party, said "the draft protest law comes at a very bad time to give opposition the impression that it was rushed through parliament in reaction to violence in Mokattam and it is aimed to serve the interests of a certain faction."
El-Shehabi wondered that the bill gives police forces the right to use teargas, asking "how many millions has the government paid to America in recent months to import teargas?"
"The draft protest law is against the 25 January revolution and it reflects the failure of the regime of President Mohamed Morsi to give the impression that he is a president for all Egyptians rather than for one political faction," said Hilaslasi Mikhail, representative of the Free Egyptians Party.
Mikhali raised questions about whether the interior ministry would be capable of implementing the law. "This law will never bring stability but will rather lead to fomenting unrest and provoking aggressive reactions from several forces," he said.
Ihab El-Kharrat, chairman of the Human Rights Committee, also condemned the legislation.
"The bill was drafted in a very bad way and it gives police forces sweeping powers to attack protesters without facing judicial scrutiny."