After two-week hiatus, Shura Council to tackle raft of thorny legislation

Gamal Essam El-Din , Sunday 12 May 2013

Upper house of Egypt's parliment returns to work after holidays, with raft of controversial draft legislation – regulating protests, NGOs, NCHR and judiciary – at top of agenda

Shura Council
Egyptian Shura Council members meet to the discuss the government's 2013-2014 budget at the Shura Council, Parliament's upper house, Tuesday April 23, 2013 (Photo: AP)

Following a two-week holiday, the Islamist-led Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative powers) is due to resume its plenary meetings on Monday and Tuesday. The council's agenda will likely be topped by proposed amendments to existing legislation governing income tax and custom duties. 

The income tax law was debated two weeks ago, but final approval of proposed amendments was postponed to allow the government to present the council with accurate figures on income tax revenues. Some Shura Council deputies had wanted limited- and low-income brackets to be granted tax cuts to offset inflationary pressures.

On Tuesday, the council is due to discuss a new draft law aimed at setting up a government-run institution specifically tasked with offering loans to army officers.

Meanwhile, council committees are currently discussing amendments to a handful of controversial draft laws. At the top of these is a 26-article government-drafted protest law.  

Regulating street protests

The council's legislative and constitutional affairs committee surprised observers last week when deputies of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) teamed up to toughen measures required to obtain permission to stage street protests. 

FJP deputies stipulated that the interior ministry should be notified of the time and place of any planned protest at least 24 hours – as opposed to three days – in advance. Deputy Interior Minister Ali Abdel-Mola rejected the 24-hour notice, arguing that "at least 72 hours, or even 48 hours, is needed to give police and organisers enough time to prepare for a demonstration." 

The FJP's Sobhi Saleh rejected Abdel-Mola's argument, insisting that the 24-hour notice was intended to "tighten the grip on street protests and restore stability on the street."

Other FJP officials, however, such as deputy chairman of the Shura Council's human rights committee Ezzeddin El-Qomi, said that "only four articles of the draft law have so far been approved by the legislative committee; there will be more national dialogue on the remaining articles."

Regulating NGO activity

The Shura Council is also awaiting government-drafted legislation regulating the activities of non-government organisations (NGOs). Initial reports on what the law will contain have provoked concern among local and international human rights activists. 

On 24 March, the council provisionally approved an NGO law drafted by Muslim Brotherhood deputies. The draft imposes strict bans on civil society and human rights organisations, prohibiting them from obtaining foreign funding or conducting opinion polls in Egypt.

Shura Council chairman and leading Brotherhood official Ahmed Fahmi indicated last week that "despite the council's provisional approval of the Brotherhood's NGO legislation, the government is awaiting another government-drafted NGO law."

Fahmi told a German delegation that the Shura Council would do its best to ensure that the law's articles were "balanced," in the sense that they would give greater freedom to NGOs in Egypt without negatively affecting national security. 

"European and US fears about the new NGO law are unjustified," Fahmi said. "The Shura Council will make sure that the law enjoys as much societal consensus as possible."

Regulating Egypt's NCHR

On Sunday, the Shura Council's human rights committee finalised amendments to a 2003 law regulating the state-run National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). Committee Deputy Chairman Ezzeddin El-Komi said the amendments aimed to grant the NCHR "complete independence." 

"This will be achieved by making the NCHR independent from the Shura Council," said El-Komi. "With the Shura Council's consent, the president of the republic will be empowered to appoint the NCHR's chairman and its 26 members." 

The NCHR has recently come under fierce criticism from non-Islamist opposition forces. Some prominent human rights activists have withdrawn from the NCHR, charging that the Muslim Brotherhood has tightened its grip on the institution. 

"As was the case under the Mubarak regime, the NCHR is being manipulated by the Brotherhood to serve its political interests," said Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR) Chairman Hafez Abu Saeda. 

He told Ahram Online that the NCHR was headed by Hossam El-Ghiryani, a former judge of Islamist leanings, while most of its members – appointed by President Morsi – lack any experience in human rights activities. 

"The NCHR has turned a blind eye to human rights violations in recent months, including the proliferation of torture in prison cells and the kidnapping of young revolutionary activists opposed to President Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood."

Regulating Egypt's judiciary

The Shura Council has also postponed discussion of proposed amendments to Egypt's judicial authority law. The amendments – submitted by deputies of the FJP, the moderate-Islamist Wasat Party and the Gamaa Islamiya's Reconstruction and Development Party – aim to reduce the retirement age of Egyptian judges from 70 to 60. 

Mohamed Momtaz Metwalli, chairman of Egypt's Higher Council of Judges, asserted on Sunday that the Shura Council "must heed the opinion of the judicial community before adopting any law aimed at regulating its activities."

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