Busy year for lawmakers

Gamal Essam El-Din , Tuesday 2 Jan 2018

Parliament passed a mix of controversial political and economic laws in 2017.

This file Photo shows Egyptian women working in the industrial sector

In November MPs approved three laws which allow for the creation of nuclear regulatory bodies ahead of the construction of Egypt’s first nuclear power plant which will be built at Dabaa, west of Alexandria. The three laws, passed during an emergency plenary meeting on 27 November, also paved the way for a visit by Russia’s president. Valdimir Putin arrived in Cairo on 11 December and, with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi attended a ceremony to sign an agreement according to which Russia will provide funding and technical expertise for the Dabaa nuclear plant.

Talaat Al-Sewidi, head of parliament’s Energy and Environment Committee, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the three nuclear laws” have both a political and economic component.

“They reflect the growing political partnership between Egypt and Russia under presidents Al-Sisi and Putin, and will help upgrade the energy sector which is essential for future economic growth. They underline how Egypt’s relations with Russia are growing stronger at the expense of relations with the United States and the European Union.”

Parliament first approved a government-drafted law on the creation of the Executive Authority for the Supervision of Nuclear Stations for Electricity Generation. MPs then approved amendments to Law 13/1976 which allowed for the creation of the Authority of Nuclear Power Stations for Electricity Generation and of Law 7/2010 regulating nuclear activity in Egypt.

In the same month parliament approved an amendment to the Value-Added Tax (VAT) law of 2016 which raised the price of tobacco products. Minister of Finance Amr Al-Garhi said the VAT increase would generate revenues of between LE7-8 billion and allow the government to increase spending on social protection programmes, including the new national health insurance system.

But it was political rather than economic laws that dominated the year’s legislative agenda, says Samir Ghattas, an independent, left-leaning MP. “Ninety per cent of the laws passed in 2017 addressed urgent political and security issues,” Ghattas told the Weekly.

Topping the list was legislation creating the National Electoral Commission (NEC) which will oversee elections and referenda in Egypt. The NEC law, passed by parliament in July and ratified by President Al-Sisi in August, paves the way for presidential elections in 2018. The NEC’s 10-member board will be chaired by the deputy head of the Court of Cassation Lashin Ibrahim.

The NEC’s responsibilities range from preparing voter lists, delineating electoral districts, setting campaign and funding rules, ensuring media coverage is unbiased to announcing the final results.

At a press conference two weeks ago Ibrahim said the commission will begin meeting in February to prepare for presidential elections which are expected to be held in April 2018.

In October parliament endorsed the nationwide state of emergency declared following terrorist attacks against churches and monasteries in April. Constitutional law professor Salah Fawzi told the Weekly that while some commentators questioned the legality of the decree declaring a state of emergency which was issued on 12 October “the fact is the constitution does not ban a re-declaration of emergency laws in cases of necessity”.

Before the new emergency law was approved by parliament on 22 October Prime Minister Sherif Ismail issued a brief statement saying the move was necessary to help the government fight terrorist attacks.

“Terrorist elements not only target security but seek to undermine the process of development,” said Ismail. He vowed that the government “will never invoke exceptional measures that negatively affect citizens’ freedoms and rights”.

Parliament also amended the law regulating the performance of the Administrative Control Authority (ACA), Egypt’s main watchdog institution, in October.

Bahaaeddin Abu Shoqa, head of the Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee, told the Weekly the changes were necessary to combat corruption in government and administrative circles.

“The ACA is now required to submit an annual report to the president, parliament and cabinet detailing its activities in the previous 12 months. The law also obliges ACA to coordinate with other watchdog institutions such as the Central Auditing Agency to forge an anti-corruption strategy and promote transparency.” said Abu Shoqa.

“The amendments give ACA more powers to tackle corruption and nepotism and reinforce accountability in government circles.”

In November, parliament approved a government-drafted Youth Institutions Law which bans youth centres from engaging in political activity.

The first article prohibits employees of youth centres from using the centre’s premises for partisan activities or to promote political or religious agendas.

According to Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal, “the constitution makes it clear that youth centres cannot be turned into forums for the raising of political issues.”

Some MPs attempted to overturn the ban. “Young people need to talk politics in a healthy environment where there is no threat of their falling prey to extremist ideas,” argues Conservatives Party head Akmal Qortam.

MPs also passed new legislation banning remotely operated aircraft commonly. Kamal Amer, head of the National Security and Defence Committee, told the Weekly the law was necessary because “drones capable of carrying explosives or weapons systems could be used by terrorists.”

Article 1 of the law makes the Ministry of Defence the only authority with the power to license drones while Article 2 bans ministries, local councils, public institutions, companies and individuals from importing, manufacturing, assembling, handling or trading in drones without prior approval from the Ministry of Defence.

The law sets penalties of between one to seven years in prison, and fines of between LE5,000-50,000 for violators. In cases where drones have been used to facilitate terrorist attacks the death sentence can be applied.

MPs also passed new legislation regulating the formation of trade unions. Mohamed Abdel-Fattah, a member of parliament’s Manpower Committee, said the 83-article law upholds rights enshrined in the 2014 constitution.

“Article 76 of the constitution says workers should be free to form trade unions in a democratic way and unions can only be dissolved by a final judicial ruling,” said Abdel-Fattah. “The law served time on the older socialist policy which gathered unions beneath the umbrella of a single entity – the General Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions.”

MPs, after consulting with trade unions, intervened to amend Article 12 of the draft, reducing the quorum necessary for workers to form a union from 250 to 150 workers.

Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal warned that MPs are unlikely to get a break from reviewing legislation in the New Year. “Parliament needs to discuss amendments to the 2015 parliamentary election law which are necessary to ensure it conforms to the constitution, as well as draft laws on criminal procedures and the media.”

Osama Heikal, head of the Media and Culture Committee, said a new law on national press institutions is expected to be passed in 2018. “We hope the legislation will constitute a progressive step for the media in Egypt,” he said.

Parliament approved two complementary economic legislations. The first was on industrial licences and the second on investment.

In March, MPs voted in favour of passing the 47-article law on “industrial licences”. Minister of Industry Tarek Kabil told MPs that the law mainly aims to facilitate procedures necessary for an industrial establishment to be licensed. “This government-drafted law primarily seeks to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles standing in the way of investors wishing to invest in the industrial sector,” said Kabil, adding that “in general the law aims to widen the scope of industrial investments in Egypt.”

“Right now, the industrial sector only accounts for 18 per cent of GDP, and we hope that this law will push this percentage to be more than 30 per cent,” said Kabil, adding that “the law comes within the government’s long-term strategy based on reducing foreign imports and promoting local industries.”

The law cuts short the licensing period of an industrial establishment from as many as 634 days to just 14 days. “It also eliminates as many as 795 conditions that were necessary for an investor to get an industrial licence, not to mention that it makes it much easier that the government and investors reach reconciliation on certain administrative and financial disputes,” explained Kabil.

The other much-awaited law, on investment, was approved by parliament in May. Minister of Investment and International Cooperation Sahar Nasr said the 112-article government-drafted law aims to create a more investment-friendly climate in Egypt. “This comes through phasing out a lot bureaucratic obstacles and introducing greater investment incentives in order for Egypt to be able to be more competitive in this field,” said Nasr.

The law is divided into seven chapters, the most important of which are on investment incentives and guarantees, settling investment disputes and underlining the social responsibility of private investors.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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