A window of opportunity
 
 

As Egypt waits to elect a new parliament, the transitional government appears to be taking advantage of this window of opportunity to rush through new laws with the approval of interim President Adly Mansour, who was granted the power to legislate in July.

Pieces of legislation like the Protest Law have attracted international attention, but the nature of the laws introduced in the wake of former President Mohamed Morsi’s removal from power have actually been quite varied.

Observers fear many governmental figures are taking advantage of the current exceptional legislative process to pass repressive laws that would have been met with much more resistance if a sitting parliament was in place.

However, a few Cabinet members are reportedly pushing for legislation that enhances social and economic rights.

The current unrest has been used to justify passing repressive laws since July, but there is concern that their effect will outlive the perceived crisis and reinstate a basis for the return of the security state.

Most prominently, the law organizing the right of public assembly — known as the Protest Law — was met with harsh criticism due to its extreme limitations on the right of protest and assembly.

The Protest Law is, however, only one of over a dozen laws decreed by interim President Adly Mansour in the last five months.  

After a military decree removed Morsi from office, suspended the 2012 Constitution and dissolved the Shura Council, a constitutional declaration issued on July 8 granted Mansour — a judge and briefly the head of the Supreme Constitutional Court — the right to legislate after consulting the Cabinet.

The Shura Council had been the only remaining legislative body after the People’s Assembly was dissolved by court order in June 2012.

The new draft constitution states that the laws issued by the president in the absence of the House of Representatives are to be presented to it within 15 days of its convening. Legislation that is neither presented to the House of Representatives nor approved by a majority is to be cancelled according to the draft constitution. The effects these laws had would be retroactively reversed unless the House of Representatives decided otherwise.

Legislation passed in the period since the July 8 Constitutional Declaration has been drafted by the relevant ministry, finalized by the Cabinet then sent to the interim president for approval.

“There are significant differences between ministers,” says Mohamed Zareh, a lawyer and rights activist.

“Some are adopting the principle of the iron fist and want to retrieve the basis of the security state and force their control. Others — a smaller number — are aiming for political reforms to put Egypt on the way to being a state of justice, and others are happy to be rid of Muslim Brotherhood and want to claim the state back.”

“That’s why there are good laws and bad laws,” he suggests.

After being nominated to the post of minister of manpower in interim Prime Minister Hazem al-Beblawi’s Cabinet, former labor activist Kamal Abu Eita has introduced a bill that increased pensions, which Mansour approved and issued into law in August. It canceled the 2010 Pensions Law, which had been consistently rejected by workers’ rights groups as detrimental to their well-being.

Eita’s former colleagues in the ranks of workers’ defenders welcomed the new law, saying that it is a long awaited adjustment (despite harsh criticism from that quarter about Eita’s willingness to participate in the interim government).

Another broadly welcomed law passed in November prohibits conflict of interest for senior government officials. The law puts some limitations on the activities of senior officials to prevent them from profiteering from their positions. Human rights defenders welcomed the law as a step towards combating the extreme government corruption that has been revealed over the past three years.

In regards to freedom of expression, a modification was made to the penal code to limit the penalty for “insulting the president” to a fine between LE10,000 and LE30,000. While this is an improvement, rights defenders argue that such a charge should be obliterated altogether.

Another more controversial modification to the penal code removed the maximum limit for detention under investigation for those appealing verdicts of life in prison or death. This makes it possible for the state to hold a defendant in custody indefinitely while his or her appeal is still in court. In the Egyptian judicial system, these proceedings can drag on for years.

Zareh says that this law is tailor-made to target the Muslim Brotherhood leaders currently on trial, without affecting former President Hosni Mubarak and figures from his regime. Since the law clearly states that it cannot be applied retroactively, it does not affect Mubarak, whose maximum detention expired in August.

While the new law might target a particular political group, it is a setback for the rights of defendants in general, Zareh says. He contends that establishing a maximum limit for detention under investigation was one of the achievements of the National Council of Human Rights, a body that is now being revoked.

“Defendants who could be innocent should not be punished for the slow procedures of the court,” he argues.

Other bills with a very different kind of political target include two laws that enhance the benefits of the Armed Forces, who are currently enjoying their most powerful position in years.

Mansour issued a law increasing the pensions for military men, as well as another bill that rewards for military officers who exhibit sacrifice and courage or “provide noble services to the nation or the Armed Forces.”

No legislation protecting public space has been passed. Zareh fears that Mansour and the Cabinet are attempting to shut down public space during this window of opportunity before an elected parliament is established, as the space of freedoms that existed before January 25 is now considered too dangerous, as it allowed for the people’s revolt.

“It is a way of gaining ground for the police state and returning the security state in all its forms,” the lawyer argues.

Zareh points to the fact that most of those arrested in protests are being prosecuted on old charges — such as assault and creating unrest, rather than charges pertaining to the new Protest Law — as proof that the government is issuing these laws to reinstate long-term principles.

While protesting without authorization is only punishable by a fine, the other charges stipulate jail time.

“All they want is to keep the influential people inside of prison and away from the public sphere to avoid their impact,” Zareh asserts.

He adds that the new Protest Law gives the Interior Ministry, which was used to functioning under the cover of the Emergency Law, the safety of the legislative cover that the institution insists it needs in order to do its job.

An anti-terrorism law is currently being finalized by the Ministry of Justice, and is expected to pass before parliament is elected. Zareh says that such a law would practically create a permanent state of emergency.

Another highly criticized law is one authorizing heads of government bodies, ministers and governorates to allocate state purchases by direct agreement “in urgent cases that cannot wait for the bidding procedures.”

The maximum value of contracts where officials have this authorization was increased to LE500,000 for heads of bodies and LE5 million for ministers and governors under the new law.

Samer Atallah, assistant professor in the Department of Economics at the American University in Egypt, says that this law opens a “wide door for corruption.”Given that this law was widely abused under Mubarak, changing it is a priority in the fight against corruption, he asserts.

However, the new law makes a change in the opposite direction, increasing the power of officials in this regard. Atallah adds that stating that this right can be used in “urgent” matters, and leaving that judgment to officials with no limitations or specific requirements, leaves the law open to abuse.

The fact that such controversial bills are being passed in the absence of a parliament that would have discussed them extensively is noteworthy, Atallah warns.

“The position of the government has been that it’s not a caretaker government — it’s a transitional government that aims to establish a new order, giving itself some decree of freedom of legislation,” Atallah says.

Some criticize the interim president for using his legislative powers to pass such a high volume of laws, arguing that his use of this exceptional power should have been limited to necessary procedural laws. Among recently passed laws is one regulating the voting of Egyptians abroad, and another legislating the spending of a stimulus package.

Atallah says that the totality of the legislation issued by the interim president is characterized by state conformity and reinstating an oppressive regime, with the Protest Law as a flag example.

While most of this legislation, whether political or economic, has been justified as being too urgent to wait for parliamentary elections, Atallah fears that adopting this principle of “urgency” is a slippery slope.

“This means giving very wide discretion,” he says, “to an unelected government to decree legislation that doesn’t necessarily have wide support.” 

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