Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 June 2008
Issue No. 900
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Legislative bottleneck

The People's Assembly faces a heavy workload before adjourning for the summer recess, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

The People's Assembly approved a raft of legislation this week ahead of the summer recess which begins on Thursday. The heavy legislative burden -- several key laws are due to be presented in the next few days -- has led the assembly's Islamist and leftist opposition to accuse the government of circumventing their supervisory role.

Amendments to the 1996 child law topped this week's agenda. They were approved in the face of stiff opposition from the Muslim Brotherhood that claimed that by criminalising the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) the law contravened Islamic Sharia. Anyone found guilty of practising FGM now faces a fine of between LE1,000 and LE5,000 and a prison sentence ranging between three months to two years. So heated were exchanges in the assembly on Sunday that when the ruling National Democratic Party's (NDP) Secretary for Organisational Affairs Ahmed Ezz described the law as a step away from "an old cycle of backwardness" and decried those who objected to it as "advocating the values of Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran", the debate descended into a bout of fist waving. The Muslim Brotherhood had claimed that by outlawing FGM and increasing the age of consent for marriage to 18 the government was seeking to impose a Western ethical code. The entire debate descended further into acrimony when Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei told Brotherhood MPs that Islam did not condone the practice of clitorectomy.

Earlier the assembly had approved a new law aimed at reducing traffic accidents and which bans taxis more than 20 years old and trailers from Egypt's streets. The owners of such vehicles now have a grace period of four years in which to replace them. The assembly also gave the thumbs up to two economic laws, one regulating housing cooperatives and the second governing the stock market.

Next week's legislative agenda will see the assembly debating amendments to the judicial authority law, the Bar Association law, and a new property tax.

Reformist judges, especially those belonging to the Judges Club, oppose any changes to the judicial authority law which might compromise their independence. Their fears appeared to be confirmed when the amendments were discussed by the Shura Council's Constitutional Affairs Committee: they give sweeping powers to the minister of justice at the expense of the judiciary.

The Judges Club, the only independent representative of Egypt's judges, has long been at loggerheads with Minister of Justice Marei, accusing him of trying to rein in the judiciary. Marei has objected to the Judges Club, which last week hosted journalist Mohamed Hassanein Heikal who criticised the government's decision to extend the emergency law, being turned into a platform for political opposition.

Amendments to the Bar Association law reflect the struggle between the association's left leaning chairman Hossam Ashour and its Muslim Brotherhood- dominated board. Ashour has been an unsparing critic of the board, accusing it of reducing the Bar Association to a state of paralysis as it attempts to promote an Islamist agenda. Board members, in turn, accuse Ashour of trying to marginalise their role because they object to the regime's heavy-handed repression of dissent.

The bill calls for a temporary council to be set up comprising the current chairman of the Bar Association and chairmen of the syndicate's provincial branches, most of whom are members of the ruling NDP.

New regulations governing property tax, approved by Shura Council on Tuesday, impose a levy on domestic property valued at LE450,000 or more. Apartments valued between LE450,000 and LE500,000 will be axed at the rate of LE7 a month, and those worth more than LE500,000 at LE13 a month. Minister of Finance Youssef Ghali told MPs that the new tax is part of the government's ongoing attempt to harness new sources of income to cover soaring costs. Both opposition and NDP deputies have warned that the new tax further burdens families whose budgets are already overstretched by the skyrocketing prices of food and fuel. The assembly's economic agenda also includes two bills that aim to toughen penalties for money laundering and curtail monopolistic practices.

Abdel-Moneim Said, director of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, told Al-Ahram Weekly that it is "unfortunate" that while the NDP- supported government of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has no qualms in referring a huge number of controversial laws to parliament for discussion and approval within a matter of days it has yet to draft the anti-terror bill promised more than two years ago to replace the 27-year-old emergency law.

The government, he says, has always dragged its feet in preparing political reform laws, pointing out that in 2005 there were promises to draft new legislation on terrorism, local administration and the exercise of political rights. The laws, which Said argues are necessary "to rid Egypt of the notorious state of emergency, decentralise and improve the performance of local councils, and introduce a modern election system" have yet to see the light of day. (see In Focus p.12)

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