Rumpus before recess
The People's Assembly ends its current session at breakneck speed, writes Gamal Essam El-Din
The People's Assembly concluded its 2007/ 2008 session with the usual exchange of thanks between the House and the government and praise for their "fruitful cooperation in the people's service". Opposition and independent deputies, however, were not happy. They took parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) to task for "ramming" through the House a raft of legislation that will have profound effects for years and allowing only enough time for the new laws to be debated at "supersonic speed".
Opposition and independent deputies singled out for criticism a new law imposing a tax on domestic property valued at LE500,000 or more. Apartments valued between LE500,000 and LE1 million will be taxed between LE30 and LE660 annually. The tax will be reviewed every five years.
MPs complained that they had been briefed on the law, via a report prepared by the assembly's Budget Committee led by NDP business tycoon MP Ahmed Ezz, just minutes before discussion in a plenary session on Sunday. Independent MP Mustafa Bakri also complained that the Budget Committee had given MPs only one hour to review budgetary changes that increased the cost of fuel and cigarettes.
"What does this mean?" asked Bakri. "It means that the committee does not show much respect to MPs."
Leader of the liberal-oriented Wafd Party Mahmoud Abaza warned that the property tax "imposes burdens on families whose budgets are already battered by the skyrocketing prices of food and fuel".
Ezz insisted that the property bill could not be delayed, arguing that it should have been submitted to the assembly "a long time ago".
"This is a new and sovereign source of government revenue the burden of which will be shouldered by Egypt's wealthier citizens," said Ezz.
Minister of Finance Youssef Boutros Ghali pointed out that the tax will affect just over 2.1 per cent of Egyptians since 97 per cent live in accommodation that did not reach the tax threshold. Ghali said he expected the new tax to generate between LE2-5 billion in proceeds. "This amount is indispensable for narrowing the budget deficit, generating more money for city councils and raising the salaries of property tax collectors."
Ghali and Ezz were supported by NDP MPs. The 34-article property tax bill took two days to be discussed and approved. On Monday, however, the assembly was allocated just two hours to ratify four judicial bills, one of which establishes a council to oversee the judicial authorities chaired by the president or, in his absence, the minister of justice. The law had been strenuously opposed by reformist members of the Judges Club, who complain that it further compromises their independence. Opposition MPs railed against Minister of Justice Mamdouh Marei, accusing him of seeking to impose his will on independent judges. Marei pointed out that the council's role will be confined to regulating administrative and financial matters.
Later on Monday night the assembly ratified amendments to the labour and anti-trust laws which the government says will facilitate the settlement of labour disputes and toughen penalties against monopolistic practices.
The assembly's legislative agenda this week also included phasing out the 37-year-old role of the socialist prosecutor-general (SPG). The move comes in compliance with last year's constitutional amendments which aimed at eradicating earlier socialist policies and practices.
On Monday the assembly's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee also approved measures relating to the Bar Association. The amendments, proposed by NDP MPs Abdel-Ahad Gamaleddin and Ibrahim El-Gogary, will create a temporary council, 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, that will oversee the association's affairs for a year. Gamaleddin said the temporary council would be charged with reviewing voter lists ahead of new Bar Association elections and checking that applicants to the association possess the relevant qualifications. Opposition MPs accused the NDP of seeking to get rid of the current Muslim Brotherhood-dominated board.
Mahmoud Abaza argued that imposing the NDP's will on the current board of the Bar Association would serve only to aggravate internal struggles and divisions, leaving the association in limbo.
The Muslim Brotherhood faced another setback on Tuesday when the assembly voted to strip Mokhtar El-Bey, Brotherhood MP for the Upper Egypt governorate of Sohag, of his membership. A report prepared by the assembly's Legislative and Constitutional Affairs Committee claimed the Court of Cassation had found irregularities in the 2005 poll returns in the city of Sohag.
"The judges who took charge of supervising the elections made mistakes in counting votes," the report said, adding that "as a result El-Bey was officially registered as getting 12,744 votes and his NDP rival Hazem Hamadi only 12,245."
The report said the real results were 16,168 for Hamadi, a former police officer, and 12,245 for El-Bey.
El-Bey responded by accusing the police of orchestrating the results of the 2005 elections. The dismissal of El-Bey on Tuesday brings the number of Brotherhood MPs in the assembly to 86. Gamal Akr, the Brotherhood MP who died last month in a car accident, was replaced by an NDP deputy.