Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Inching towards reform

Government promises of political and legislative change have yet to convince opposition forces, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

Efforts aimed at accelerating political reform recently regained some momentum. Faced with growing internal and external pressure, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif announced last week that the government is planning a reformist legislative agenda to be presented to the People's Assembly before it adjourns in the second week of June.

The legislation, says Nazif, will include four laws, covering terrorism, remand into custody, judicial independence and publication offences.

Addressing the People's Assembly on 22 March, Nazif said the government's commitment to political reform "is part of its philosophy in dealing with free citizens within a secure society".

"Today," said Nazif, "I gave orders that an ad hoc commission be formed to start drafting the new anti-terrorism law," which is intended to replace the state of emergency in place since 1981."

Nazif indicated that the commission will include representatives from the ministries of justice, defence, interior and parliamentary and legal affairs, experts in constitutional law and in international security agreements and anti-terror legislations. The commission will examine laws already in force in countries such as the US, Germany and the UK. Informed sources indicate that the commission will be headed by Mohamed Hassanein Abdel-Aal, chairman of Cairo University's Constitutional Law Department.

Nazif explained that the commission will also be charged with drafting a new covering remand into custody, the aim being to do away with the sweeping powers currently exercised by prosecutors.

Amendments to the law dealing with publication offences will be finalised within a matter of weeks, Nazif promised. "The government also intends to do its best to close the gap between the Judges' Club and the Higher Justice Council (HJC) in a bid to reach a consensus on a new law aimed at strengthening independence of the judicial authority," he continued.

The prime minister's announcements came after a month-long debate in which parliamentary deputies had criticised the government's policy statement -- delivered by Nazif on 30 January -- for backtracking on Hosni Mubarak's promises of political and legislative reform. It follows two public protests, organised by judges and journalists on 17 March as part of their on-going struggle to guarantee judicial independence and end the imposition of custodial sentences for publication offences.

Nazif's announcements, however, were met with a degree of cynicism on the part of opposition forces and civil society organisations amid suggestions that the government was attempting to rush the legislation through parliament within a timeframe that would not allow for sufficient scrutiny.

"The fear is that, as we have learned from experience, when this government acts swiftly it acts unwisely," said leftist Tagammu MP Mohamed Abdel-Aziz Shaaban.

The gap between government and opposition is perhaps widest over the proposed anti-terror legislation. In the debate on the government's policy statement Muslim Brotherhood MPs were loud in their criticism of the emergency laws. Infuriated by the arrest of many of the group's members over the last few weeks, they have vowed to overturn its provisions, warning that it cannot be replaced by legislation that replicates its restrictions.

Joining with Brotherhood MPs, leftist deputies warned that the anti-terrorism law must not be a cosmetic attempt to improve the image of the regime overseas.

Shaaban told Al-Ahram Weekly that the Tagammu would only accept legislation aimed at fighting terrorism. "We will be the first to attack any law that seeks to impose restrictions on the activities of opposition forces or suppressing political activities," said Shaaban.

Opposition's fears grew following a recent interview in which parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour suggested that passing an anti-terror law would not automatically mean the end of emergency rule.

"Eliminating the emergency law," said Sorour, "requires that the constitution be changed which is not, currently, an option,". "The new anti-terror legislation will be aimed at eliminating terrorism and not to eliminate the state of emergency that has been in effect for 25 years."

Sorour went on to explain that the new anti- terror law will not wholly replace the emergency laws, which could be invoked but only in exceptional cases.

The emergency law was last extended in 2003 and is due to expire at the end of May.

On a recent visit to England Nazif said that "the anti-terror law will need to strike a balance between the human rights of individuals freedom on the one hand, and the ability of the authorities to pursue investigations on the other".

There is also a gap between opposition expectations and government plans over judicial reform and the way with which publication offences are dealt.

Judges have accused the government of dragging its feet over reforms first proposed in 1986 and intended to strengthen judicial independence from the executive. The Judges Club wants members of the HJC to be elected, and for judges to retire at a maximum of 70 years of age.

"Elections will free the council from government control and strengthen its independence vis-à-vis the executive authority," said the chairman of the Judges Club, Zakaria Abdel-Aziz, on 17 March.

Abdel-Aziz said judges also want more budgetary and supervisory independence.

"The government uses the Ministry of Justice's funding of judicial activities as leverage in controlling judges," said leading Cassation Court judge Hisham Bastawisi.

In his 22 March speech before the People's Assembly, Nazif said the government had no role to play in the current clash between the Judges Club and the HJC. Bastawisi, though, believes the government is fuelling the dispute. "It is government policy never to bow to democratic demands even when they come from judges," Bastawisi told the Weekly.

On 17 March a general assembly at the Press Syndicate, attended by almost 2,000 journalists, demanded that the government rescind legislation that allows jail terms to be handed to journalists for publication offences.

Chairman of the Press Syndicate Galal Aref expressed concern that the government may ignore the draft law drawn up by the syndicate, and could even formulate tougher legislation.

"There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of libel cases against journalists pending in the courts and we want them all suspended until a new law is passed," said Aref. In his inaugural speech before parliament last December President Mubarak said he remained committed to his pledge to end custodial sentences for publication offences but wants to relevant legislation to strike a balance between press freedom and rights of ordinary citizens and public figures.

This, said journalist and Wafdist MP Mohamed Abdel-Alim, raises the spectre that the new legislation might fall short of the demands of journalists. "The regime uses the rights of citizens to continue harassing journalists," he claimed.

Abdel-Alim believes that the government thought Mubarak's two-year-old pledge would dissuade the opposition and independent press from continuing their campaigns against some of the regime's leading figures, but "when this did not happen the regime decided to backtrack".

Abdel-Alim believes the next two months will be crucial. "Continued rejection of demands for more liberal laws governing the press and judicial authority will lead to a poisoning of the political atmosphere." Judges and journalists have vowed to follow up their 17 March protests with demonstrations on 25 May, marking the first anniversary of the referendum on the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution.

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