Parliament review: A week of political exclusion and inclusion

Major political questions were turned into legislation this week in Parliament, especially with the ongoing dilemmas of the political exclusion of former regime figures and the reformation of the Constituent Assembly that will write the country’s next constitution to be a more inclusive body.

On 12 April, the People’s Assembly finally issued an amendment to the political rights law stating that anyone who held the office of vice president or prime minister during the final ten years of Mubarak’s rule,  or served as president, secretary general or held other high office in the disbanded National Democratic Party, would be barred from holding public office for a period of ten years from 11 February 2011.

While widely welcomed in revolutionary circles, the timing of this law has raised questions and criticisms regarding the intentions of the Islamist lawmakers who dominate Parliament. Former President Hosni Mubarak’s spy chief and former Vice President Omar Suleiman and his supporters claim that the law was specifically issued to keep him out of the presidential race.

Suleiman’s supporters and others criticized the Muslim Brotherhood along with ultra-conservative Salafis, arguing that this law was issued by power-hungry Islamist MPs with the explicit aim of improving their presidential candidates’ odds at winning.

However, on 14 April, the Presidential Elections Commission announced the disqualification of Suleiman, along with the Brotherhood’s multi-millionaire candidate Khairat al-Shater, and the Salafi preacher Hazem Salah Abu Ismail. In anticipation of Shater’s disqualification, the Brotherhood and its political arm the Freedom and Justice Party had a nominated Mohamed Morsy, head of the party, as their backup presidential candidate.

This week Parliament also moved to draft a law governing the election of the Constituent Assembly. The FJP and the Salafi Nour Party were criticized for their attempts to dominate this assembly by pushing membership for their MPs. Last month, representatives of liberal parties, the Coptic Church, and Al-Azhar, among others, had withdrew from the assembly, while on 10 April, Cairo’s Administrative Court ruled that the makeup of the 100-member assembly was unconstitutional, and that its members must be chosen from beyond Parliament’s upper and lower houses.

The People’s Assembly has also been in the process of amending Military Judiciary Law 25/1966. MPs discussed amendments to this law during Parliament’s plenary session on 17 April, which was attended by General Mamdouh Shahin — a leading figure in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Addressing Parliament, the general accused journalists and activists of verbally abusing the SCAF. The SCAF member called on Parliament to take all possible legal measures against those who attempt to tarnish the image of Egypt’s armed forces. Shahin also mentioned that none of the civilians subjected to military tribunals prior to and since the revolution have stood trial because of free expression. These allegations produced angry responses from numerous lawmakers.

Leading FJP MP Essam al-Erian disputed the general’s allegations, pointing to the fact that numerous civilians have in fact been referred to military tribunals merely on the basis of their free expression. Independent MP Mohamed Abu Hamed also responded, arguing that the People’s Assembly was entitled to question the SCAF and the armed forces, and that the military junta was not exempt from parliamentary oversight.

Lawmakers have agreed to cancel Article 6 of the Military Judiciary Law which empowers the president of the republic to refer civilians to military courts. Law 25/1966 has been referred to Parliament’s legislative committee, which is in the process of amending it.

As for the new law governing the minimum and maximum wages, Parliament agreed in principle to keep the maximum wage at not more than 35 times the minimum wage. The minimum wage itself is yet to be determined. On 18 April, FJP lawmakers spoke out during Parliament’s plenary session to reiterate that a cap of LE 50,000 must be enforced to keep government officials from reaping hundreds of thousands of pounds each month while workers earn only a few hundred.

Yet a number of parliamentarians, including Democratic Front Party MP Hamdy al-Fakharani, argued that this maximum wage is still too high for a developing country, especially in light of the wide income discrepancies among Egyptians. Fakharani recommended that the maximum wage be no more than 20 times the minimum.

The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), along with a number of labor rights and socialist groups, have been demanding that the maximum wage should only be 15 times the minimum wage. Prior to and since the revolution, labor activists have been demanding a minimum wage of LE 1,200/month for full-time workers and employees in all sectors of the economy. These labor and leftist groups have announced their intention to march on Parliament on Labor Day to reiterate these demands.

In other labor-related developments, Parliament’s Manpower Committee is still deliberating on a new trade union law to replace Law 35/1976, which had monopolized trade unionism for decades under the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation.

Four drafts are currently being discussed. The EFITU and the former manpower minister had submitted the first of these drafts to the SCAF for approval some six months ago. The military junta shelved this draft, which was re-submitted to Parliament in January. Since then, the FJP-dominated Manpower Committee, presided over by Saber Abul Fotouh, has been drafting a trade union law whose provisions are very similar to law 35/1976.

On 18 April, Parliament issued a new law regulating the graduating year for Egyptian high schools. The Thanawiya Amma, or senior year of high school, has accordingly been reduced from two years to one.

A parliamentary delegation from the Arab Affairs Committee visited the Gaza Strip earlier this month. On 16 April, this committee issued a preliminary report calling on the Egyptian State to supply the besieged territory with gas exports to fuel its electricity grid, and also humanitarian aid to alleviate the shortage of medical supplies in Gazan hospitals.

Reaching out to other foreigners, a delegation of MPs from the FJP and Nour Party visited Luxor this week to reassure foreign tourists of their welfare in light of the Islamist domination of the political scene. These reassurances come months after leading figures from these Islamist parties had criticized foreign tourism, claiming that such tourism centers around swimsuits and alcohol. Salafis had gone even further, calling for the outlaw of alcohol in Egypt, and the segregation of beaches.

Parliament Speaker Saad al-Katatny has referred a draft law banning pornography and media obscenities to Parliament’s Culture, Information and Tourism Committee. On 17 April, the parliamentary head authorized this committee to draft a law banning such obscenities from TV, radio and the internet. The Islamist-dominated Culture, Information and Tourism Committee has proposed penalties for anyone disseminating such obscenities, including imprisonment and/or fines ranging from LE10,000 to LE50,000.

Parliament's Human Rights Committee demanded the formation of a fact-finding mission to investigate the fire that erupted in a state-owned petroleum company in Suez earlier in the week.

A delegation from the Defense, National Security and Mobilization Committee was dispatched to North Sinai on Thursday to examine the deteriorating security condition in the peninsula. Several kidnappings and assaults on security establishments have shaken the area bordering Israel.

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