Problems on hold
The second parliamentary round which took off less than a month ago promises to yield a number of direly-needed laws. The House of Representatives did well to swiftly pass a law that stiffens penalties for human trafficking and combats illegal immigration, issues which have strongly moved the public conscience. Priority items on the legislative agenda include bills to govern, investment, transitional justice, local government and health insurance. In the spotlight are also the media law and the family law for non-Muslims, which have had their fair share of public attention and debate, and have been repeatedly reviewed. The time has come to issue these two laws since they not only affect the sectors they directly target but also stand to impact the community at large.
In my opinion, one other law has to take priority if we are serious about rooting principles of a modern Egyptian civic State of full citizenship rights for all. By this I mean the law for the establishment of an anti-discrimination commission, more precisely a commission for battling discrimination. Article 53 of the Constitution stipulates that: “All citizens are equal before the law. They are equal in rights, freedoms, and public duties; with no discrimination based on religion, belief, gender, origin, race, colour, language, disability, social class, political or geographic belonging, or any other reason. Discrimination and incitement of hatred are crimes punishable by law. The State is committed to take the necessary measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination, and the law shall organise the establishment of an independent commission for this purpose.”
The passage of a law for the establishment of an anti-discrimination commission is no less important than the law that had stipulated the establishment of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). Not only that, but the role of an anti-discrimination commission exceeds that of the NCHR in that it pursues all forms of categorisation, discrimination, and incitement of hatred; and brings perpetrators to justice. There is no law without penalty, and no penalty without law. If Article 53 of the Constitution explicitly states that: “Discrimination and incitement of hatred are crimes punishable by law”, the law for the establishment of an anti-discrimination commission should definitely include penalties to be imposed on violators of anti-discrimination provisions. This would give the Anti-Discrimination Commission, when formed, an edge over the NCHR which was never granted the necessary tools to pursue human rights violators. The NCHR only monitors and documents the human rights status and infringements in Egypt through regular reports and fact finding committees that issue recommendations to rectify violations. Since the NCHR never possessed the legal tools to penalise and deter human rights violators, it has over the years turned into a toothless entity that serves academics and researchers more than it contributes to change the reality on the ground.
Despite the current critical phase of national rebuilding, crimes of discrimination and incitement of hatred abound. The State and legal authorities, however, seem to look the other way. The media spots such crimes and decries them, yet their perpetrators are neither pursued nor deterred. This only sends out the message that perpetrators of anti-discrimination and incitement of hatred crimes can get away with them. The message is extremely unfair to the victims since it is absolutely reassuring to offenders.
For the benefit of those who do not know, I will mention a number of widespread practices by fanatics that reek of incitement of hatred and discrimination:
- The explicit demand by fanatics that Muslims should not ‘make friends’ with the ‘apostate’ Christians, to neither join in their joy on religious feasts nor extend good wishes to them.
- The insistence that the religion box should be retained on identity cards and State documents, as well as papers concerning the public, private, educational, professional or vocational sectors.
- The compulsory imposition of dress codes that carry a religious [Islamic] identity, such as the higab [Islamic veil] or niqab [Islamic full face veil], in any place of work or study.
- The piling of hindrances and impediments before individuals who have an opportunity of promotion or advancement in their fields of work or study, on account of these individuals’ religion, gender, colour…and on and on to the full list cited in Article 53 of the Constitution.
For these reasons and more, it is now imperative to issue a law for the establishment of an anti-discrimination commission, and empower it to achieve its objectives through provisions that define penalties for violators.
30 October 2016