Last Sunday saw Egypt’s House of Representatives convene for the first time since three years, and mark the final step on Egypt’s Roadmap to democracy and a modern, secular State.
The country has been without parliament for some two-and-a-half years; the last parliament in Egypt was the overwhelmingly Islamist 2012 parliament, which came in the wake of the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011 and the consequent rise of Islamist power. This parliament was dissolved by the Constitutional Court in June 2012. In July 2013 Egyptians waged their 33-million-strong rebellion against the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) Islamist regime that had attempted to make Egypt part of a pan-world Islamic caliphate by subduing Egyptians and eradicating democracy. Backed by their Armed Forces, the people managed to overthrow the Islamists and, in their place, work to build a secular Egypt. In January 2014 a new Constitution was approved, and in July 2014 the secular Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was voted in as President, both in landslide votes. Now the last step on Egypt’s path to democracy has been attained: the convention of the House of Representatives.
Egyptians had their eyes glued to their TV sets or news websites on the morning of Sunday 10 January to watch their representatives convene for the first time under the dome of the majestic parliament building.
The election of these representatives had been criticised for the somewhat disappointing 28.3 per cent turnout. Some saw this as reflecting a waning public interest in politics, but others saw it as a better than normal turnout for elections held under ‘no threat’. The only elections in recent decades which saw higher turnout were the post-Arab Spring ones which witnessed a tight tug-of-war between Egypt’s Islamists and non-Islamists, then again the elections in which the 2014 Constitution was approved and Sisi was voted in, since in both cases Egyptians were taking a stand against Islamism.
Egypt’s new House of Representatives has no more than 2 per cent Islamist MPs among its members. The resounding defeat is especially telling after the 67 per cent Islamist 2012 parliament, and points very clearly to Egypt’s change of direction and loss of confidence in Islamists. Egyptians are in their wide majority Muslims, and had decided to give Islamists a chance in the wake of the Arab Spring. Not any more, as demonstrated so starkly by the new parliament.
The proportions represented in Egypt’s House of Representatives inspire hope. Affirmative action in the form of a one-time quota for women, Copts, and the disabled has ensured a substantial number of seats for them. Women now have some 12.5 per cent of the seats and Copts some 7 per cent, an unprecedented success. But this places them under the particular pressure of proving they are fully capable of carrying out their legislator responsibility fairly and honourably, since there will be no quota in upcoming parliaments.
Laws issued in absence of parliament
The MPs, who make up Egypt’s largest parliament to date, are divided into 448 independents, 120 party-based deputies and 28 presidential appointees.
The first convention of the House of Representatives was a procedural session and saw the new MPs take the oath. Each MP read out the oath: “I swear by Almighty God to loyally uphold the republican system of Egypt, respect the Constitution and the law, fully observe the interests of the people, and to safeguard the independence of the nation and integrity and unity of its land.” The 68-year-old Constitutional Law Professor Ali Abdel-Aal was named Speaker of the House of Representatives, elected to the position by 401 votes. Two deputy speakers were also elected: Mahmoud al-Sharif from the southern town of Sohag and Dean of the al-Ashraaf clan, and Soliman Wahdan who is a businessman from Port Said on Egypt’s North Coast. Mr Sharif was elected with 345 votes, and Mr Wahdan with 285.
Parliament is thus ready to embark on its legislative work, a task that will start with reviewing the 341 laws that were passed by Adly Mansour, interim president in 2013 – 2014, and current President Sisi in absence of parliament. Predictably, these laws are approved by many and equally disapproved by others. Egyptians wait to see which will parliament approve or withhold. Five committees were formed to review the laws, and one to revise parliament bylaws. These committees are required to issue a report and send an opinion back to the floor by 9am Saturday 16 January.
To air or not to air?
Late last Monday, the House of Representatives took a majority decision to temporarily ban the live airing of its sessions until it finishes discussing the laws issued since July 2013 by the executive power as mandated by the 2014 Constitution. The decision came after the majority of MPs agreed to a proposal submitted by 40 members to stop TV coverage in order to prevent grandstanding by some MPs. Reporters, however, will be able to cover the sessions.
The ban sparked criticism by a number of MPs and public figures.
Watani’s Fady Labib took the issue to Judge Magdy al-Agati, Minister of the House of Representatives Affairs, who said that the Constitution stipulates that the parliament sessions should be publicised, but does not specify in which manner. “It is up to parliament to decide how,” Judge Agati says.
Several Arab Satellite channels had submitted to the secretariat-general of parliament offers for the exclusive broadcasting of the sessions, but no decision has been taken and it is generally thought that Egyptian national TV is entitled to that right. In case of the previous parliaments\, Egyptians used to watch parliament sessions live on the special channel Sawt al-Shaab (Voice of the People).
According to Samy al-Sherif, Media Professor and previous Media Minister, the people have every right to see their representatives operate in parliament.“In all democratic States,” Dr Sherif says, “parliamentary sessions are broadcast live, except when issues directly related to national security are discussed.”
Hussein Abdel-Raziq, member of the leftist Tagammu Party, believes that broadcasting the sessions is very important since it honours transparency and keeps parliament constantly under public supervision.
Copts especially have had to wait for the House of Representatives, for laws that directly impact them to be passed.
Among such laws is a unified family law for Christians. The main Churches in Egypt; the Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical, have agreed upon a draft law that applies the teachings of the Bible while at the same time making provision for modern-day problems. This bill has yet to be discussed by parliament.
Another law that Copts need most is one to govern the building of churches. The 2014 Constitution stipulates that such a law should be passed by the first post-Constitution parliament; the current 2015 parliament.
The building of churches is by far the issue that has most irked Copts over the centuries. Since the Arab conquest of Egypt in AD641, the majority of Islamic rulers have not looked kindly upon the building of churches. At best, they grudgingly gave them permission to build or restore very few churches; at worst they closed or destroyed existing ones. The issue gained notoriety as a tool for oppressing Christians not only in Egypt but throughout the Ottoman Empire, so much so that a decree was issued by the Ottoman sultan in 1856, known as the Humayouni Edict, to regulate the building of churches. In an attempt to ensure that local viceroys did not use their authority to unnecessarily withhold permits to build churches, this authority was placed in the hands of the sultan. This backfired, however, when the edict remained in force in Egypt even after the downfall of the Ottoman Empire; licence to build, rebuild, restore, renovate, expand, or repair churches was granted by the head of State. For Copts to build so much as a toilet in a church they needed a permit from the president.
In 2005, President Hosni Mubarak ceded the authority of permitting any construction related to church buildings to the local governors, retaining only the authority to license new churches. But this did not solve the problem because, in addition to the Humayouni Edict, the building of churches had to comply with the notorious “Ten Conditions” issued in 1934 by Muhammad al-Ezabi Pasha, Egypt’s then Deputy Interior Minister. These are stringent, unjust conditions for the building of any church, that in most cases makes it prohibitive.
To crown the harsh rules, Copts have more often than not had to deal with fanatic officials who would deliberately delay the licensing of any church-related construction. Coptic communities that attempted to abide by the law have had to wait for years on end, in some cases for as many as 40 years, to gain licence to build a church.
Is it any surprise that Copts have resorted to building unlicensed churches? But the price they pay for doing so is punitive; the new church not only risks closure by the authorities, it also risks assault and destruction by extremist Muslims. This at a time when the building of mosques is problem-free; the only licence required is the building permit.
Hence the dire need for a new, fair, equitable law to govern the building of churches. Incidentally, there were since 2005 calls and bills for a unified law for the building of places of worship. Such bills stipulated the same conditions for the building of mosques, churches, or any place of worship. But al-Azhar, the topmost Islamic authority in Egypt and the Muslim World, objected to it on the grounds that there were no problems whatsoever with building mosques, so why the need for a new law. Only churches needed such a law, al-Azhar said.
13 January 2016