Parliament review: Continuing uncertainty, persisting religiosity

Parliament convened this week in the midst of the uncertainty looming over the Constituent Assembly that will draft Egypt's post-Hosni Mubarak constitution. 

The People's Assembly Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee had begun a round of talks with representatives of different political parties as well as legal and constitutional experts to compile suggestions on the optimum make-up of the 100-member Constituent Assembly. Yet, these talks did not go smoothly. On Monday, eight parties withdrew alleging that the discussions were not serious enough. This tension has cast more doubts over Parliament's ability to resolve differences and warned of a new political deadlock. If no agreement is reached, Parliament will incur a second failure over the same matter.

Last month, the Freedom-and-Justice-dominated Parliament had elected a predominantly Islamist assembly. This composition drove secular parties to walk out and provoked a lawsuit contesting the assembly's legality and its failure to represent different social and political trends. Eventually, the court disbanded the assembly and the military has intervened to reconcile quarreling civilian factions until they reach a formula whereby different social and political groups would be well-represented in the assembly. 

In the meantime, the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee caused a stir among most liberal activists after signing off on the amendments suggested by Mamdouh Shahin, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, to the law regulating military tribunals. The committee rubber-stamped Shahin's proposition that military courts shall have the exclusive right to specify what crimes fall under its jurisdiction. For human rights activists, this clause empowers the military judiciary and opens the door for the referral of more civilians to military trials. Additionally, the committee surrendered to the SCAF’s notorious demand that retired military officers shall stand trial for corruption charges only in military courts.

Before Parliament was elected, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi had introduced this amendment to the law. Back then, the clause provoked many politicians, who perceived it as an attempt by the military junta to conceal its alleged corruption from the eyes of civilians. Parliament was expected to revoke this clause.

During Tuesday's general session, Salafi lawmaker Mamdouh Ismail decried this amendment as a violation of justice, equality and the constitution. He contended the clause was meant to provide "immunity" for the military against civilian prosecution. Shahin, who was present at the session, rose up to his feet to defend the clause, affirming the integrity of the armed forces and arguing that this article is needed because there may be confidential information related to national security in corruption cases that involve former officers. Hence, the details of the cases shall not be disclosed to civilian courts. Yet, Ismail's fury at Tuesday’s general session did not lead to anything. Shortly before the People's Assembly adjourned until next week, MPs voted in favor of the controversial amendments.

On Tuesday, the People's Assembly finally voted against the cabinet's briefing, contending that it had failed to meet the people's expectations and solve their urgent problems. Saad Katatny, the speaker of the People's Assembly and FJP lawmaker, explained that the cabinet shall turn in a new briefing within 60 days. If the second statement gets rejected, the cabinet shall resign.

For almost three months, the FJP, which holds more than 40 percent of the seats, has been threatening a no-confidence vote against the cabinet. When the party realized that the interim constitution gives no one but the generals the right to sack the cabinet, it vowed to hold protests until the SCAF gets rid of Kamal al-Ganzouri's cabinet and asks the Brothers to form a new one. But in the midst of the current impasse over the Constituent Assembly and the uncertainty that shadows the presidential race, the FJP chose not to open a new front of contention. 

Away from high politics, Parliament was also caught up in the wrath that followed Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa’s visit to Jerusalem. In a heated session, parliamentarians insisted that Gomaa apologize to Arabs and Muslims, repent and resign from his post. In this session, Gomaa faced a plethora of hideous charges including the "treason of Arab blood."  Salafi MP Ismail dismissed the visit as "a stab" to the Palestinian cause, while leftist lawmaker Al-Badry Farghaly accused Gomaa of having humiliated 1.5 billion Muslims around the world and called upon his fellow MPs to issue a recommendation that people boycott the Mufti.

Meanwhile, the Culture, Information and Tourism Committee and the cabinet had agreed to establish a media authority that will be tasked with regulating the broadcast media. Mohamed al-Sawy, the committee's head, explained that this decision does not aim at creating new tools to censor the media, but stressed that there is a need for a regulatory body to ensure that media ethics are observed. Since Mubarak's ouster, many media experts held that a regulatory body shall be instated to lift professional standards of broadcast media and to monitor the finances of private channels. Some experts had alleged that many satellite channels were launched as part of money laundering transactions.

Meanwhile, other MPs had reportedly expressed their resentment of the government's decision last year to stop issuing licenses for new private satellite television channels. FJP MP Mohsen Rady, deputy head of the Culture, Information and Tourism Committee said, "halting licenses is against the constitutional principles that guarantee freedom of opinion, expression and thought."

The same committee approved later a bill stipulating the establishment of a syndicate for broadcast journalists. Adel Nour Eddin, the would-be syndicate's founder, told the local press that the bill is still to be revised by the Parliament's legislative committee before it is formally issued. For years, broadcast journalists have been struggling against an arsenal of oppressive laws to form their union under Mubarak. It seems that finally their syndicate will see the light of day.

This week, Parliament decided to start a new chapter in the Thanaweyya Amma (high school certificate) saga. The People's Assembly voted on a bill stipulating that high school students should take their comprehensive university admission tests after one rather than two years of coursework. Parliament argued that this move will reduce household spending on private tutoring and alleviate the psychological burden on high school students. This is probably the fourth amendment introduced to the thanaweyya amma system in less than 20 years.

On Sunday, the Health Committee held a meeting with Kawthar Mahmoud, the head of the Health Ministry's Nurse Department, to discuss the dearth of nurses in Egyptian hospitals. Yet, the meeting did not stop at such a purely secular issue. MPs seized the opportunity to criticize the government’s directive barring nurses from wearing the niqab (face veil). MP Fawzy Hamed dismissed the matter as "an infringement on religious rituals." He added that the niqab does not hinder the nurse's job.

A similar Islamist touch occurred while Parliament was discussing energy subsidies. Instead of the niqab, MPs invoked polygamy. The People's Assembly's Industry and Energy Committee asked the cabinet not to implement a decision made earlier by Gouda Abdel Khaleq, minister of social solidarity and domestic trade, to provide coupons to families that are eligible to receive subsidized butane cylinders. Abdel Khaleq's believes this strategy would put an end to butane sales on the black market. However, MPs opposed the decision, which is set to be put in place on 1 May, contending that it threatens social justice because it grants a family's caretaker only one coupon, but he may be married to more than one woman and have more than one household.

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