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How an obscure council became Egypt’s decisionmaker

When Egypt’s lower house was dissolved, the advisory upper house gained sweeping legislative power. But only 10 percent of Egyptians bothered to vote for it.

When Egypt held elections for the upper house of parliament last year, few Egyptians bothered to go to the polls. They were fatigued from six rounds of voting for the lower house of parliament, and many felt the upper house, called the Shura Council, hardly mattered since its role was only an advisory one.

They would be proven wrong.

When the lower house was dissolved, the Shura Council became the de facto legislature — despite being chosen in an election that only drew around 10 percent of eligible voters. 

Members of the Muslim Brotherhood‘s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which holds the most seats in the Shura Council, promised the body would use its legislative power sparingly. But the Council has considered several controversial laws that FJP critics say are hardly pressing. They say the party is taking advantage of the situation, passing legislation that would limit freedom of assembly and put harsh restrictions on civil society organizations.

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“What everybody wants from the Shura Council is to just issue the most important and most needed laws,” says Mohamed Zaree, Egypt program director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “The problem is that they are very active in certain laws.”

The FJP says it is simply trying to give Egypt what it needs during a tumultuous time. The scope of laws the Shura Council must consider was broadened when court decisions delayed elections of a new legislative body, says FJP official Amr Zaki.

“We can’t let the country stop for six or seven months,” he says. “There are big problems in Egypt now, and the Shura Council must act. But we will not take it as a chance to proceed with our own goals.”

No longer a temporary situation 

After Islamist parties won a majority in the parliament early last year, a court ruled that the law governing the election was flawed, and the People’s Assembly, the lower house, should be dissolved. The military generals who ruled Egypt after the fall of Hosni Mubarak claimed legislative authority for themselves, but after President Mohamed Morsi was elected, he declared that legislative power his.

The new constitution, backed by Mr. Morsi and passed by referendum in December, granted the legislative authority to the Shura Council until elections for a new lower house could be held.

That vote was planned for this spring, meaning the Shura Council’s empowerment would have lasted only a few months. But another court order delayed the vote until at least the fall.

Meanwhile, the Shura Council has passed laws raising military pensions, declaring the Suez Canal city of Port Said to be a free trade zone, and organizing elections. It also passed a law introducing sukuk, a form of bonds that complies with Islamic law, in the hopes that Islamic finance could generate desperately-needed funds for Egypt. (The focus on Islamic finance in a time of serious fiscal challenges has drawn criticism inside Egypt, reports the Monitor’s Dan Murphy.)

But it has also delved into more controversial issues, such as a judicial reform law that would force the retirement of thousands of judges. Morsi’s supporters say the law would rid the judicial system of supporters of the old regime. They point to court verdicts like the one dissolving the parliament and the lack of convictions for former regime officials as evidence the system needs reform.

But the opposition fears the FJP will use the law to fill the benches with Brotherhood sympathizers. The president’s office said this week that Morsi would work with judges to reach a compromise on the law.

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Civil society workers, or agitators?

The Council has also taken on a law regulating civil society. Rights activists say the attitude toward non-governmental organizations (NGOs) embodied in the proposed law is similar to that which characterized the Mubarak regime – one in which civil society is a threat that must be controlled. But the proposed law imposes even more limitations than were in place under Mubarak.

It would put heavy restrictions on NGO efforts to obtain critical foreign funding, which organizations rely on in the absence of domestic funding, and would put suffocating restrictions on both international and Egyptian NGOs. (Read a recent Monitor story on the cutoff of foreign funding.)

“They need this law to have an upper hand on the NGOs, on the civil society,” says Mr. Zaree.

According to one of the draft NGO laws, civil society organizations’ money would be considered “public funds,” giving the government greater oversight and ability to interfere in NGO work. But the draft stipulated that funds coming from member dues – as the Brotherhood says its funds do – would be exempt.

The Council is also considering a law that would regulate demonstrations. The draft version allows for broad and vague reasons for prohibiting protests, including those that “interfere with citizens’ interests” or block traffic. Police would be allowed to forcibly disperse any protest that violates these provisions, yet the law does not put definitive limitations on the types of force police may use, and does not change a previous law that allows police to use live ammunition.

In February, Human Rights Watch said the draft law would “severely limit the right to peaceful public assembly and is open to abuse by police.”

Protests that turn violent have become increasingly common in Egypt. Many demonstrations end with participants battling police – or, increasingly, other civilians – with rocks, Molotov cocktails, or guns. But critics say the solution is not another law, but includes reform of the police force, which is known for brutality.

“Even the members of the National Security Committee agreed that even if we issue this law right now, the state doesn’t have the capacity to enforce it,” says Zaree.

Mr. Zaki of the FJP says that police reform – a top demand by rights activists – is a priority, but that a law to implement it would take time. Rights activists say they’ve seen no progress toward it.

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Who needs regulation most?

Ehab El Kharrat, a member of the Shura Council from the opposition Egypt Social Democratic Party, says the FJP is focusing on the wrong kind of legislation.

“I would have suggested that we pass laws to reform the police, and transitional justice laws. These are priorities,” he says. Reforming the Interior Ministry, which controls the police force, would help restore trust in police and would help them deal with protests in a professional way, he says. The protest law, however, “would actually provoke demonstrations,” he says.

But Zaki says both the NGO and the protest laws are urgent and necessary. He dismisses rights activists’ criticisms that it represses civil society, and says the law will remove hurdles put in place by the Mubarak regime, empowering NGOs. “Government cannot solve Egypt’s problems alone. We need the cooperation of civil society, and this law will activate civil society to work effectively,” he says.

Oversight on foreign funding is necessary because foreign money has poured into Egypt since the revolution in an attempt to help thwart the revolution, he says.

The law regulating demonstrations, needed because protests have become violent, is not meant to suppress protests, but to increase transparency, he says. It would allow those who organize protests to be held responsible when they break the law, he explains.