‘Look at the sparrow’: Has parliament exploited people in the time of corona?

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Since the beginning of 2020, the Egyptian parliament has rapidly passed a large number of laws, at a time when most Egyptians were busy with news of the spread of the coronavirus, and the media did not shed sufficient light on these laws. The Egyptians did not know anything about most of these laws, but they were shocked and surprised by their effects and rules which they did not know anything about. An Egyptian journalist who is specialised in parliamentary affairs says that Egypt’s military regime has been performing this trick for decades, passing laws or making decisions in times of public preoccupation with other matters.

The Egyptian journalist who preferred to be known as Mohamed Ismail told Egypt Watch that these laws are known in Egypt as the laws of “look at the sparrow,” an old trick that the Egyptian people are subjected to. “Look at the sparrow” is a famous proverb in Egypt, to distract someone by watching birds in the sky, at the same time something on the ground is stolen without them noticing. Ismail says that the Egyptian regime passed a massive number of laws in the same way – the regime said to the Egyptians, “watch corona,” while suspicious laws were passed in parliament.

The Egyptian journalist specialising in parliamentary affairs indicated that the passage of laws during the preoccupation with following up on the coronavirus, or allegations of war in Libya or Ethiopia, began early in 2020. Still, its pace has accelerated in recent months in an unprecedented way.

The law of terrorist entities

The series of passing laws began in February 2020 when the Egyptian parliament passed amendments to the Terrorist Entities Law to expand the definition of terrorist entities in a suspicious manner. It also allowed the regime to confiscate funds and assets in all their forms inside and outside Egypt. The Egyptians only understood the gravity of the law when the internationally recognised Libyan Government of National Accord accused the Egyptian regime of seeking to seize Libyan oil, according to the recent law. The Libyan government said that the Egyptian regime falsely accused it of terrorism to justify the seizure of Libyan assets under the recent law.

The regime has also expanded pressure on business people, hinting at the possibility of seizing their money and assets, under the recent law. Egyptians were surprised by the imprisonment of Egyptian businessman Salah Diab by a decision of the military prosecution, although all the charges against him do not relate to the military, which observers considered a possible prelude to seizing his money.

Egypt’s Sovereign Fund

In July 2020, the Egyptian parliament approved a bill submitted by the government to amend some law provisions establishing Egypt’s sovereign fund. Parliament said that the amendments introduced in the draft law contribute to raising the efficiency and effectiveness of the fund’s performance, which supports the national economic system. The media did not shed enough light on the law that allows the newly created fund the right to use the state’s public property and sell it as well.

Less than two months after the law’s amendments were approved, Egyptians were surprised by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s decision to transfer the ownership of seven critical assets in the country to Egypt’s sovereign wealth fund. Many did not understand how this happened legally, especially amid widespread information about the possibility of selling these assets.

Some of the state-owned assets that will be transferred to the fund are estimated to have an initial value between EGP 50 billion to 60 billion ($3.2 billion to $3.8 billion). He added that passing this law in normal circumstances would have met broad opposition, especially in light of the bad reputation of the privatisation policy pursued by the Egyptian governments, selling state assets and wasting public money. But on the contrary, it passed it quietly, with no one noticing.

Expropriation Law

The Egyptian parliament also approved in August to amend some provisions of the law on expropriation of real estate for the public benefit, indicating that this law contributes to speeding up the completion of road and bridge projects that are being implemented. The law included swift procedures to expropriate private real estate, but Egyptians did not envision it being implemented so quickly and fiercely.

Pictures and videos of demolished homes spread on social media after the Egyptian authorities began removing buildings in many areas in which they intend to establish projects. The Egyptian government no longer thinks about finding engineering solutions or avoiding residential areas. According to this law, it has become easier to expropriate property and demolish homes.

The bill of Dar al-Ifta

Last August, the Egyptian parliament sought to pass a new law related to the Egyptian House of Ifta, to break up al-Azhar’s institutions and limit its influence and powers. The articles of the law were discussed very quickly, and the media did not shed enough light on the rules of the law, and there was no community discussion about it. At the last moment, in the session designated for the final vote on the law, parliament was forced to delay it until the next parliament.

The Egyptian parliament was forced to do that after the Sheikh of al-Azhar thwarted those efforts, escalated his criticism of that law, and asked to attend the parliament plenary session. The Egyptian regime felt that the Sheikh of al-Azhar’s speech was threatening the hidden series of passing laws and so the authority chose to sacrifice that law and postpone it so as not to provoke widespread debate about it.

The Elections Law

The elections law is one of the most important laws passed without discussion. Ismail notes that these laws strengthened the Egyptian regime’s grip on the Egyptian parliament and made it impossible for independents to reach the parliament. In light of the Egyptian parties’ weakness and fragility, this means the regime’s men have absolute control over the parliament. The recent senate elections are the clearest example of this. The Egyptian regime loyalists swept almost all the seats.

The Egyptian parliament adopted the closed list system, which strengthened the absolute control over the Egyptian parliament. The approval of that law came despite the widespread rejection of that electoral system. He confirmed that the law was passed in the absence of any interest in what is happening in parliament.

An enormous number of laws

It is impossible to show the size of the changes that the laws passed by the Egyptian parliament could make in the time of corona, because it approved a massive number of rules in that period, all of which give the regime unlimited powers. Ismail estimated the number of passed laws during that period, approximately 250 laws or law amendments.

During his 20 years as a parliamentary editor, Ismail says he did not witness this speed in passing laws, “The current parliament has set a record in the speed of passing laws without discussion or dialogue.” He mentioned that the Egyptian parliament, in one session last July, approved 14 laws affecting the lives of thousands of Egyptian families, among them, for example, the Public Business Sector Law, which is a disaster for companies that employ thousands of workers. While the world was busy confronting corona and protecting people, the Egyptian regime was interested in strengthening its grip and authority; corona was a significant ally of the Egyptian regime.