16 August 2006
Abduction of a law
Every time I alluded to the draft unified law for places of worship—which I frequently did—I took care to mention that MP Mohamed Guweili, head of parliamentary committee for proposals and complaints, was the initiator of the said draft law. Guweili submitted the proposal for the law to the People’s Assembly in May 2005, and it was scheduled for referral to the house, but the parliamentary round ended before the draft law could be discussed. Parliamentary elections were held in December of the same year and brought in a new Parliament, upon which Guweili again submitted the draft law to the new People’s Assembly. Again, the parliamentary round ended in June without the draft law being discussed. It is hoped, however, that the draft law will be discussed in the coming round next autumn.
The draft law stipulates unified regulations for building places of worship for all Egyptians no matter what their religion is. In this respect, Building Law 106 of 1976 would govern the erection, restoration, renovation, maintenance, or demolition works in mosques, churches and synagogues alike. Once this is achieved, the building of places of worship for non-Muslims would be liberated from the political and security sway it is now subject to. The current regulations glaringly discriminate against Copts and thus serve to augment tensions among Egyptians of different religions, and make a mockery of equality and citizenship rights. Moreover, the new law, if passed, should put an end to the unquestioned and unaccountable authority which governors and security officials exercise in this domain, and which they irresponsibly use to hinder and delay the building or restoration of churches, or to inexplicably deny permits for such works.
As we waited in anticipation the passage of the above-mentioned law, a similar draft law drawn up by the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) was brought to my attention. I have no idea how far has this draft law been debated within the NCHR, but two particular articles caught my eye. The first states that:
“After conducting all the necessary surveys and consulting the relevant security bodies, the administration concerned should decide on the license application in no more than four months, or, in case of restoration or reinforcement works, two months.”
The second article which drew my attention is that the draft law specifies:
• The ‘administration concerned’ as “The governor of the district in which the place of worship requiring license lies;” and
• ‘The building authority’ as “that of the local government of the region in which the place of worship requiring restoration or reinforcement license lies.”
Otherwise, the draft law of the NCHR is altogether objective and balanced. The self-evident question is why the NCHR should formulate a draft unified law for places of worship while a one-and half-year-old draft law has already won the approval of the parliamentary proposals committee. The introduction of an alternative law by the NCHR could be understood if it proposes additional freedoms. But since the NCHR-sponsored draft law maintains political and security dominion intact, it appears that this move seeks to abort the longed-for goals of equality and citizenship rights.
An alternative draft law would waste the enormous time which the first took to pass through the parliamentary committee for proposals and complaints. I do not perceive any need to go through that again other than the keenness of the NCHR to preserve political and security sway over church building and restoration. Is this where, according to the NCHR, the first draft law fell short? And has the NCHR’s role diverted from defending human rights to defending the authorities’ rights? I really see this as a serious step backwards, with no other motive but to abduct the unified law for places of worship.