I intended to write about the fifth anniversary of the 25 January revolution this week, to join in the conversation carried out over valuable articles and comments by colleagues and friends. But I’ll postpone that for a week in view of the urgency of commenting on the rejection by parliament of the Civil Service Law, which will be resubmitted by the government next week.
In an article for these pages in mid-August, I said the Civil Service Law was overall a major step towards reform, constituting a serious attempt to correct procedures for announcing vacant positions in the bureaucracy, testing applicants, appointing civil servants, measuring their performance, and regulating their promotion and end of service.
Even so, I favoured tabling the law until the parliament convened for several reasons: passing such an important piece of legislation in the absence of a parliament contravenes the spirit of the legislative mandate granted to the president, to be used only in cases of urgency or necessity; all the substantive details of the law were deferred to the implementing regulations issued by the cabinet, meaning the government could amend the law in the future without conferring with parliament; certain classes of civil servants were excluded from the law, which further entrenched job discrimination within the state administration; the law was vague on the determination of annual bonuses; and the law went into effect just three months after adoption, but it would take at least two years to operationalise its human resource provisions.
For all these reasons, the law should have waited for discussion in parliament, to clear up ambiguities, correct the flaws, and set a realistic timetable for implementation, thus ensuring the public understood and accepted the law.
In rejecting the Civil Service Law, the parliament is only exercising its authority under Article 156 of the constitution. Indeed, it only objected to this law among the 340 laws put to it, all of which it approved with lightening speed and at times without serious debate.
As a result, some unconstitutional laws have received the final endorsement. The debate on the investment law, for example, lasted just a few minutes, despite the substantial harm it caused to the investment climate. It was public interest in the Civil Service Law and the fact that millions of civil servants and their families are deeply touched by it that made it the sole law rejected by the assembly.
It is not, however, a crisis for the law to be referred for further debate, for parliament to claim its authority at least for this legislation, and for the government to be forced to justify its stance to MPs and the public. That is natural. The state could have seized the rejection of the law as a chance to correct its flaws, familiarise the public with it, and affirm its legitimacy. The problem is that it portrayed the parliament’s rejection as a political gambit and refusal to toe the line, warning that the move would cost Egypt international loans and aid and increase the deficit. This not only harms state credibility but the credibility of the parliament as well.
Moreover, the claim that leaving such a complex law to a messy, inexperienced assembly might result in a defective law is problematic. It ignores that the task of parliaments around the world is not to issue the most well-written, sophisticated laws — that could be achieved by a group of legal experts.
No, the job of parliament is to issue laws that express the people’s will and the view of MPs, even if less precisely formulated or at odds with the government line. A discussion of legislation lets the public keep abreast of government proposals and develop an opinion, thus lending these proposals legitimacy.
The debate over the Civil Service Law is not only about which articles will stay and which will go, but about the state’s view of the parliament’s role: does it see the assembly as an independent representative of the people or just a rubber-stamp body to do the government’s bidding?
Again, the overhaul of the state administrative apparatus the law seeks is good; it deserves a second hearing, but on the condition that it include all the vital provisions deferred to the implementing regulations and that it apply to all civil servants. It should also clear up wage and bonus issues and be implemented in stages. If issued in this way, we will have a threefold gain; a good law, social acceptance and credibility for the parliament.