Egypt has second thoughts on law curbing opposition
Cairo — The new Egyptian law isn't on the books yet -- but it's on everyone tounges. It is sometimes called "the law of shame" of "the man of ethics," and President Sadat says it is necessary because of those in Egypt who are "exploiting freedom and democracy."
But for legions of activists, lawyers, judges, and university professors, it is a transparent attempt by the government to snuff out political opposition to the Sadat regime once and for all.
President Sadat declared his unqualified support for such a law in his latest speech to parliament.
"Clearly and unequivocally," he instructed parliamentarians, nearly all 392 of whom are members of his own National Democratic Party, "I would say: Cut every person [down] to size if he doesn't know shame. I would say that whoever doesn't know what shame means, he should be isolated before the people."
The shame Mr. Sadat talks about is primarily reserved for those who propagate rumors and false information designed to undermine the security of the state or who advocate ideologies alien to religion.
Provisions of the proposed law, soon to be debated in the Egyptian parliament , would also apply to anyone accused of encouraging young people to abandon religious or ethical values.
The "isolation" the President speaks of is political, and those found guilty under the legislation could be deprived of all avenues of political expression for up to five years.
Mr. Sadat's actual targets are well known: Marxists, religious extremists, and those who forces he claims want to return to the economic feudalism prevalent before the 1952 revolution, when the country was occupied by the British.
These groups, of course, hold widely disparate ideologies. But in Mr. Sadat's eyes, they apparently pose a genuine threat, especially now that Egypt has opened official diplomatic relations with Israel. In fact, however, they are effectively circumscribed by state-security organs, are without mass support , and have made no progress in forging a united front.
It is true that opponents of Mr. Sadat's overtures toward Israel have become more strident of late. The one opposition party with seats in parliament and with a newspaper of its own, the Socialist Labor Party, has actively urged Egyptians to boycott all forms of the new Israeli presence in Egypt.
The leftist National Progressive Unionist Party, one of Mr. Sadat's most persistent antagonists, now flies a huge Palestinian banner from its downtown headquarters to protest the normalization of relations with Israel and has held news conferences and rallies to publicize its views.
Syndicates of doctors, lawyers, and journalists have pledged to refrain from having professional contacts with Israel counterparts, while on two recent occasions thousands of Muslim fundamentalists gathered in the mosque of Al Azhar , Cairo's most revered Islamic center, to listen to firey speeches denouncing Egypt's new relationship with Israel.
Mr. Sadat's remarks and publication in the Egyptian press of the initial outlines of the law of ethics produced an anguished and surprisingly well-orchestrated reaction. The law has been denounced by the Cairo Bar Association, the executive committee of the Judges' Club, Cairo University law professors, and just about every politcally conscious Egyptian that one encounters these days in Cairo.
"If this law passes," says one of the latter, "I think Egypt will become one big prison."
That may be a bit of overstatement, because the law, according to Ministry of Justice officials, will not impose criminal penalties. But it nonetheless reflects the widespread anxiety of many in Cairo who now genuinely fear that freedom of political expression in Egypt is in jeopardy.
Their concern and the militancy of the opposition have apparently made an imprint on government authorities. In the past weeks Mr. Sadat, his Vice-President, and various spokesmen of his ruling National Democratic Party have all announced that the proposed legislation is still under study, that its final shape it still being drafted.
More significantly, the details of the law have been altered as well. To the horror of jurists, the proposal first called for a special seven-member tribunal , four of whom would have been members of parliament. Although the remaining three spots would have been filled with genuine judges, critics pointed out that as Mr. Sadat's party is in near virtual control of parliament, the tribunal could not be expected to render decisions against the wishes of the President.
Now, though, Justice Ministry officials say the suggested tribunal will exclude members of parliament and will consist of five judges and two persons from the general public, chosen by various judicial councils.
Nevertheless, the opposition has not been appeased. An article in the Socialist Labor Party newpaper condemned both versions of the law. Party leaders have charged that the legislation, if passed, would simply be used to shield the Sadat regime from any and all obstreperous criticism.
Prominent Cairo lawyers argue that the law is likely to be so broad and its provisions so vague, that it can be invoked to trap anyone who dares challenge the government.
"It's big enough for everything," one of them says. "You can include almost any political action within its limits. When it talks about provocation of young people to act against society, what does that mean specifically?"
To justify the law, President Sadat has said that Egypt is entering a crucial stage in its development, with billions of dollars in economic aid expected to flow in from foreign sources. The "executive authority," he says, must therefore be spared the burden of having to deal with politically motivated malcontents.
And other Egyptian officials argue that Egypt is moving steadily toward a fully democratic societ but must at this point remain vigilant and on guard against internal subversion.