By Rania Al Malky
CAIRO: Following two months of closure, shrouded in mystery and plagued by vague rumors, the Egyptian Stock Exchange finally opened Wednesday, exceeding all expectations. By the end of trading Thursday the broader EGX 100 index closed up 0.86 percent, while the main EGX 30 fell merely 3.73 percent, a far cry from the 8.9 percent both indices shed just one day before.
The optimism emanating from referendum day Saturday and the overwhelming 77.2 yes vote for the constitutional amendments clearly contributed to the positive mood in Egypt, but this does not, however, convey the full picture.
As the investigations into the corruption and crime allegations against figureheads of the old regime continue to dominate public interest, a growing intolerance by both the government and the ruling army council for street action has started to surface.
On Wednesday, Cabinet approved a draft bill penalizing “some protests, sit-ins and gatherings that use violence, vandalize public property, obstruct people from reaching their jobs or obstruct the flow of traffic”.
The excessive punishment for these broad and elastic “crimes” include imprisonment and up to LE 500,000 fines.
Despite my oft-repeated opinion that protests must stop to avoid Egypt descending into absolute chaos, let alone a complete economic breakdown that will see hundreds of thousands of people lose their jobs, the proposed rather excessive measure can only be counter-productive, especially if continues to be so vague-worded.
Before proposing such a bill that is in such stark violation of international labor laws and the human right to go on strike, Cabinet should have taken a closer look at the biggest remaining protests and dealt with them individually through the designated minister.
Just as the Minister of Interior contained the protests by low-ranking policemen through a frank and firm dialogue with a delegation of 12 protesters last week, both the Higher Press Council, headed by deputy Prim Minister Yehia El-Gamal and the head of Egyptian Radio and Television Union, must address the grievances and demands of the “Maspero Protesters” who, among other requests, are demanding an overhaul of the media leaderships including a change of the editors in chief of state-run newspapers, moves that have inexplicably been delayed.
Workers have naturally rejected the proposal, saying that they have never stopped labor movements from holding protests and strikes especially because they are fuelled by legitimate demands.
Perhaps the suggestion proposed by Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services, to ask the Ministry of Finance to establish a committee comprising workers, business owners, government officials and experts to run negotiations is the only way out of this stalemate.
Under no circumstances should the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces ratify this proposed bill because doing so may have an immediate deterrent effect, but the negative long-term ramifications of such a move will be a very heavy price to pay. Maintaining the confidence between the people and the army and the people and cabinet must continue to be the top priority and such a proposal can only lead to a loss of trust.
Between the two extremes of continued, daily protests that will debilitate the economy and harm millions of Egyptians, and imposing harsh, unfair punishments to such vague crimes, there is a grey area in which a compromise can be reached.
The slogan of the January 25 Revolution was “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice”. The society as a whole, not just the authorities in charge, must remain true to the spirit this incredible triumph of the Egyptian people.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.