On the 3rd of December 2017 and while the world was celebrating the International Day of Disability, The Egyptian parliament approved the bill of a new legislation that was described as a ‘historic law’ because it would grant unprecedented facilitations, rights and more empowerment to the persons with disabilities (PWD) in the country. Earlier in April of the same year, The Egyptian President El Sisi announced that 2018 was going to be the year of persons with disability in Egypt.
According to the Egyptian constitution, in action since 2014, and specifically in article 81 “The state shall guarantee the health, economic, social, cultural, entertainment, sporting and education rights of dwarves and PWD. It would as well provide work opportunities and dedicate a certain percentage of these opportunities to them…The state guarantees their right to exercise their political rights.” In conformation to the mentioned article, the 2015 parliamentary elections obliged the proportional lists running in all constituencies to include at least eight candidates of PWD as a special one-time quota. The current Parliament of Egypt (2015-2020) has nine PWD MPs of which eight were elected in addition to one who was appointed by the President.
The law was drafted and proposed by one of the PWD Parliament elected members; the MP Dr Heba Hagrass who is an international disability consultant as well one of the most known Egyptian activists for the rights of PWD community. Hagrass is also a known researcher, member of the National Council of Women as well as the previous secretary general of the Egyptian National Council of PWD. The final draft was the result of combined efforts by the committee of “Social Solidarity, Family and PWD” in the Egyptian Parliament, of which Hagrass is a member, in addition to the government proposal presented by the ministry of Social Solidarity which is the executive authority, mainly, in charge of disability and PWD in Egypt. On the 26th of December 2017, the final version of the law was accepted after a vote in the parliament which gave the government a period of one year to implement all of its articles.
Hopes and gains
Hagrass describes the new law as comprehensive. Unlike the 1975 law of rehabilitation and employment (Law no.39/1975) that granted the PWD 5% of jobs in public sector institutions that has fifty employees or more; the new legislation tackles almost all issues related to the PWD such as housing, employment, education, health insurance, accessibility, representation, sports, transportation, tax exemption and even entertainment and tourism.
A human rights perspective rather than charity or philanthropic approach is obvious in this new law. The legislators made sure to assert, along the 55 articles of the law, that PWD are equal citizens to other Egyptians and they have long been ignored or discriminated against. Hence, even the articles where affirmative discrimination is practiced with certain quotas, exemptions or facilitations; it is considered a practice aiming to the integration and inclusion of the PWD in the Egyptian society as equal citizens who have rights and obligations and not a group or individuals deserving charity support.
The new law practically defines several terms related to the PWD. Article2 of the law defines who is a PWD, while article 3 gives detailed definitions to other key terms such as disability, social protection, dwarfism, empowerment, accessibility, disability-based bias and or discrimination, integration, facilitative arrangements, rehabilitation, PWD registration as well as engineering code. These definitions hopefully will make it easier for the legislators to issue the longed for by-laws to implement the law and will also help the government, municipalities and executive authorities to comply with the law and put it into action.
The opening statement of the law guaranteed that it would be applied equally on the foreign residents, on reciprocated basis, with no differentiation from Egyptian PWD citizens. This statement is very important in light of the influx of Syrian, Libyan, Iraqi, Yemeni and other refugees who flooded Egypt since 2011; in addition to other Sudanese, Palestinians and other African refugees who have resided in the country for decades.
Caregivers were not ignored while drafting and discussing the law thanks to the heavy involvement of the PWD community in the process. Most of the articles that focused on those who are accompanying the PWD were suggested, drafted and insisted on by the PWD parliament members or during the hearings where PWD from NGOs and civil society activists were present and explained in-depth that importance of the articles related to their caregivers.
According to the new law, a caregiver of a 1st or 2nd degree to a PWD will be dismissed earlier “one paid hour” daily from his or her work in either public or private sector. Article 29 also enables caregivers an exemption of taxes, customs and registration fees to import, register and drive an equipped vehicle on behalf of the PWD that they are taking care of; a demand that has been long asked for especially from the blind and visually impaired Egyptians.
Access to education and accessibility at the educational facilities such as schools and universities are guaranteed by the new law which even bans schools from allocating students with disability in higher floors which would threaten their lives and safety. Several articles are stating the duties of the state towards educational empowering of PWD. By this law, the state is obliged to help the PWD with continuous education and literacy schooling if they are older than the age of regular schooling.
Affirmative discrimination and binding quotas are guaranteed by this law. PWD will be empowered with 5% of jobs in public and private sector, 5% of the state (subsided) housing units, 5% of school and university seats, 10% of places in public universities’ dorms in addition to decrease in income tax and fees of several official services. The state will pay the PWD a welfare monthly salary which was first legalized in 2010 but the by-laws to be issued will detail the amount and the conditions on which it will be paid.
Skepticism and worries
One of the main fears of the PWD community in Egypt is the lack of information about their numbers and related statistics. The 2017 national census affirmed that 13.3% of the Egyptian population is PWD, which means that, with their families, they form the largest minority/special group in the country. A percentage that complies with the estimates claimed by the WHO for decades and no one in Egypt wanted to confirm until this year. The new law obliged the state to start a national process to register PWD of all categories as well as dwarves. The concerns are that with the new privileges guaranteed by this law, some would try to claim a disability that is not real and cause injustices to the PWD who should be the real beneficiaries by the new law. It would also be a back door for corruption or forgery. The PWDs would pay the price for such deeds and that would hinder the whole process of implementing the law that would make their lives better. The mechanism, of which the government is going to register the PWD and issue them a national PWD ID card, is not announced yet. However, it will be one of the milestones that would open the door for the effectiveness of the law or perhaps lead to problems that would jeopardize the whole process. Several articles of the law asserted the incrimination and punishment by imprisonment and financial fine in case someone falsely claimed his/her disability and equally in case a person hides a PWD from official registration specially children or mentally disabled persons.
Regarding employment and PWD quota, the PWD community recalls the 39/1975 law mentioned above that is rarely applied and have been ignored and resisted for more than 40 years. The parliamentary members behind drafting and issuing the law themselves commented in several media appearances that their joy for this success won’t be complete until the finalizing of the by-laws, regulatory statutes and ministerial decrees which will put the articles into implementation.
For economic experts and financial analysts the skepticism was higher and widely expressed. The first obstacle a head of the new law can be seen in alignment with the economic and financial crisis that Egypt is suffering. The 2017 law includes many articles that need enormous cuts and redirections of the public expenditure. The articles regarding accessibility and changing the building code of millions of edifices in the country especially in places of public interest such as governmental offices, public authorities, universities, etc.., would be translated into billions of dollars whether for new establishments or alterations of the already existing ones, of which many are far from the PWD friendly code. Another major financial burden to the public treasury would result also from the article allowing a disabled employee to be paid a salary as well a 1st degree relative pension as well; a privilege that no other group of Egyptians legally ever enjoyed. The ability of the public treasury to double-pay hundreds of thousands of Egyptians monthly is highly doubted.
Legal concerns around the new law are significant as well. Several articles could be annulled due to contradiction with the Egyptian constitution or even frozen due to impossibility of implementation. The articles about banning and punishing those who make fun of PWD in media, films or public spaces is very controversial and raises questions about how and who would sue the accused and who would label a certain production as offensive. Another article regarding the freedom of marriage and starting a family would contradict with Islamic Shariaa and Egyptian law when it comes to licensing the persons with mental disability to get married. Actually the whole notion of quotas, financial exemptions, exceptions and affirmative discrimination is in fact a grand door for un-conistutionalize several articles of this promising law.
The cultural barrier also is a main concern. Goals such as integrated education and integrated workplaces would be met with resistance from the society that is not usually hostile to PWD yet might not welcome their inclusion in places they are not usually seen sharing. Despite that Egypt has launched two higher education faculties in Beni-Sueif and Zagazig (public universities) to graduate specialists in PWD studies and trained in issues of integration, it would take the country decades to provide enough specialized staff nevertheless train ordinary educators and work supervisors on how to integrate a PWD in a workplace or educational environment.
The Egyptian PWD community seems to appreciate the public and official interest in their issues and demands; however, they know how complicated and accumulated their problems are in a way that makes a small room for optimism. The PWD in Egypt has a long and tensed year ahead. This year, 2018, would be historically remembered as a successful and productive one, or may be remembered as the most disappointing after a major rise of hope and enthusiasm.