In late 2021, the Egyptian parliament rejected a government proposal to amend the art-centric syndicates law. Although the law needs fundamental amendments, whether in relation to membership or the philosophy of the law itself, especially as no significant amendments have been introduced to the law since its approval, the proposed amendments were meant to restrict freedom of creativity and were insignificant compared to what the law needs to be an umbrella for protecting creativity and creative people in Egypt.
The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) believes that the current legislative round, which began in October, may be a good opportunity to discuss the law with bodies, institutions and individuals concerned with the law. The law should be amended in a way that ensures that art-centric syndicates will be open towards new and emerging artistic forms, instead of rejection, prevention and exclusion.
This paper discusses the amendments proposed by the government. It also proposes amendments in favour of freedom of creativity, as well as increasing the membership of art-centric syndicates and what this means in terms of increasing the syndicates’ resources. We hope this will be part of a series that deals in detail with the art-centric syndicates law from a perspective that supports freedom of artistic creativity.
In November 2021, the House of Representatives rejected government-drafted amendments to Law No. 35 of 1978 regarding the establishment of syndicates and the Union of Syndicates of Acting, Cinema, and Musical Professions. This came during a plenary session that discussed the proposed amendments in principle.
A joint parliamentary committee consisting of the Media, Culture and Antiquities, Plan and Budget, Constitutional and Legislative Affairs, and Manpower committees had approved a draft law submitted by the cabinet in September 2021, after introducing minor amendments that did not prejudice the content of the draft law. The committee, which was formed by parliament Speaker Hanafi al-Gebali, prepared a report on the law after it held meetings with the general union of art-centric syndicates.
The draft included three fundamental amendments to the law. The first replaces the penalty of imprisonment for practicing the profession without a permit, which is stipulated in Article 5 bis of the law, with a fine of not less than 10,000 pounds and not more than 100,000 pounds, provided that the fine shall be doubled in the event of repeating the violation. The abolition of the imprisonment penalty came in line with the ruling of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Case No. 66 of 31, which ruled that the imprisonment penalty stated in the aforementioned article is unconstitutional.
The second amendment provides for increasing the syndicate members’ registration fees, subsidy and pension funds, and other financial obligations. The five-pound registration fee stated in the first paragraph of Article 8 was replaced with 1,000 pounds, the five-pound re-registration fee stated in Article 13 was replaced with 3,000 pounds, the one-pound fee paid in the event of failure to vote, which is stated in Article 22, was replaced with 200 pounds, and the 100-millieme stamp fee stated in Article 39 was replaced with 50 pounds. Moreover, the four-pound annual subscription fee stated in Article 58 was replaced with 100 pounds, the 20-pound subsidy and pension fund fee stated in Item 3 of Article 62 was replaced with 200 pounds, and the 2% relative fee on work contracts and the 1% fee collected from the revenue of selling all types of artistic production, both stated in Item 10 of Article 75, were replaced with 3% each, with the aim of increasing the syndicate’s financial resources.
The third amendment added more articles, including Article 5 bis 1 on the establishment of a register in each syndicate to register art workshops and artists’ housing offices, and to obliging them to obtain a license from the competent syndicate in return for 1,000 pounds, provided that the license shall be renewed every three years for an amount of 500 pounds. The amendment also provided for a fine of not less than 10,000 pounds and not more than 100,000 pounds for whoever violates the law.
The bylaws of the competent syndicate set the conditions for licensing, renewal of licenses, administrative closure, suspension of licenses, its duration and status, and grievances against it, provided that these workshops are registered with the Tax Authority. Whoever violates the first paragraph of that article shall be punished with a fine of not less than 10,000 pounds and not more than 100,000 pounds, in addition to closing the facility. The fine shall be doubled in case of recurrence.
The amendment further added Article 70 bis, which authorizes the Minister of Justice, in agreement with the head of the syndicate, to issue a decision determining those who have the status of judicial officers in the event of violating the law.
It also added Item 13 of Article 75, which aimed at increasing the financial resources of the subsidy and pension fund by levying one pound from each ticket to enter cinemas, theaters… etc. The amendment exempted the tickets to attend shows and parties indicated in Article 6 of Law 24 of 1999 imposing a tax in return for entering theaters and other places of entertainment. This tax is aimed to cope with the economic changes and to increase the resources of the fund so it becomes more able to secure the future of the syndicate members against illness, disability and old age risks.
What’s after the bill was rejected?
AFTE sees the House of Representatives’ rejection of the government-drafted amendments as a victory for freedom of creativity, especially as these amendments give judicial powers to art-centric syndicates. These syndicates have nothing to do with judicial powers as they work only for the benefit of their members. The amendments also impose censorship restrictions on artists and creative people.
AFTE believes that the law on the establishment of art-centric syndicates should be amended in order to allow the syndicate to absorb the huge diversity of new arts and their practitioners, especially young people, and also to increase the syndicate’s resources to improve the services the syndicate provides to its members.
This raises a question about the fate of the government-drafted amendments. According to the parliament’s bylaws, a draft law or proposed amendments that were rejected should not be discussed during the same parliamentary round. Article 171 of the bylaws states that “every draft law rejected by the parliament may not be submitted again during the same legislative round”. This article came in line with Article 122 of the Egyptian constitution, which stipulates that “any bill or proposed law rejected by the House of Representatives may not be presented again during the same legislative round”.
AFTE believes that the government should respect the parliament’s rejection of the draft law, especially with regard to the article that grants judicial powers to the syndicate members. The government should resubmit the proposed amendments during the current legislative round, which started in October 2022.
In order to draft amendments that allow new and emerging arts to work under the umbrella of union protection, and in order to maximize the syndicate’s resources in a way that allows for increased support for the syndicate members, the parliament and the government should hold a series of meetings that should be attended not only by representatives of art-centric syndicates but also by human rights groups and practitioners who face problems in union registration, such as mahraganat and rap singers and Islamic chanting singers, who declared their desire to quit the Syndicate of Musical Professions, and others. The meetings should be also attended by representatives from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, to ensure that representatives and practitioners of arts in Egypt will be engaged in the discussion.
In this regard, Article 77 of the Egyptian constitution stipulates the necessity of taking the opinion of the concerned syndicates when drafting their laws. It states: “The law shall regulate the establishment and administration of professional syndicates on a democratic basis, guarantee their independence, and specify their resources and the way members are registered and held accountable for their behavior while performing their professional activities, according to ethical codes of moral and professional conduct. No profession may establish more than one syndicate. Receivership may not be imposed nor may administrative bodies intervene in the affairs of such syndicates, and their boards of directors may only be dissolved by a judicial ruling. All legislation pertaining to a given profession shall be submitted to the relevant syndicate for consultation.”
Likewise, Article 158 of the parliament’s bylaws stipulates that the opinion of the relevant bodies and agencies should be taken into account when drafting the laws regulating their work.
What amendments are we talking about?
There is no doubt that the law on the establishment of art-centric syndicates needs to be reviewed, especially in light of the current economic situation and the social and political changes that have taken place since it was endorsed in 1978. Two amendments have been introduced to this law since then, the first was made by late president Sadat under Law No. 103 of 1987, and the second by late president Mubarak under Law No. 8 of 2003. The first amendment introduced Article 5 bis, a controversial article that provides for imprisonment or a fine, or both, as a punishment for practicing the profession without a permit. There were also amendments related to the internal system of the syndicate, with regard to the general assembly, the syndicate council, and the establishment of the general union of the three syndicates.
The amendment made in 2003 mainly specified the period of imprisonment prescribed in Article 5 bis, making it one to three months. It also increased the fine prescribed in the same article. This amendment circumvented the ruling of the Constitutional Court in Case No. 2 of 15, which ruled in 1997 that imprisonment is unconstitutional as a penalty for practicing the profession without a permit. The amendment just limited the period of imprisonment instead of cancelling it in line with the ruling. A similar ruling was issued in Case No. 66 of 31 in 2021, also ruling that Article 5 bis of the law was unconstitutional.
Accordingly, the development of the law can be considered on two levels, as follows:
– With regard to increasing the syndicate’s fees: In order to increase the syndicate’s resources, the amendment replaces the five-pound fee of registration and re-registration with 1,000 and 3,000 pounds respectively. AFTE believes that the proposed increases, especially with regard to membership, are not in line with the average per capita income in Egypt, which amounts to 1,700 pounds per month. Also, the increases are not in line with the syndicates’ revenues, compared to their financial obligations and expenses. We should consider other ways to increase the syndicate’s resources other than increasing the fees, including the attraction of new members and the employment of existing members, as this will increase the syndicate’s resources, given the fact that the registration fees, subscriptions, and profession practice licenses are key resources. Therefore, the employment of syndicate members and the attraction of new members will enhance the resources. Despite the syndicate’s need to increase the fees, AFTE believes that the increases proposed by the amendment should be reviewed.
According to the latest annual statistics released by the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics in 2020, the revenues of the syndicates of acting, cinema and musical professions amounted to 23,363,000, 5,755,000, and 3,708,000 pounds respectively, while their expenses hit 23,032,000, 764,000, and 24,526,000 pounds respectively.
The syndicates of acting and cinema achieved a budget surplus of 5 million pounds. Although the number of members of the Syndicate of Musical Professions exceeds that of the Syndicate of Acting by more than 1,500, the revenue of the latter exceeds that of the former by more than 19 million pounds. This could be attributed to the Syndicate of Musical Professions’ repressive performance, which is based on prevention in the first place. The revenues collected from the fees of registration and the practice of the profession are one of the most important financial resources of the syndicates.
– With regard to practicing the profession without a permit: Article 5 bis of the law on the establishment of art-centric syndicates has been the subject of widespread controversy among practitioners of the profession for years. Although it was reformulated in all amendments that have been made since the law was endorsed, it is still one of the most restrictive articles for freedom of creativity, whether by imposing custodial penalties and/or a financial fine on those who practice the profession without a permit, or by imposing a fine ranging between 10,000 and 100,000 pounds that shall be doubled in the event of repeating the “violation”, as stated in the current proposed amendment.
The crisis of practicing the profession without a permit is not only related to the art-centric syndicates law, but it is a prolonged crisis that has to do with the difference between the professional and labour aspects. The law distinguishes between the status of professional syndicates and that of trade unions. The former, according to the law, are public persons or professional public institutions entrusted by the state with regulating the affairs of a profession that individuals practice freely for their own benefit and under their own responsibility. As the law grants some public powers to these syndicates, they should be established under a law and should aim to achieve the public interests. As for the trade unions, the state does not grant them public powers, such as forcing individuals to join or to stay. So, such syndicates are established by the will of their organizers only and not by law.
AFTE believes that there is a crisis in dealing with creative and artistic works on equal footing with many other professions, such as medicine, engineering and other professions whose practice without permit may affect the lives of individuals, which is far from the nature of creative and artistic works. This limited view contributed to restricting and censoring the content of these works, and prevented individuals from practicing the profession for political, social, or ethical reasons, or for not obtaining a permit.
Although it is important to obtain permits to practice many professions, we believe that syndicates should limit these permits in favour of their original role in defending their members. Such permits should be issued by an independent body. Creativity is a free position through which people express themselves, so its practice does not require this type of permit, especially since social media platforms have become the primary means for many creative people and artists around the world to publish their work. Therefore, if the art-centric syndicates continue to grant or prevent permits and require the practitioners to join them, this will not only restrict the freedom of creativity, but will also jeopardize the freedom of joining syndicates.
In order to comply with the standards of union freedom, members should have the right to join or not join art-centric syndicates. Although the current amendment, which was rejected by the parliament, is a positive development in favour of creative people, especially after the abolition of custodial penalties for practicing the profession without a permit, imposing financial fines and doubling them in the event of repeating the violation remain a shortcoming in understanding creativity. This contradicts the nature of union organization, as it is a free choice for those who want to join, and not an obligation to practice the profession, especially when it comes to arts.
There is no doubt that the art-centric syndicates law needs to be reconsidered, especially in light of the successive political and economic changes. However, AFTE believes that amendments to the law must first be based on freedom of creativity as a free position for individuals, instead of restriction and prevention. The government and parliament should ensure a real, serious and diverse representation of individuals who practice the profession, and not just syndicate councils, in order to formulate amendments that support freedom of artistic creativity, taking into account the practitioners who were prevented from or faced problems in joining syndicates.