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Egypt’s Pseudo-Democracy
Egypt’s Pseudo-Democracy
After a period of relative tolerance of political opposition, Egypt’s governing regime saw that democracy is not exactly the kind of policy that may help.
Wednesday, November 14,2007 22:12
IkhwanWeb

After a period of relative tolerance of political opposition, Egypt"s governing regime saw that democracy is not exactly the kind of policy that may help. With a rising opposition, Mubarak felt that his throne was being challenged and his NDP regime had no alternative but to violently reverse course starting 2005. Since then, the Egyptian government has been routinely and randomly violating its citizen’s civil and political rights. Even the constitutional amendments were apparently meant to help Mubarak’s regime maintain an iron grip on Egypt’s political sphere. It then seems to me most ironic when I hear National Democratic Party officials still bragging about the unprecedented wave of democracy and freedom Egypt is enjoying thanks to the wise policies upheld by their leaders. The following is a rather detailed account of these policies, which, to everybody"s surprise, culminated with the very telling slogan chosen for the NDP’s latest congress: "With us our country moves forward".


Constitutional Amendments: the beginning of the end


February 2005 marked the beginning of a brand new era of authoritarianism and monopoly of power by a regime permanently trying to hide behind a facade of democracy and constitutional legitimacy: President Mubarak initiated constitutional changes, approved by the NDP-controlled Parliament in early May, which provided for the country’s first direct, multi-party presidential elections.

However, the picture was not very democratic as it might seem. The government mandated that only officially approved parties could field presidential candidates, thereby placing a nearly insurmountable hurdle for nomination in the paths of many potential candidates. No wonder the reaction of key opposition groups was to boycott the constitutional referendum. On May 25, 2005 the referendum was held and the amendment passed, although the results were disputed. As usual, voter turnout was low: estimates by nongovernmental analysts ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent, although the government estimated more than 50 percent! The validity of the referendum results, and thus the proposed changes, were questioned by various segments of society, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the umbrella opposition group Kifaya.

The true face of these amendments was yet more evident when the parliament -following the referendum- promulgated Law No. 174 (2005), which stipulates that all parties seeking to nominate a presidential candidate must have operated for five continuous years. Additionally, a party was ineligible to nominate a candidate unless it held 5 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council (a 2007 amendment to the constitution reduced this to 3 percent). To further complicate the situation, any independent (e.g., Muslim Brotherhood) applicant must be supported by 250 elected officials, including 65 from the people’s assembly, 25 from the Shura Council, and 10 from Local Councils in at least 14 governorates. By requiring signatures from elected officials in parliament or other elected bodies that are all controlled by the NDP, the law plainly places enormous obstacles in the path of prospective future opposition presidential candidates. Moreover, requiring opposition parties to have at least 3 percent of the seats in parliament in order to run their own candidate in practice excludes all but the NDP.

Another controversial amendment was an amendment to article 62, which permits changes to the electoral system, moving away from the current candidate-centered system to a mixed one that depends mostly on party lists, leaving only a small, unspecified margin for independent seats. It is widely acknowledged that this amendment was designed for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has relied on the candidate-centered setup for running members as independents. That’s why there is little doubt on the part of objective observers that these provisions are intended to thwart democratic development in Egypt.

Furthermore, Mubarak proposed thirty-four incremental amendments to the constitution in December 2006. The Egyptian Parliament approved them on March 19, 2007, and a public referendum was scheduled for March 26. Numerous independent commentators suggested the government hastened the pace of the vote to prevent the opposition from mounting a meaningful campaign, resulting in a boycott by opposition groups, topped by the Brotherhood and Kifaya. Most importantly, however, was the fact that the amendments were primarily an effort to “constitutionalize” aspects of the Emergency rule through the amendment to article 179 of the Egyptian constitution which would pave the way for the introduction of a new anti-terrorism law in 2008.

The state of emergency has been in effect without interruption since October 1981. The government renewed the Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958) in April 2006 for an additional two years. Although Hosni Mubarak during the September 2005 presidential re-election campaign said that he would allow it to expire, officials claimed the renewal was necessary because they had not yet drafted what Mubarak termed “a firm and decisive law that eliminates terrorism and uproots its threats.” Paradoxically, that law would represent the greatest threat to human rights guarantees in the future by enabling the authorities to arrest suspects, search their homes, intercept their mail and eavesdrop their conversations without a judicial mandate. In light of the above, the new anti-terrorism law would undermine the principle of individual freedom [Article 41 (1)], privacy of the home [Article 44 ] and privacy of correspondence, telephone calls and other communication [Article 45 (2)].

 

This caused deep concerns among multiple opposition voices, intellectuals, journalists, and human rights organizations. Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a senior Wafd official and a political analyst with Al-Ahram, expressed his fear that “the anti-terror law will widen the gap between the NDP and opposition and further polarise the nation into rival camps.” Amnesty International, in its news release entitled: “Egypt: Proposed Constitutional Amendments Greatest Erosion of Human Rights in 26 Years,” dismissed the amendments as “the most serious undermining of human rights safeguards in Egypt since the state of Emergency was re-imposed in 1981.”


Election Fraud:

These grievances were coupled with wide-ranging election fraud in presidential and parliamentary elections of 2005, in addition to the referendum on Mubarak’s proposed constitutional amendments. The referendum of May 2005 as well as the presidential elections of September witnessed widespread fraud and low voter turnout, and contradictory estimates were the hallmark of the elections, as mentioned above.


In the presidential election interference with the vote included vote buying, voter coercion, and the provision of premarked, pro-Mubarak ballots that facilitated access to the polls. The same applies to the 2005 parliamentary elections when voters and candidates were mistreated by thugs and gangs, and many Brotherhood members were arrested in response to their strong showing in the first round of the elections. Likewise, in the 2007 referendum, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights observed premarked ballot cards and mass voting via public busing of public employees, as well as bribes and other illegal inducements. This chaos is emblematic of the illegitimacy of Egypt’s governing regime whose authority is not rooted in the will of the people.


An Assault on Judicial Independence:


Judicial independence has suffered as well. The Higher Judicial Council’s authority has been cancelled in practice by virtue of a 2007 amendment to the constitution, which states “Every judicial body shall assume its own affairs. A council shall be formed to join the chiefs of the judicial bodies chaired by the President of the Republic to care for its common affairs. The law shall prescribe its formation, its competencies, and its rules of action.” In this respect, the 2007 Freedom House Report stated: “while this could be perceived as part of an effort to grant increased independence to the judiciary, in reality, it is more likely an attempt to further consolidate executive authority over the judiciary under the guise of positive constitutional change.” Specifically, judicial independence waned in the 2005 elections and their aftermath when judicial scrutiny of those processes resulted in accusations of government’s fraud and misconduct. This led to government’s retaliation in April 2006 when Mahmoud Mekki and Hisham Bastawisi -two senior judges- were called before a disciplinary board and threatened with dismissal.


Military Tribunals:

Perhaps such shocking disrespect of the Judiciary reached its peak on February, 9th 2007 when senior Muslim Brothers were referred to a military tribunal. After arresting 17 MB members in December 2006 on charges of money laundering and terror, Cairo Criminal Court ruled that all charges brought by the Egyptian government against these people were groundless and politically motivated, and hence it ordered their immediate release with immediate effect and without bail. Nevertheless, the Interior Ministry on its part issued an arrest warrant against all the detainees, who, ironically enough, left the courtroom directly to prison, and then the State Security Attorney submitted an application to the Attorney General requesting the confiscation of the monies of the defendants, their spouses, and children preventing wives and children from using their money or access their bank accounts, which are to be managed by the National Egyptian Bank.

 
President Mubarak, in his capacity as the military governor, shortly ordered their referral to a military tribunal, and this was never withdrawn although Cairo Criminal Court issued a ruling on March 29th 2007 of releasing 8 MB detained leaders, including Khairat El-Shater, and annulling the Interior Minister’s arrest warrant.

Rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch strenuously condemned these violations: "Re-arresting these men moments after their acquittal shows a complete contempt for the rule of law and shocking disrespect for the court ... This escalation in the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood has worrying implications for anyone who peacefully campaigns for change," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch on February 15, 2007. Irene Khan, Amnesty Secretary General, also opposed the military trials saying that “their use for highly-charged political cases - such as the current trial of leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood- suggests that the defendants may be denied a fair trial.”


The PPAC: freedom of assembly under siege

In my examination of the status of democracy under NDP rule, I cannot bypass one of the major tools for Mubarak’s dictatorship, namely the Political Parties Affairs Committee (PPAC), through which his regime maintains strict controls over freedom of assembly. The committee is headed by the chair of the NDP-dominated Shura council. It was established according to an amendment to the Political Parties Law (Law 40/1956) providing that new parties be automatically registered unless the PPAC rejects the application. The revised law also enables the PPAC to suspend an existing party’s activities if it views this to be “in the national interest.”

 Not surprisingly, the Committee in question denied Al-Wasat Party licence three times since 1995, and similarly refused to acknowledge other parties including Al-Karama and Al-Amal. Al-Wasat led by Abolela Mady, and Al-Amal, led by Muhammed Semman, adopted agendas akin to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist ideology and even some MB members contributed to the agendas of both. It was the same committee which prevented 12 parties in one year (2006) from gaining licence. Given the above, a Muslim Brotherhood party will almost certainly face the disapproval of the Committee, as numerous representatives of the movement frequently asserted. The PPAC, therefore, grants the NDP an absolute control of parties’ abilities to function, which made Human Rights Watch describe the PPAC as “the president’s and ruling party’s primary lever for controlling Egypt’s political landscape.”

 

Freedom of Expression:


 Perhaps the last straw was Mubarak’s rather unscrupulous attempt to muzzle press freedom on September 13, when a Cairo misdemeanor court sentenced four editors of independent and opposition newspapers to a maximum one year in prison and a $3,500 fine for violating Article 188 of the penal code.

The day was referred to as “9/13th massacre” by Wael Ebrashi, editor of Sawtoloma, and the “war on press freedom” by the Journalists’ Syndicate. It was absolutely the most violent and rash step taken by this regime against free expression, indeed an outrageous one! The crime in this case is “libel”. What Ibrahim Issa, editor of the daily Dostur, and his co-defendants did was writing articles about President Mubarak’s rumored health problems. This was “likely to disturb public order” according to the court ruling. The ruling came in response to a case filed in November 2006 by lawyers Ibrahim Abdelrasul and Hossam Mahfooz, who cited their National Democratic Party membership as grounds for filing the complaint accusing the four editors of defaming he president and senior officials of the NDP, “which has a negative effect on national sentiments as well as the sense of belonging to the NDP whose leader is the president of the republic.”

Legal experts highlighted the fact that the court ruling did not define the kind of “false news” published in the four newspapers, thus lacking any material evidence in the case. Some commentators blew the whistle on the ruling, saying it voices concern with the reputation of the NDP and its officials without the least worry about the interest of the community. “Article 188,” said Lawyer Essam Sultan, in an interview with the daily Al Dostur, “has been in place since the first world war. Publishing false news at that time was an accusation filed against nationalists who had a prominent role in raising people’s awareness concerning their rights which were violated by the British occupation. The NDP, therefore, considers freedom of the press equal to the threat posed by nationalists facing occupation!!”

It is clear then Egypt is passing through one of its worst political phases, when the Judicial authority is shamelessly exploited by the executive branch to intimidate opponents and smash free pens. Ibrahim Issa’s crime was more or less a call for the president “to come down from the status of the pharaoh to that of a human being,” as he once wrote.

What completed the farce, however, was that address delivered by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Sayed Tantawi in which he tried to flatter Mubarak during a religious celebration saying libel could be punished by flogging. Tantawi stated that he who commits libel should be flogged 80 times, alleging that such punishment was mentioned in the Holy Quran. Although the case mentioned in the Quranic verse deals with libeling virtuous women without proof, Tantawi stressed that such punishment should be generalized and applied to whoever harms the dignity and reputation of “honorable men.” Of course the remarks signaled a flagrant manipulation of Quranic verses which was seen by opposition leaders and journalists as a justification for the government’s crackdown against journalists.

The above were the outstanding accomplishments of the NDP in 3 years. The National Democratic Party’s policies in three years of governance have caused the disillusion of millions of Egyptians who are now quite assured that the latter is neither democratic, nor nationalist, nor is it in any sense a party. Even in its annual congress, NDP officials could not refrain from praising the bright age of democracy and freedom which the Egyptian people are blessed with. To ensure this, Mubarak was re-elected as the party’s leader and his son guaranteed succession through two serious additions to the party platform: the NDP congress should be convened each four (instead of five) years, which means that the 10th congress will be held in the year 2011, the year of presidential elections; the NDP General Secretariat and the Political Bureau will be united to form what is called the Higher Board, from which the president can be nominated. Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution states that parties can only nominate their presidential candidates from their Political Bureaus, and thus Gamal Mubarak was ineligible to run for presidency without the merger-he is the chairman of the General Secretariat.


Now Egypt is facing enormous challenges ahead. The future seems to be drawn by the whims of Mubarak and his men who manipulated, or say sewed the country’s laws to pave the way for the devilish inheritance plan and further monopoly of power, inhibiting almost all advances made by opposition groups to exercise their minimum political rights. The Egyptian regime has completely lost its credibility in the eyes of its people. It is high time then for world powers to re-examine their support for this pseudo-democratic regime and for the Egyptian people to start honest and constructive efforts to rebuild what their rulers have destroyed.


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