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13 Jul 2006: ISS Today: The Political Reform Process in Egypt
13 July 2006

13 July 2006: The Political Reform Process in Egypt
Anneli Botha, ISS

 

There is a tenuous link between (apparent) human rights records and levels of democracy (1). In the aftermath of 9/11 it can be argued that countries such as the United States and Britain are becoming less democratic. Countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa, some of which have questionable human rights records, are increasingly at pains to present as becoming more democratic. Nevertheless, establishing a democratic culture requires time and effort in the search for balance between state security and human security. One of the primary challenges governments face is to resist a return to the status quo, especially as its citizenry become impatient for change. In Egypt, political reform has been on the table for a number of years: economic reform received attention first while the real glimpse of political reform came during 2005. A brief overview will be given on the process up till now, analyzing the government’s resolve to implement the envisaged political reforms.

 

In February 2005 President Mubarak`s requested parliament to amend Article 76 of the Constitution to allow for direct multi-candidate elections for the presidential elections scheduled for 7 September 2005. This was the first time in Egypt’s history that the Egyptian electorate could chose between more than one candidate, and marked a historic turning point in Egypt`s political existence. During the same period President Mubarak also set the stage for further reform initiatives, which he referred to as the ten principles guiding the coming phase of national action and reform. Included were, inter alia, the following: (2)

  1. “We shall abide by the concept of citizenship as the basis for complete equality in rights and duties between all Egyptians, regardless of beliefs, sex, creed or religion.
  2. We must strengthen the respect for the fundamental rights of citizens of all strata to a secure life, characterized by freedom and safeguarded by equality before the law.
  3. We must fortify the principles of the sovereignty of the law, the binding word of the judiciary, and complete and impartial justice.
  4. We must maximize efforts to modernize the structure of the relationship between the citizen and the state; and
  5. We must stimulate the performance of political parties, and provide incentives for the contributions of civil society bodies to better enable them to undertake their role as essential mechanisms for strengthening democracy, and promoting broader public participation.”

 

This decision was interpreted as a new and dynamic era of political reform and development. Since this announcement and consequent amendment in the Constitution, the Egyptian government through its actions has begun to give the impression that its actions are not in accord with stated intent, with some process slowing down, others being reversed.

 

The first indication was during the parliamentary elections that took place in three stages from 7 November till 9 December 2005: The ban on the Muslim Brotherhood was and still is enforced, opening the door for arrests and prosecutions, especially before elections and during periods of dissent. Although the party is not allowed to formally participate in the political process, 88 of its members were elected as independents. Questioning the fairness of elections, including the possibility of an impartial security force, gave rise to a number of incidents: During the period 9 November till 7 December 2005 10 people were killed, hundreds wounded and more than 1000 arrested. Most of these were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the northern Sinai town of El-Arish, violence arose after police even blocked Muslim Brotherhood voters from polling stations (3). An equal political playing field is an essential requirement to facilitate political reform. It is therefore imperative that the government reconsiders its policy towards the Muslim Brotherhood if it truly intends opening up political engagement and dialogue.

 

In the spirit of political reform before the elections, President Mubarak also made the following announcement: “In order to ensure that the elections are as impartial, fair and transparent as possible, I have recommended the creation of a fully autonomous committee to supervise the electoral process... This committee, which should consist of several heads of judiciary bodies, must have all necessary powers to perform its functions fully, and with total neutrality”(4). Judges resisted government requests to supervise, and that eventually led to a situation where observers were handpicked. After the elections a number of judges questioned the fairness of the elections, leaving them open to prosecution, in spite of Mubarak’s calls for judicial reforms and an independent judiciary. Protest action in support of the judges and judicial reform was, however, met with arrests under emergency legislation, previously reserved for terrorism and narcotic related offences. In response the government introduced the controversial Judicial Reform Bill, and that was met with further protests. Despite reservations, this bill was passed on 27 June 2006.

 

Government’s relationship with the media, and specifically the introduction of the new Press Law, has also given rise to questions over the spirit of political reform. The law, which allows judges` discretion in meting out prison sentences for offences such as insulting public officials and heads of state, contradicts promises made by President Mubarak during last year`s election campaign to abolish jail sentences for journalists (5). In addition the following articles remain: Article 308 of the Penal Code, which imposes a minimum sentence of six months in prison on journalists whose articles "comprise an attack against the dignity and honor of individuals, or an outrage of the reputation of families"; Article 179, which calls for the detention of "whoever affronts the president of the republic" and Article 102(bis), which allows for the detention of "whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest" (6). Again journalists and those in favor of political reform have protested against the bill, to no avail.

 

The conduct of the security forces and their relationship with the citizenry is a central element in the political reform process. While apparently only enforcing the law, police continue to deal hard-handedly with protestors. Limiting the means and opportunities for citizens to express their views peacefully through non-violent forms of dissent, the government not only robs itself of the opportunity to integrate these viewpoints into policy, it maintains a favorable atmosphere for violence.

 

These developments beg the question: Is political reform towards democracy possible without basic human rights and civil liberties, especially freedom of speech and association? The Egyptian government has initiated a process, which has raised expectations. In closing this window of opportunity, levels of frustration increase and the possibility for revolution is created.


1. Democracy means ‘government of the people’. It is associated with fundamental political equality and participation of individuals in the political process, and guaranteed individual freedom. Therefore characterized by the following principles[i]: Rule of law; Transparency and accountability of government; A relationship of trust between government and its population; and Political participation, including the freedom to participate in legitimate political dissent. [Ref: R D Crelinsten, The Discourse and Practice of Counter-Terrorism in Liberal Democracies, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, September 1, 1998, University of Queensland Press, Vol. 44, Issue 3, p. 389]

2. Al-Ahram, Documents: Constitutional Change, Issue No. 732, 3-9 March 2005, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/732/eg2.htm

3. AlJazeera, Eight killed in Egypt election violence, http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/exeres/843E8393-136B-4A8A-B77D-B271191A9D88.htm 8 December 2005

4. Al-Ahram, Documents: Constitutional Change, Issue No. 732, 3-9 March 2005, http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2005/732/eg2.htm

5. BBC News, Egypt press law `violates rights` http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/5168448.stm 11 July 2006

6. All Africa, Journalists still risk jail under Press Law, says Human Rights Watch, 11 July 2006

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