Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Democracy A Minefield for Egypt’s Rulers

By William Fisher

As Egypt’s interim rulers unveiled proposed constitutional amendments and a timetable for elections, more than twenty Egyptian human rights organizations charged that the military is failing to “lay the foundation for a democratic, civil state that respects human rights -- the overriding goal for which Egyptians made costly sacrifices.”

The organizations acknowledged that “The armed forces acted as a pillar of support for the Egyptian revolution, helping to achieve its first goal of the removal of the former president and the dissolution of the People’s Assembly and Shura Council, which were stigmatized and delegitimized by flagrantly fraudulent elections.”

But they said the military wasn’t moving rapidly enough in many areas and too rapidly in a few others.

The Egyptian State web site reported that, “Members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces confirmed during a meeting with the Youth Union of the revolution, their full understanding of the demands of the January 25 Revolution paying attention to the legitimate people’s demands. The Supreme Council stressed that all promises given by the Armed Forced will be achieved.”

The Council pledged to hand the authority to the coming president in October, adding that, “within this period the Armed Forces have exerted efforts since January 28 and are still doing their best in order to achieve all people’s demands, but it takes time, as the Armed Forces is the only institution in charge shouldering the responsibility of everything where almost other bodies engaged in a sit-in which affect the production process.”

The accelerated elections timetable announced by the military has also drawn criticism from other quarters. Human Rights First, a U.S.-based human rights group believes the rapid timetable “could undermine efforts to reform the nation’s existing government.”

Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks declared, ““Today’s announcement raises concerns that the military leadership may be seeking an electoral rubber stamp to preserve the status quo of a military dominated government, which Egypt has had since 1952. This swift timetable will make it difficult for opposition political parties to organize or for new political groupings to coalesce and register.”

According to today’s SCAF announcement, a referendum on
constitutional amendments will take place in April 2011, followed by
parliamentary elections in June 2011 and a presidential election in October

Zyad El-Eleimy, a member of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth, said the council's timeframe for the referendum and the elections reflected its eagerness to hand over power; however many worry that the timeframe is not long enough to allow newer political parties to establish support and legitimacy.

The Coalition of the Youth Revolution warned against the fast-approaching elections, and called for all timetables to be delayed one year so as not to affect the revolution and its gains. The Youth Coalition has called for the presidential election to take place before the parliamentary elections, or at least for there to be a presidential council appointed beforehand

The interim ruling Coalition has proposed a 12-month interim government, with a presidential council of two lawyers or judges and one military figure ruling alongside a cabinet of technocrats. The army has refused to give a concrete timetable for the removal of the remaining ministers of the Mubarak regime.

Legal experts and politicians have suggested that the presidential election be held before the parliamentary poll so no single group can seize parliament to mobilize support for a presidential candidate. Opposition groups have called for the postponement of parliamentary elections until political parties are strong enough to gain people's trust and build popular bases.

The human rights organizations said the Supreme Council must assume its responsibilities and honor its vows to respond to the demands and aspirations of the Egyptian people as expressed in the January 25 revolution.

Additionally, it must face the repercussions of the overthrow of the Mubarak regime and the disintegration and suspicious withdrawal of the security establishment that accompanied it.

The Council “must also expose and curb the catastrophic consequences of theft, financial and administrative corruption, and the ruination of the country’s political life perpetrated by a broad network of interests, including the office of the presidency, prominent figures of what was previously known as the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and influential leaders within the parliament and the executive branch.”

The organizations made four principal observations:

1. Making a clean break with the former dictator’s regime required the immediate removal of the government created by him to mislead the people and contain their revolution. Attempts to repair this government with piecemeal changes will not dispel the legitimate fears many people feel about the political survival of certain figures close to the deposed president and cannot so easily shirk their responsibility for both the wide range of crimes committed during Mubarak’s tenure and the criminal misinformation campaigns designed to discredit the goals of the revolution and incite against those who were part of it.

2. Making a clean break with the policies and crimes of the Mubarak regime, restoring the rule of law, and subordinating state institutions to that law requires more decisive, transparent steps to hold accountable and punish figures responsible for crimes and grave abuses committed under Mubarak’s regime in public and fair trials.

The groups said the measures taken thus far by the military “seem selective and not aimed at establishing a legal system for accountability and punishment or announcing facts to the public.”

In particular, they note “severe shortcomings, or at the very least an unjustified secrecy, surrounding the measures that must be taken to ensure accountability for major crimes,”

These include:

a) The identification and prosecution of those responsible for issuing orders to open fire on demonstrators.
b) The identification and prosecution of those responsible for giving the green light to acts of murder and paid thuggery in the name of “loyalty to Mubarak.”
c) Making public the facts surrounding the agencies and persons responsible for the suspicious withdrawal and disappearance of police forces and the release of prisoners and criminals from prisons, which left the country vulnerable to widespread looting and theft.

d) Former Information Minister Anas al-Fiqqi must be prosecuted for his responsibility in managing the media campaigns aimed at misleading public opinion, smearing participants in the popular revolution, and the xenophobic campaign inciting hatred of foreigners.

3. Confirming the legitimacy of the demands of the Egyptian labor movement since 12 February demanding its social and economic rights, the undersigned organizations announce their solidarity with the labor strikes and urge the Supreme Council of Armed forces to:

a) Quickly implement court decisions to set a minimum wage that is truly compatible with prices;
b) Quickly transform temporary into permanent labor;
c) Set unemployment benefits;
d) Dissolve the board of directors of the Egyptian General Federation of Trade Unions and of the general labor unions, which their elections were held in violation to orders of the administrative courts and the Supreme Administrative Court;
e) Depose the heads and board members of holding companies, who took part in wasting public money and assets, crushing national industry, and overlooking labor rights.

4. Making a clean break with the police state, the systematic practices of torture, involuntary disappearance, and murder, and the executive’s control of the Public Prosecutor’s Office that have existed in Egypt for several decades requires the dissolution of the State Security apparatus. It is unfortunate that the leaders of this agency—responsible for grave human rights abuses, the destruction of political life, and the undermining of Egyptians’ dignity—are still walking the streets freely.

Thus far the public has been given only brief statements indicating that the director of the agency has been suspended and is being investigated, with no clarification as to the nature of these investigations. In addition, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should open an immediate investigation in the documented reports indicating the involvement of members of the Military Police in cases of arbitrary detention and torture of detainees during the last period and refer those responsible to trial.

The organizations said they have previously stated that “the coming elections, both parliamentary and presidential, should come at the end of a transitional period of no less than one year during which civil liberties are fully respected, particularly the freedom to establish political parties, trade unions, NGOs, and all forms of media.”

Today, the groups accused the military of moving too quickly toward elections for which proper preparations have not been made.

Such haste, they said, “is liable to lead to the establishment of constitutional institutions in a manner that differs little from those under the Mubarak regime and will do little to enable the forces and youth movements that led this revolution to express themselves politically in new political parties and independent media.”

They added, “Indeed, as it currently stands, the outcome of the coming elections will continue to be disputed by the ability of NDP members to mobilize factional sentiment and money and the organizational ability of the Muslim Brotherhood to employ religion and charitable work to attract votes.”

The organizations cautioned that “holding elections after only minor constitutional revisions threatens aspirations for a real separation and balance of powers and runs the risk of preserving the same dictatorial prerogatives enjoyed by the president in the suspended constitution, with no accountability or genuine parliamentary oversight. This threatens the perpetuation of the same autocratic system, only without Mubarak and some of his supporters.”

“The democratic transition process – under the joint leadership of a presidential council and a new civil government – should enjoy the wide partnership of the people represented in the forces that led the revolution – women and men – and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This needs opening an institutional dialogue with political parties and groups and civil society, led by youth groups who have instigated the revolution. The dialogue should not be reduced to discussion with individuals and must provide the opportunity for the widest societal dialogue to make the aspired future,” the groups said.

Signatories included virtually all of the major human rights groups in Egypt.

The military’s announcements came on the heels of more violence in Egypt over the weekend. Egyptian security forces used force to disrupt protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in the city of Mansoura. The Army later apologized to the peaceful demonstrators.

HRF’s Hicks observed that these actions and today’s announcement “are raising concerns that Egypt may be reverting to business as usual in its form of government.”

Over the weekend, the Constitutional Committee announced proposed constitutional amendments that ease restrictions on eligibility conditions for presidential elections, limit the number of presidential terms to two four-year periods and ensure full judicial monitoring of elections.

Specifically, the Articles planned for amendment are Article 75, 76, and 77, which deal with presidential term limits and nominations; Article 139, which will force the president to appoint a deputy; Article 189, which mandates next president to draft a new constitution within six months; Article 148, which will give parliament control over the emergency law; Article 93, which will give the Supreme Court control over the legitimacy of parliament; and Article 179, which will limit the government's power to infringe on rights in the name of stopping terrorism.

A national referendum on the changes is expected on March 19th. The Muslim Brotherhood has said the changes are reasonable, however they expressed concern that Article 5, which prohibits religious party formation, remains.

The April 6 Youth Movement has expressed contentment but proposed that each amendment receive a separate vote and there should be additional language protecting political freedoms. The amendments have garnered mixed reactions, as some groups feel more is needed.

While opposition groups welcomed the proposed amendments to the constitution, they maintain they are not enough to guarantee free and fair presidential elections.

Many voiced concerns that the proposed amendments still give the president the ultimate authority and does not change the fundamental system wherein the president can interfere directly in all aspects of government.

Others stressed that there is not enough protection for civil liberties and political parties.

The Egyptian Coalition for Civic Education and Women's Participation, which comprises over 100 NGOs, denounced amendments proposed to Articles 75, 76 and 189, saying they exclude women candidates from presidential elections. A widespread debate has emerged between human rights organizations in Egypt as to whether the proposed amendments will provide enough protection for Egyptian citizens.

It is worth noting that there has been something of a strain developing between the Army and the pro-democracy forces. During the height of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the Army was greeted affectionately by protestors, who felt the military had kept pro-Mubarak forces at bay outside Tahrir Square.

But the weekend violence by police toward demonstrators has perhaps taken some of the edge off those warm feelings. In addition, both the army and demonstrators are beginning to learn the full extent of what has to be changed before Egypt can have a democratic form of government – and both are feeling overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.

Finally, pro-democracy forces point out that every member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces owes his appointment to Hosni Mubarak. They question whether this panel can be independent enough and robust enough to rid the government of those who profited so handsomely from Mubarak’s crony capitalism.