Thursday, November 03, 2011

Egypt’s Democracy: A Sometime Thing?

By William Fisher

As Egypt’s military rulers were pardoning 334 of the thousands being held for military trials, the generals may be preparing to administer the coup de grâce to Egypt’s nascent democracy.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has drafted a set of "supra-constitutional" principles that would grant the military outsized influence in writing a new constitution, including the power to object to any article in the new constitution, and keep the armed forces' budget confidential.

Messages of strong condemnation have greeted the move from numerous political forces. The April 6 Youth Movement, Al Wasat Party, Mohammed ElBaradei and the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) of the Muslim Brotherhood, all have attacked the new proposals as a way for the SCAF to avoid accountability.

The drafting of the “supra-constitutional” amendments is seen as simply one more instance of the Army’s inability to govern in a democratic context. After a honeymoon period brought on because the Army declined to attack the protesters in Tahrir Square last January, the military’s credibility has fallen precipitously.

That downward trajectory has been hastened by a series of SCAF’s self-inflicted wounds. It arrested an estimated 12,000 demonstrators and brought them to trial before military courts. It has also been vilified for failing to lift the so-called Emergency Laws in effect for 30 years under Mubarak. These laws give the police and the security services wide latitude to arrest and detain without probable (or any) cause, and to try lawyerless defendants who are often unaware of the charges against them,

The use of military courts – harkening back to the dark years of the Mubarak regime –has brought noisy and continuous opposition from political parties and social movements of all persuasions.

In the period preceding and following the fall of Mubarak on Febrnary 11, army military police rounded up thousands of peaceful demonstrators and threw them into prisons. There is ample credible testimony regarding their treatment in custody: The women were given “virginity” tests; the men were tortured and there were a number of deaths in detention.

This week’s pardon of a few hundred prisoners seems bizarre, given the total in custody. No explanation was forthcoming regarding how these prisoners were selected to be freed.

On the council's Facebook page, it said the decision reflects its belief in the importance of communication with Egyptian people and the revolution youth. The names of the detainees to be pardoned will be announced later, the statement added.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s “other” government – civilians who have zero independent power and merely put a civilian face on military decisions – have been trying to make the generals look as good as possible.

Deputy Prime Minister Ali Al Selmi held a meeting with over 500 political figures to discuss the constitutional draft. However a number of parties, including the FJP and Salafi groups, boycotted the meeting to protest its inclusion of many former National Democratic Party members.

Responding to the new amendments, the Muslim Brotherhood demanded the dismissal of the entire government if it "continues on this course of action."

Criticism of the SCAF grew even more heated recently after the council
detained activist Alaa Abd El Fattah for 15 days pending investigations into
charges he humiliated the armed forces. The young blogger has refused to speak to military prosecutors or stand trial on the grounds he should be tried in a civilian court, according to the newspaper, “Al-Masry Al-Youm.”

The Project on Middle East Democracy, ordinarily a reliable source, reported that “Thousands gathered on Tuesday in Cairo and Alexandria to demonstrate against the detainment of prominent blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah as well as on going military trials to which civilians are subjected. They also expressed support for Abdel Fattah's decision to refuse questioning by the military prosecution.

Protests in Cairo arrived at the prison where Abdel Fattah is currently being held, while in Alexandria demonstrations were held outside a military headquarters where chants condemning military trials could be heard.

Rights groups, including Amnesty International, as well as presidential hopeful Mohammed Saleem Al Awaa, have all denounced the arrest and demanded Abdel Fattah's immediate release.”

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf said in a conference address that the armed forces are trying to transfer power to an elected civilian administration. The armed forces are protecting the current transition period, Sharaf added.

“Egypt is undergoing political developments that aim to achieve more democracy, transparency, and an improved standard of living.”

He said the government is working to make structural reforms to provide more work opportunities, particularly for low-income people. Rights groups and activists have accused SCAF of mismanaging the transition period and making unilateral decisions without consulting political forces.

Farid Zahran, member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said, "The main issue that triggered heated argument was the secrecy clause protecting the military's budget. It would have been acceptable if they suggested that some items are confidential, but the military budget must be made public."