Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Mubarak Comedy Hour

By William Fisher

I haven’t had this much fun since Grandma let all the cousins, nieces and nephews rummage through her big Brooklyn house in our fierce competition for the title “Scavenger of the Month.”

Well, imagine the sheer glee, the unbridled joy that an unreconstructed scavenger feels when you let him/her loose in the archives of the Egyptian State Information Service website.

The Archives is where the government stores old material, though in this country today, old could be as young as a month.

Much of what we find there could bring on apoplexy. For example, round about 2004-2005 – when Egypt was under a bit of pressure from the US and others to democratize its election procedures – The State Information Service decided to publish a book on, wait for it, Human Rights in Egypt.

Here’s a passage:

“Within the Egyptian pioneering role in approving, consolidating and maintaining human rights, we shall expound the international and regional agreements Egypt has joined, the human rights-related articles provided in the Egyptian Constitution, the authorities and institutions in charge of supporting and protecting these rights in Egypt, and the role played by the Supreme Constitutional Court in interpreting and adopting these rights.”

Pioneering role? Maintaining human rights? At this point the scavenger doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

But, maybe one needs to take a longer view of history, perhaps with just a modicum of forgiveness toward the blow-hard strongman who puts on his game face while trying to look and sound serious while spewing forth volumes of misinformation and disinformation to his faithful subjects.

Here are some choice passages from the SIS book, “Human Rights in Egypt”:

Since the early dawn of life, freedom and right to option God Almighty bestowed upon Adam and Eve have been of the most important options that have determined the human person’s relation with God and with others, and have determined as well the main features and methodology Adam and his descendants have followed to consolidate and safeguard human rights throughout ages.

The divine religions have been revealed to lay down a life system, and to regulate relations among individuals, with each other on the one hand, and with the ruler on the other, on the basis of justice, mercy, cordiality, cooperation and equality. They have been also revealed to renounce discrimination among human beings on the basis of interest, benefit, gender, sex or color, calling for dialogue with the other and respect for all human values.

The US Declaration of Human Rights (1766)* (sic) and The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) are the first charters that have enlisted these rights in national declarations, expressing special experiences of these peoples.

After going through a litany of the human rights-related agreements sponsored by the United Nations and signed by, among others, Egypt – most of which Egypt has arrogantly broken -- this modest volume tells us how happy the country is to be a signatory to these treaties and to wholeheartedly embrace their principals and practices.

En passant, it mentions the National Council for Human Rights. This is the fig-leaf Mubarak invented to “investigate” human rights abuses by agent of the government. And Mubarak was fortunate to able to reach out to the always compliant Boutros Boutros-Galli (who was living in Paris) to be its chairman.

The book recounts “Egypt’s keenness” on boosting the democratic course through introducing amendments into Article No. 76 of the Constitution and the ensuing multi-presidential candidate and parliamentary elections.

The book reviews “Egypt’s efforts for enhancing the right to freedom of opinion and expression, safeguarding women’s rights; including combating discrimination against her and empowering her to contribute to development as well as preserving child rights and the rights to clean environment and to education. Egypt has adhered to all these rights within the context of sustainable development and the Non-governmental organizations in Egypt.”

[Just for the record, dear readers, the Mubarak regime introduced several of the most disgracefully restrictive laws to control NGOs. It’s a wonder any of them have survived!]

“The human rights issue is presently raised as a top priority item on both the local and international agendas,” the book says. “Several human rights organizations were also established with purpose of protecting basic public freedoms. The result was the adoption of a host of international human rights agreements and declarations, to which Egypt is a signatory party.”

The author then takes us on a stroll down old-memory lane. Pharaonic Egypt, he says, was one of the earliest civilizations ever to show respect for human rights. The Ancient Egyptians were the first to acknowledge man’s right to life. A case in point would be that they deferred the execution of a convicted pregnant woman till she gave birth.

Ancient Egypt not only believed in but applied the principle of equality to its entire population. Egyptians were equal before the law, without discrimination between rich and poor, and/or free people and slaves. The Ancient Egyptians also encouraged both men and women to get a proper education.

Under Christianity, Egyptians found salvation from the injustices of they suffered under Roman Emperors.

Islam too preached equality and freed humanity from economic, political and social burdens.

So here, the book tells us, are some of the most important human rights principles that Egypt lives by and enforces:

"Freedom of opinion is guaranteed. "Every individual has the right to express his opinion and to publicize it verbally or in writing or by photography or by other means within the limits of the law.

Self-criticism and constructive criticism is the guarantee for the safety of the national structure."

“Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed. Censorship on newspapers is forbidden as well as notifying, suspending or canceling them by administrative methods.

"Education is a right guaranteed by the State."

"The State shall supervise all branches of education and guarantee the independence of universities and scientific research centers, with a view to linking all this with the requirements of society and production."

“Sovereignty is for the people alone and they are the source of authority."

"The political system of the Arab Republic of Egypt is a multiparty one, within the framework of the basic elements and principles of the Egyptian society as stipulated in the Constitution. Political parties are regulated by law."

"The State shall guarantee equality of opportunity to all citizens."

"The family is the basis of the society founded on religion, morality and patriotism."

"The State shall guarantee the protection of motherhood and childhood, take care of children and youth and provide the suitable conditions for the development of their talents."

“The State shall guarantee the proper coordination between the duties of woman towards the family and her work in the society, considering her equal with man in the fields of political, social, cultural and economic life without violation of the rules of Islamic jurisprudence."

“The State- shall guarantee social and health insurance services and all the citizens have the right to pensions in cases of incapacity, unemployment and old-age, in accordance with the law."

“The national economy shall be organized in accordance with a comprehensive development plan which ensures raising the national income, fair distribution, raising the standard of living, eliminating unemployment, increasing work opportunities, connecting wages with production, fixing a minimum and a maximum limit for wages in a manner which guarantees lessening the disparities between incomes."

“Every citizen shall have a share in the national revenue to be defined by the law in accordance with his work or his unexploiting ownership."

All citizens are equal before the law. They have equal public rights and duties without discrimination between them due to race, ethnic origin, language, religion or creed."

“Individual freedom is a natural right and shall not be touched.”

“Any person arrested, detained or his freedom restricted shall be treated in the manner concomitant with the preservation of his dignity. "No physical or moral harm is to be inflicted upon him.

He may not be detained or imprisoned except in places defined by laws organizing prisons. If a confession is proved to have been made by a person under any of the aforementioned forms of duress or coercion, it shall be considered invalid and futile."

“The State shall guarantee the freedom of belief and the freedom of practice of religious rites.”

“The right to political asylum shall be guaranteed by the State for every foreigner persecuted for defending the peoples’ interests, human rights, peace or justice. "The extradition of political refugees is prohibited.

“The creation of syndicates and unions on a democratic basis is a right guaranteed by law, and should have a moral entity. "The law regulates the participation of syndicates and unions in carrying out the social programs and plans, raising the standard of efficiency, consolidating the socialist behavior among their members, and safeguarding their funds. "They are responsible for questioning their members about their behavior in exercising their activities according to certain codes of morals, and for defending the rights and liberties of their members as defined in the law."

“Citizens shall have the right to vote, nominate and express their opinions in referendums according to the provisions of the law."

"Their participation in public life is a national duty."

A suspect assumed innocent proven guilty: “Any defendant is innocent until he is proved guilty before a legal court, in which he is granted the right to defend himself.

"Every person accused of a crime must be provided with counsel for his defense."

Perhaps, just for a chuckle, let me mention again The National Council for Human Rights,” which was set up on June 12, 2003 under law No. 94 of 2003. Operating under the Shura Council, it aims at promoting and protecting human rights, and safeguarding public freedom.

As noted earlier, The Council is chaired by Dr. Boutros Ghali, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, with Dr. Ahmed Kamal Abul-Magd as Deputy-Chief and 25 public figures as members.

The Council’s goals are to serve as a tool to enhance democracy, ensuring public freedom and safeguarding human rights. And, for an avid scavenger this piece of carrion is a true find.

The Council was founded during the years I lived in Egypt. As an official of USAID I made it my business to follow its work closely, or at least at any part of Egyptian government allows you to follow it closely.

I found, among the ranks, many people who were not Mubarak cronies, people who cared deeply about the abuses they were finding, and people who were profoundly frustrated by their inability to reverse injustice, or even to get a hearing.

One could only feel sympathy for these men and women. They were NOT part of the problem.

So how, we ask, could a state so totally committed on paper to all the rights, duties and privileges of being human so degrade itself as to provoke deep disgust among free people everywhere?

How is it that a state that guarantees free expression of opinion and ideas, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, the right to health care and a decent education – how is it that such a litany of social goods degenerate into a gruesome tale of cavalier disregard for law, imprisonment without charge, torture and death in detention, men and women with three and four-year-old master’s degrees who have never had a job!

Small wonder that, as The Times Tom Friedman wrote today, “the lids are coming off.”

* = The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, not the U.S. Declaration of Human Rights. The author evidently meant the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was approved by the United Nations in 1948.

Post-Mubarak Law Would “Criminalize” Protests that Brought Mubarak’s Downfall

By William Fisher

Pro-democracy protesters filled Tahrir Square in central Cairo and an estimated 2000 gathered outside the State Radio and TV headquarters in the Maspero section last week to express their anger over a new law approved by the Egyptian cabinet that would criminalize demonstrations that "disrupt society or business."

The demonstrations in Tahrir Square and many other locations did result in widespread disruptions to virtually every aspect of Egyptian life. It is unclear whether these demonstrations would have been banned under the new law.

Enactment of such a measure again raises the question of whether the country’s interim military rulers are on the side of the pro-democracy movement or the thousands appointed to positions of power by Mubarak. That group includes every member of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

The law imposes heavy fines and possible prison sentences on those who defy the ban and also provides for harsh punishments for calling for or inciting sit-ins. The maximum prison sentence one year and fines of up to half a million Egyptian pounds.

A step in the wrong direction and a threat to the forces that brought about the revolution is the way Opposition groups are characterizing the law. Workers’ groups have promised that protests will continue until the military’s ruling Supreme Council opens a dialogue with workers, business owners and civil and political organizations.

The Youth Coalition called on the Council to reject the law and instead abolish the Emergency Law that has been in effect in Egypt for more than thirty years. The Emergency Law gives the government broad rights prohibited by the Egyptian constitution and allows police and state security agents to arrest and detain citizens without due process or access to lawyers or family and to try civilians in military courts.

Shady Ghozali, a member of the Youth Revolution Coalition, told the newspaper Ahram Online "I'm against it [the law], this is against human rights; peaceful demonstrations are amongst the basic human rights."

News of the law drew instant heated reaction on social media sites like Twitter that disseminate calls for demonstrations, now deemed a criminal act. "Where is Essam Sharaf who said my legitimacy is from Tahrir Square and I will return to the street with you if I can't implement your demands," said blogger Amr Ezzat.

Essam Sharaf was appointed by the Egypt’s military rulers to be Prime Minister of the country after the fall of long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak.

Wael Abbas, activist and blogger, commented on the relatively small turnout in Tahrir Square and said that more people would have come out but were frightened of the anti-protest law.

He fumed: “It has scared people and made them worried that they would be slammed with a jail sentence if they come out today. Even Mubarak wasn’t able to pass such a law, so how could they do it?”

Fellow activist Amr Ezzat, said that the low turnout could also be due to the fact that many students are preoccupied with demonstrations within their university campuses.

Ezzat added that the army approved the anti-protest law to try to avoid accusations that they arrested and abused protesters in Tahrir Square on March 9.

The protesters are also voicing their dissatisfaction with the trials of the former ministers and businessmen who prospered during the Mubarak regime. They have dubbed the court cases “imaginary,” and have called for swift and efficient trials for all, including Mubarak and his family, arguing that the former president used to accuse people and put them in jail quickly, and the same should be done to him.

In Maspero, an up-market section of Cairo that was the site of the burning of the Two Martyrs Coptic Church, Copts are protesting the new law but also the failure to arrest the criminals behind the fire.

“We are out today for a symbolic protest to show that we have strength in the street and that we still insist on our earlier demands,’ says Rola Sobhi, one of the Coptic protesters.

Maspero protesters are also calling for the removal of all media personalities associated with the old regime, and the replacement of all editors of national papers..

The protesters chanted, “The people want to free the media.”

“They want to give legitimacy to their actions and this law gives them that legitimacy,” says Ezzat.

Justice Minister Counselor Mohamed Abdel Aziz Al Guindi said the new measure will abort attempts by those affected by the ouster of the former regime to hinder public order and production, the minister told the Egyptian state television.

He cited factional protests that involved sabotage, vandalism and disorder.

Al Guindi noted that there is no ban on demonstrations and protests that are organized in line with the law. He said factional demonstrations are not prohibited on vacations and after the working hours.

However, the minister pointed out that these demonstrations should not be held in a manner that interrupts economic and commercial activity or traffic movement.

He said the new regulations prohibit factional protests in the working places, organizations, public and private banks.

Dr. Yahya Jamal, professor of constitutional law and vice president of the Council of Ministers, has said that the law will have no impact on peaceful demonstrations. But the Youth Coalition called upon the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to reject the law and abolish the emergency law.

The new measure has also drawn attention from overseas human rights activists. Among them is Chip Pitts, a Lecturer in Law at Stanford University Law School and Oxford University.

Pitts told The Public Record, “: Although supposedly targeted at protests that stop work or destroy property, measures which countries are allowed to take temporarily under international law in order to maintain public order and ensure stability for economic and political development, the fact that the Egyptian Cabinet in the current circumstances would enact such criminalization provides further evidence of how ‘fragile and reversible’ (to borrow from the US’s repeated characterization of Afghanistan) the Egyptian gains remain.”

He added, “Clearly, such laws could be a mask for repressing even wholly peaceful, non-disruptive speech, and seem singularly inappropriate given the historic peaceful protests at the very foundation of the Egyptian renaissance. The law demonstrates both the continued fear of genuine reform within the Egyptian establishment, and incomplete commitment to the democratic rights sought by the protesters. Almost certainly inspired by the crackdowns and retained repressive power in countries like Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia, this should and will be taken as yet another direct Mubarakist affront to the “Spirit of Tahrir Square” and resisted to the utmost by the Egyptian people.”

The new law has also drawn the ire of another US-based human rights advocate, Human Rights Watch (HRW). The group said the new law violates international law protections for free assembly and should be reversed immediately.

The cabinet’s claims that this law is an exceptional measure under the country’s emergency law, which is still in effect, is a reminder of the need to revoke the emergency law immediately, HRW said. An end to the state of emergency was one of the primary demands of the protesters who gathered in Tahrir Square.

“This virtually blanket ban on strikes and demonstrations is a betrayal of the demands of Tahrir protesters for a free Egypt, and a slap in the face of the families whose loved ones died protesting for freedom,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW” Middle East and North Africa director.

“Any genuine transition toward democracy must be based on respect for the basic rights of the people, including their right to demonstrate,” she said.

HRW said the provisions to criminalize demonstrations that harm public order or public funds are of particular concern because of the sweeping arrests over the past few weeks of protesters accused of disrupting public order and destroying property. On February 25, March 6 and March 9, army and military police officers arrested peaceful demonstrators, detained them, in some cases tortured them, and brought them to trial before military courts that do not meet minimal due process standards.

The military apologized for the excessive use of force against protesters on February 25, but has not issued an apology for the abuses against demonstrators on other occasions, nor has it investigated the cases of torture associated with these arrests. At least 100 protesters remain detained after sentences by military tribunals under the new transitional government. The military has justified these practices based on its stated need to crack down on “thugs” who are disrupting public order.

In the published minutes of the March 24 cabinet meeting, the cabinet justified passing the law by saying that it was responding to a number of requests received “though legal channels.”

The minutes also say that the government was studying how best to “address demands with regards to wages and labor conditions,” referring to the ongoing strikes in various sectors of the economy over the past weeks. It went on to say that it “understood all of the demands by different sectors of society,” but that “the country was currently undergoing a critical period that required protecting its economy and security from manipulation in order to overcome the current crisis and to respond to the legitimate demands of different sectors of society.”

“Concerns about the economy or the security situation are no justification for repressive laws and no substitute for responsible policing and sound economic policies,” Whitson said. “Economic difficulties are no excuse for limiting people’s rights.”

Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 1981, which has allowed for the indefinite detention of thousands of people without charge or trial. In May 2010, then-President Hosni Mubarak renewed the state of emergency for another two years, despite having promised to end it in 2005.