The Middle East Channel

Give Egyptians Their Rights

Three of Egypt’s most prominent activists are in jail. Free assembly and expression are endangered species. Political choices simply don’t exist. It’s not likely the future that millions of Egyptians who took to the streets on June 30, 2013 envisioned for their country. Egypt’s interim government has curbed freedom of speech, public assembly, free media, ...

STR/AFP/Getty Images
STR/AFP/Getty Images

Three of Egypt’s most prominent activists are in jail. Free assembly and expression are endangered species. Political choices simply don’t exist. It’s not likely the future that millions of Egyptians who took to the streets on June 30, 2013 envisioned for their country. Egypt’s interim government has curbed freedom of speech, public assembly, free media, and political dissent throughout the implementation of the roadmap articulated in the July 8 constitutional declaration. The latest step on this roadmap was an imperfect constitutional referendum held on January 14 and 15, which led to the adoption of the country’s new constitution. The interim government views the referendum result as a mandate to move forward on the roadmap despite that many of the laws it currently relies on to repress dissent are inconsistent with the new charter. If Egypt’s interim government is truly committed to a democratic future, then it’s time it begins giving its people the rights they endorsed when they voted to adopt this constitution.

Egyptian politics today is dominated by two polemical views. The state narrative warns of a war on terror against an Islamist enemy that will stop at no end to violently impose its vision for the future of Egypt as a modern caliphate. The political opposition that is the target of the state’s campaign rejects the legitimacy of the post-June 30 roadmap and the removal from office of former President Mohamed Morsi, and is furious about the crackdown on its supporters that has been ongoing since the violent dispersal of anti-government protesters in August 2013.

But for many Egyptians, the choice between a government that increasingly resembles the old Mubarak-era regime and an Islamist led government that when given the chance did its best to consolidate power and ignore the day-to-day problems of citizens, is a choice between bad and worse. Most Egyptians want political stability, their economy back on track, and to live in a country where they don’t fear the simple expression of their will. At the moment, neither side of the political paradigm offers this and it’s likely it can only be achieved if the two sides can come to an agreement on a political path forward that provides all those who wish to do so an opportunity to compete freely in Egyptian politics.

Whether such an environment can emerge is the key question for the success of Egypt’s political future. The National Coalition for Legitimacy, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), will be forced to adopt a more politically pragmatic position should it want to participate in Egyptian politics, despite its strong convictions regarding the legitimacy of the interim government’s roadmap. Continuing to call for the reinstatement of the Morsi government is unrealistic and ignores the will of the millions of citizens who took to the streets on June 30. The interim government will need to take real action to welcome members of the coalition into Egypt’s political space so that the parliament that eventually emerges from the roadmap can be more representative of the different political views prevalent in Egypt. It must also begin to allow for more robust public debate.

This won’t be easy, particularly now that the government feels its mandate has been strengthened by a new constitution passed by an overwhelming margin through recent referendum. I helped lead Democracy International’s international observation mission to this referendum process and saw first hand how divided Egypt’s politics are today. Our findings on the referendum process and the context in which it took place were critical. The most troubling aspect of the process was the environment for campaigning, which was severely restrictive. Parties and movements that attempted to mobilize citizens against the adoption of the draft constitution were met with hostility by the interim government and security forces and in many cases faced arrest and imprisonment. The government justified these moves by relying on a statute that prohibits citizens from taking actions against the constitution, a law clearly not intended to be enforced during a public referendum on a new constitution. The restrictive protest law passed in November 2013 was also used as the basis to repress opposition voices and imprison activists and party representatives. These repressive actions were and are counterproductive to the stated goals of the roadmap and ultimately tarnished the referendum process.

Then there’s the matter of the substance of the constitution itself. While some of the constitution’s articles propose to defend political rights, others, if implemented, will only complicate Egypt’s immediate political future. One such article prohibits religious-based political parties. As Amr Moussa, the head of Egypt’s constitutional drafting committee, told me last week, this will require parties to amend their manifestos to remove references to religion and reregister. This will not only affect parties like FJP, but also the Salafist Nour party, which has been supportive of the roadmap and campaigned for the adoption of the constitution. Forcing government allies like Nour to abide by the article and abandon their religious based manifestos could alienate them and further polarize Egyptian politics.

If Egypt’s democratic roadmap is to succeed, the interim government must take genuine steps to give Egyptians the rights they asked for by approving the draft constitution. The constitution is supposed to protect freedom of speech, by guaranteeing freedom of thought, opinion, and expression through "speech, writing imagery, or any other means of expression and publication" (Article 65). It should protect the right to assembly, by ensuring the "right to organize public meetings, marches, demonstrations, and all forms of peaceful protest" (Article 73). It also mandates that the state abide by human rights treaties it has endorsed. Those arrested should be afforded the right to remain silent, opportunity for counsel, and the right to appeal (Article 54). The constitution is also meant to curb censorship (Article 71).

Early indications are not good that the interim government will change its posture and begin to protect the rights articulated in the constitution. On January 19, an Egyptian prosecutor issued charges of insulting the judiciary against the prominent liberal intellectual Amr Hamzawy for a tweet he posted months ago. A number of other prominent Egyptians were also charged with the same offense on Sunday, including Morsi. This is exactly the kind of activity the interim government should be preventing and is surely not consistent with the new constitution’s provision protecting freedom of thought and expression.

While the interim government now has a responsibility to afford the rights articulated in the constitution to the citizens of Egypt, the National Coalition for Legitimacy and other forces opposed to the interim government should be prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue, should the interim government take actions to ease restrictions on the parties in the coalition. The opportunity for opposition political parties and social movements to offer alternative visions is critical for a free and democratic society. Unfortunately, that opportunity has been severely restricted in Egypt.

To this point, the interim government’s democratic rhetoric has been inconsistent with its actions. The process for preparing for upcoming elections is a real opportunity for the government to make a course correction by engaging opposition political actors and providing real avenues for public expression. The process for determining both the sequence of events and the system by which parliament will be elected should be more inclusive than the constitutional development process. To improve the democratic deficiency that exists in Egypt today, the government should review and amend the protest law and release activists imprisoned for violating it. In addition, it should release journalists imprisoned on charges of threatening national security. The constitution is intended to protect the media and the interim government should act swiftly to provide that protection.

The legitimacy of the roadmap is ultimately for the Egyptian people to decide, but the success of Egypt’s democratic transition depends on what course the interim government chooses to pursue. If it truly wants democracy to succeed, it must take genuine steps to allow for a more free and open political debate to take place in Egypt, one in which activists and opposition figures do not fear for their safety and lives should they publicly express dissenting opinions. The current environment is counterproductive to the stated goals of the roadmap and threatens the opportunity for Egypt to emerge from its current state and achieve a truly democratic future. If democracy is what it wants, then it’s time the Egyptian government give its people the rights that make democracy reality.

Jed Ober is director of programs at Democracy International, Inc.

Jed Ober is the Senior Director of Programs at Democracy International, where he oversees the implementation of elections and political transitions programming around the world.
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