Egypt announces parliament elections, Islamic reform

egypt sisiEgypt has scheduled long-awaited parliamentary elections. The vote will be staggered over seven weeks, starting March 21 and ending May 7, AP reports:

Egypt is currently without a parliament, after the nation’s last elected house was dissolved by a 2012 court ruling. The previous house was controlled by Islamists, who came to power in the country’s first democratically held vote following the 2011 uprising that ousted longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt’s president opened the new year with a dramatic call for a “revolution” in Islam to reform interpretations of the faith entrenched for hundreds of years, which he said have made the Muslim world a source of “destruction” and pitted it against the rest of the world, reports suggest:

The speech was Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’s boldest effort yet to position himself as a modernizer of Islam. His professed goal is to purge the religion of extremist ideas of intolerance and violence that fuel groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State — and that appear to have motivated Wednesday’s attack in Paris on a French satirical newspaper that killed 12 people.

“Any religious modernization will ultimately be against al-Azhar, since it is the conservative fortress in the system,” said Amr Ezzat, religion researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The “authority of religion over modern life and law is what needs to be reviewed. What we need is freedom to have more than one religious discourse to enrich discussion, because as it is pluralism is outlawed.”

egyptsisidunneEgypt demonstrates that effective constraints on executive authority – whether through civil society organizations, bills of rights, or countervailing legislative or judicial power – are essential features of stable democracies, argues the Atlantic Council’s Amr Hamzawy.

There are fundamental differences between how the executive authorities are able to operate in nations which enjoy stable democracy, or in which democracy is being developed, and how the executive functions in countries like Egypt, which are steeped in authoritarianism, whether in traditional or modern forms. These differences are:

1. Democratic countries function according to constitutional principles and laws that are applied effectively in order to curb the propensity of governments to repress citizens’ rights and freedoms….However, in countries like Egypt, these constitutional principles and laws often remain mere texts that are not implemented in reality, have no impact for citizens and society, and fail to place limits on the behavior or governments and state institutions. ….

2. Democratic countries have additional constitutional principles and laws that force the government to allow for unimpeded access to information, to operate with transparency, and to ensure accountability ….In contrast, in countries like Egypt, these constitutional principles and laws are absent, and we do not have access to facts and information. ….. 

3. In democratic countries – no matter how diverse the ideologies, philosophies, and political convictions of the people, and no matter how divergent their economic and social interests – the public is well-aware of the serious dangers of allowing the executive branch to manipulate citizens, encroach on society, or dominate the legislative and judicial authorities. ….Meanwhile, in countries like Egypt, public opinion suffers from constant references – often made in contradiction with the facts of our history and that of other nations – that evoke positive impressions of autocrats who have enjoyed unlimited powers. …

There are also profound differences in the effectiveness of media, civil society, the judiciary and other countervailing powers able to curb executive authority, Hamzawy asserts: : 

1. Democratic countries have the benefit of diverse press and media outlets that represent a variety of ideological and political leanings. ….In contrast, in countries like Egypt – particularly today – we lack a press that consistently investigates its information and that upholds the principles of objectivity and pluralism, ….. 

2. Democratic countries boast civil society organizations and political parties that cumulatively possess vast amounts of knowledge, institutional capacity, and human resources. ….However, in countries like Egypt, civil society organizations lack this depth of knowledge, capacity, and experience, as well as broad social support and daily interaction with average citizens…. 

3. Democratic countries have legislative and judicial authorities that subject the executive authorities to regular monitoring through various mechanisms and procedures….Meanwhile, in countries that are steeped in authoritarianism, whether in traditional or modern forms, we do not have parliaments and courts with such capabilities. ….


Egypt not ready for reform

dunne_kaveh_20132Why would a think-tank scholar and former U.S. diplomat, who had traveled to Egypt frequently and recently, suddenly be barred? asks Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed two days later that it was because I obtained my visa at the airport rather than at the embassy, a claim that was clearly specious, she writes for The Washington Post:

The border guard had stamped me in and let me enter, only to call me back when something apparently popped up on his monitor. American visitors routinely get Cairo airport visas for all sorts of travel (business and study, as well as tourism). I have 15 such visas in my passport, used for trips over the past seven years.

Could it be because my husband was one of 43 Americans and Egyptians involved in a June 2013 judgment against nongovernmental organizations?

But I had visited Egypt several times since then, and my writing on the country, and concern about the implications of the lack of meaningful reforms, went back much further, notes Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.


Egypt bars U.S. scholar, democracy advocate

dunne_kaveh_20132A prominent U.S. scholar, ex-diplomat and democracy advocate has been barred from entering Egypt, in what appears to mark a new escalation of the government’s clampdown on dissent, The New York Times reports.

Egyptian authorities refused to allow Michele Dunne, senior associate in the Carnegie Middle East Program, to enter Egypt on December 12. She was held for six hours at Cairo’s airport before being put on a plane to Frankfurt. Dunne was traveling to Cairo to speak at a conference organized by the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

“Some Egyptians complain I don’t list enough to pro govt views,” Dunne tweeted in reaction Saturday. “When I accept invite to conf of pro govt group they deny me entry. Go figure.”

“I come into the country two to four times a year, for the past 10 years at least,” Dunne told Reuters:

Dunne, who served in the U.S. foreign service for 17 years, including a posting at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, was coming to Egypt for a conference of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, she said…. Dunne authored an article published Dec. 2 that highlighted challenges facing human rights organisations in Egypt and other Arab countries. Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who ousted elected Islamist President Mohamed Mursi last summer, Egypt’s government has pushed non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to register under a Hosni Mubarak-era law.

“I write about Egypt frequently … I don’t think there’s been anything really different on my part. It seems to me the change is more on the Egyptian side. It seems the tolerance for any kind of writing that is critical is much less than it was before,” said Dunne [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy].

Carnegie President Jessica T. Mathews said, “Michele Dunne is a scholar of unimpeachable integrity who has devoted her professional life to analyzing Egyptian politics and improving U.S.-Egyptian relations. She is enormously respected throughout the Middle East, as well as in the United States and Europe, for the rigor and fairness of her work.”

The Dunne affair highlight’s the increasingly repressive approach taken to independent voices and civil society groups.

On Monday, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies said that after 20 years, it was relocating its regional and international programs to Tunis “in light of the ongoing threats to human rights organizations and the declaration of war on civil society” in Egypt.

Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies for Carnegie’s Middle East Program, added, “We are deeply disappointed by the Egyptian government’s action, which undermines the important need for open dialogue about the difficult challenges facing Egyptians today and further isolates Egypt from the international community.”

Can democracy thrive in Arab world?

tunisia demoThe world celebrated the “Arab Spring” as evidence that the people of the Middle East, like those everywhere, yearn to be free. But time has not been kind to the optimists, writes AP analyst Dan Perry:

After some hiccups, Tunisia is the one bright light today, with a free presidential election planned later this month. But across the Middle East, bloodshed, chaos and dashed dreams were far more often the result.

Hundreds of thousands have died, most in a ferocious and seemingly unwinnable Syrian civil war that has displaced millions, spilled over into Iraq, and threatens to destabilize other neighboring countries. Libya is an ungovernable and dangerous mess. And Islamic radicals have seized the discourse to a great extent; a US-led coalition fights them now, in Syria and Iraq.

“We can expect democratic transitions to be messy, chaotic and sometimes bloody, but this is worse than even the worst expectations,” said Shadi Hamid, a Mideast expert at the Brookings Institution.

The biggest and most unfortunate lesson people learned, he said, is that peaceful protest does not necessarily lead to a peaceful way forward or toward democratic transition, Perry adds:

Increasingly, people in the region are asking whether democracy is even a good idea in the Arab world. The question seems unfit for polite society, but it was already on the table in January 2011, as a panel of Arab finance figures considered events back home from the comfort of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, its members clearly none too pleased.

One recommended strong but “benevolent” leaders for the region. Another said democracy was alien to a region where patriarchal traditions dominate. A third said the public needs education lest it simply vote along tribal lines. Others saw radical Islamists swiftly bamboozling the masses.


Why Arab Spring idealist died for ISIS

egypt darawyWhy did Ahmed al-Darawy, a one-time police officer turned revolutionary, a 38-year-old father of three and a mainstay of Egypt’s uprising in Tahrir Square, join the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and die in battle, asks the FT’s Borzou Daragahi:

Darawy’s path from non-violent democracy activist to fighter for a group so extreme it has been disowned by al-Qaeda reflects the unsettling course of the Arab revolts of 2011. A heady season of hope and optimism that stirred longings for democracy and citizenship rights also unleashed demons many observers did not expect: political repression, internecine and sectarian fighting, and chaos in what had been authoritarian societies.

With the possible exception of Tunisia, all the nations that have risen up are now mired in intensified repression or armed conflict. A moment of hope that the Arab world was emerging from authoritarianism has been eclipsed by Isis and its efforts to draw men and women like Darawy into its orbit.

“The Darawy matter actually horrifies me,” says Yasser al-Hawary, 36, a liberal Egyptian activist. “He adopted the same demands and ideas as all of us and he was just like anybody else. This means other people, that don’t show violence , could join Isis as well.”

‘Rebels without a pause’

The loosely organised, spontaneous uprisings that felled longtime dictatorships ill-prepared their partisans for the long, fierce battles needed to bring about fundamental social change, Daragahi adds.

“This story is very important,” says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics and the author of a book on jihadis. “Not only does it tell us about Egypt’s past, present and future, but also it tells us how the great aspirations and hopes of the so-called Arab spring have turned into despair, and how some of these men have turned to jihadism.”

“Historically, what’s happening is very normal; the upheavals, the tensions and the counter-revolution,” says Mr Gerges. “What’s happening in Egypt and the Arab world is not unique. It is the aftershock of the social earthquake. It could take many years for things to calm down and subside.”

“The unity of the masses, the unity of the poor, the middle class, the professionals and the human rights activists was one of the main features of the revolutions,” he adds. “But beyond the unity against dictators there was no unity of purpose, no vision and no blueprint of the future. The idea was that the revolution was going to take care of itself, which is a very silly thing.”


“People are joining Isis simply because there is no other game in town and until very recently it has been very successful,” says James Dorsey, a writer and researcher who has written about Nidhal Selmi, a Tunisian footballer who died as an Isis fighter. “You have people who join who don’t share in great detail its ideology but see very little alternative to effecting change and therefore see it as a vehicle.”