‘Revenge of the remnants’: double blow for Egypt’s democracy movement

egyptGeneral_Al_SisiThe two sons of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak were released from prison Monday, nearly four years after they were first arrested along with their father, AP reports:

Security officials said the two, wealthy businessman Alaa and Mubarak’s one-time heir apparent Gamal, walked free from Torah Prison in a southern Cairo suburb shortly after daybreak and headed to their respective homes in the capital’s upscale Heliopolis suburb….Mubarak’s sons walked free a day after deadly clashes between anti-government protesters and police marked the fourth anniversary of the uprising that ended their father’s 29-year rule. That violence Sunday left at least 18 people dead, including two men authorities said died planting a bomb and three police officers, and wounded dozens.

There was a vocabulary to Egypt’s “January 25 Revolution” that swept President Hosni Mubarak from power, Ruth Michaelson reports for PRI:

At the center of it all was Tahrir Square or “Freedom Square” …. And there was a new global phenomenon described as a Facebook revolution because so many of the young, secular supporters of the pro-democracy movement had organized via social networking…..Amid all of this dramatic change and great uncertainty for Egypt, the name for the old Mubarak-era police, politicians and power brokers was the word “felool,” which is Arabic for “remnant.”

Even in those heady days when it seemed a new era was being ushered in, there were many Egyptians who believed it was only a matter of time before the “felool” would regain power and reassert its authority. The violent response to demonstrations Sunday on the fourth anniversary of the Tahrir protests illustrated just how intent the old guard is on using any means necessary to keep tight control over the country.

“Four years after the Egyptian uprising, the Egyptian government of Abdel el-Sisi is taking a page from a discredited past by resorting to violence and illegal arrests to crush dissent,” said Robert Herman, vice president for regional programs at Freedom House. “Egyptian authorities should focus their energies on instituting urgently needed political reforms rather than killing and detaining those who exercise their rights to advocate for democratic change.”  

Egypt is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2014, Freedom House’s annual global assessment of political rights and civil liberties, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2014, and Partly Free in Freedom on the Net 2014.

In the wake of the French terrorist attacks by gunmen claiming to act in the name of Islam, remarks by Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi have drawn praise after he called on scholars at Al Azhar University to lead a “religious revolution,” notes the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Ellen Bork.

There is no reason to believe Sisi will create the atmosphere in which the religious reform he calls for could take place, she writes for World Affairs:

Sisi is overseeing a crackdown on the press and civil society, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious groups. 

Rather than accept Sisi’s remarks at face value, Michele Dunne and Katie Bentivoglio, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, see them as part of an agenda to “align religious institutions with the military’s goals and narratives.” Far from seeking a liberal, or secular society, Sisi and his government persecute those who stand outside certain religious boundaries. Dunne (a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy) and Bentivoglio also note that although under strict government control, anti-Semitism in the media remains pervasive. RTWT

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 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.”

Egypt elevates official hostile to U.S., civil society

egypt Fayza Abul-NagaPresident Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is appointing a national security adviser who spearheaded criminal charges that nonprofit groups were acting as agents of an American conspiracy to weaken and destabilize Egypt, the New York Times reports:

The new adviser, Fayza Abul Naga, provoked one of the biggest crises in Cairo’s 35-year-old alliance with Washington. The case forced the son of an American cabinet secretary to hide in the United States Embassy for weeks for fear of arrest. It elicited personal threats and appeals by President Obama to Egypt’s top generals. And it culminated in the reported payment of as much as $4.6 million in forfeited bail and the secretive flight of a half dozen United States citizens on a charter jet to Cyprus….

“Evidence shows the existence of a clear and determined wish to abort any chance for Egypt to rise as a modern and democratic state with a strong economy,” Abul Naga told investigators, “since that will pose the biggest threat to American and Israeli interests, not only in Egypt but across the whole region.” The International Republican Institute, she said, served the “right wing” agenda of the Republican Party. And she called Freedom House a tool of the “Jewish lobby.”

Analysts said Ms. Abul Naga’s return underscored the Sisi government’s persistent disregard for its alliance with Washington, as well as a darkly suspicious view of civil organizations.

“The fact that she is such a recognizable face clearly makes this an obvious slap in the face to the United States, but it is in keeping with the way that this government has handled the bilateral relationship,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egyptian-American researcher at the Century Foundation, based in New York.

egypt ngo trial fhAnd domestically, he said, “this is just confirmation of what we already know about the government: Its approach to civil society is unbridled hostility, and there is a real possibility that the sector is going to be squelched and shut down completely in the coming months.”

In many ways, “the rest of the government has caught up with her,” Mr. Hanna said. With the Egyptian press “awash in conspiracy-addled discourse” like her charges two years ago, he said, “she is not even an outlier.”

On December 29, 2011, security forces seized computers, cell phones, documents and staffs’ personal effects from the offices of Egyptian and foreign-based non-governmental groups, including the Arab Center for Independence of Justice and Legal Professions and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory.

The authorities also targeted foreign democracy assistance groups, including the US-based International Republican Institute, National Democratic Institute and Freedom House, as well as Germany’s Konrad Adenauer foundation.

The prosecution of the pro-democracy NGOs undermined international efforts to support Egypt’s abortive democratic transition.

Ironically, the Muslim Brotherhood, since suppressed by Sisi,supported the crackdown on civil society groups.

“Our job is to help Egypt become successful,” a U.S. official said at the time. “Our interest is to try to work with the Egyptians to create an inclusive, safe, secure, and democratic country, and instead of talking about that we’re stuck in this rather unfortunate situation in which civil society, a crucial component of democracy, is being constrained.”

The Egyptian government’s allegation that democracy groups sought to interfere in domestic politics by supporting candidates or parties supportive of U.S. and Israeli interests was refuted by Kenneth Wollack, president of the National Democratic Institute. “We support a process, not ideologies,” he said. “We don’t go in and choose winners.”

Scott Mastic, regional director for the International Republican Institute, said, “Beyond the outrageous nature of her actions, how should we take it seriously that they are turning a page when they are returning to personalities from the past that have been so damaging to U.S.-Egypt strategic relations?”


UN should condemn Egypt’s worsening abuses

egyptGeneral_Al_SisiEgypt’s allies should use the country’s November 5, 2014 review at the UN Human Rights Council to condemn the most dramatic reversal of human rights in Egypt’s modern history under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Human Rights Watch said today.

The United States and other allies should in particular condemn imminent threats to shut down the country’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations. Member states should also use the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Egypt’s human rights situation to press Egypt to revoke a law that effectively bans peaceful protests and to release thousands of people detained solely for political expression. “Washington, London, Paris, and other capitals have failed to confront the dramatic reversal of human rights,” said Philippe Dam, acting Geneva office director at Human Rights Watch. “They should make clear that silencing independent groups will hurt Egypt’s relations with its allies.”

The rights group highlighted the need to condemn the “imminent threats to shut down the country’s most prominent nongovernmental organizations [NGOs]”. The Ministry of Social Solidarity, which governs NGOs, has set a deadline for civil society organizations to register with the ministry. HRW says this procedure falls “under a highly restrictive 2002 law” and that if the groups do not abide by it they could “face criminal charges”.

dunne_kaveh_20132There are at least two ways to explain the evident disconnect between Egypt’s positive economic forecasts and the eruption of jihadist violence last week, says the Carnegie Endowment’s Michele Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Either the ratings are correct – and Egypt is stabilizing generally despite a marginal insurgency in a remote region – or the ratings are incorrect, and Egypt is headed for more instability, she writes:

Egypt has a serious insurgency under way, based in but not limited to the Sinai, as attacks in many other locations throughout the country show. Among the most basic principles of counterinsurgency is that the government needs to enjoy legitimacy among the population that exceeds whatever legitimacy might be claimed by the insurgents.

The question is whether the scorched earth methods practised by Sisi and his government are helping to build legitimacy among the Egyptian population, including in economically disadvantaged areas such as north Sinai, the Western Desert, and Upper Egypt.

Or will they rather fuel radicalisation and alienate large swaths of the public? If the latter, Egypt could be looking at a long, grinding internal conflict that will thwart the very stability, security, and economic recovery in whose name Egyptians sacrificed their brief first attempt at a civilian-led democracy.