Egypt leaves democracy advocate in legal limbo

egypt ngo trial fhIn Egypt last month, three journalists were found guilty of doing their jobs and given seven- and 10-year jail terms. Apparently, little has changed, notes a prominent democracy assistance official.

A little more than a year earlier, I and 42 other employees of international human rights groups were similarly convicted at a Cairo trial that the U.S. and European governments have condemned as politically motivated,” says Sam LaHood, the director for the International Republican Institute in Egypt from 2010 to 2012 and currently a program officer with the organization.

“I was sentenced to five years in prison with hard labor after being found guilty in absentia of a trumped-up felony,” he writes for the Washington Post:  

In my case, appointees held over from the regime of Hosni Mubarak used repressive laws to target our groups for providing democracy assistance, manipulating the bureaucratic machinery for their own ends. Many more of these officials, who constitute Egypt’s entrenched security apparatus and bureaucracy, or “deep state,” have since returned to power after being out in the cold during the truncated presidential term of Mohamed Morsi. This deep state, led by individuals at the Ministry of Interior, state security and other large bureaucratic entities, is intent on exerting control over civil society, politics and the media through intimidation and repression.


Egypt’s media in the midst of revolution

Rasha-Final-ImageMore than three years after the January 25 revolution toppled then Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Egypt continues to struggle with an authoritarian media sector and constraints on freedom of expression, notes Carnegie analyst Rasha Abdulla.

Post-revolution regimes have not capitalized on opportunities to reform state and private media, and critical voices have been harassed and marginalized by state and non-state actors. As long as Egypt continues to be governed by rulers who believe controlling the media is in their best interest, reform will only come about through the few dissident voices in the media backed up by support from civil society and the masses.

Egyptian Media Since the January 25 Revolution

  • Successive Egyptian regimes following the revolution have taken steps to limit freedom of expression and control the narrative in Egyptian media coverage.
  • Hopes for a more professional media sector have been dashed by a state media apparatus that has for all intents and purposes supported whatever regime is in power, private media outlets influenced by wealthy owners with ties to the Mubarak regime, and severe polarization between Islamist and non-Islamist media outlets.
  • Social media played a key role in the January 25 revolution, and this platform has provided new avenues for expressing critical views, challenging established media entities, and organizing against the government.

The Future of Egyptian Media

Finding a place for critical voices in established media outlets has become increasingly difficult. Much of Egypt’s media has strongly supported the regime’s narrative since the Muslim Brotherhood–backed president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted from power in July 2013. Dissenting voices are almost absent from newspapers and television shows, and Islamist-affiliated outlets have been shut down by the government.

Social media outlets continue to offer a platform for otherwise marginalized views. Though also polarized, social media platforms provide one of the few forums in which activists pursuing the middle ground can voice their opinions and document human rights violations.

Reform of state media is needed more than ever before, but political will is lacking. The current regime, led by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has so far shown little interest in making state media more open and democratic. For now, these outlets remain in the service of the regime, not the people.

Many hope that the current regime will reduce repression of the media, but early signs have not been encouraging. These include the termination of popular political satire show Al Bernameg and a request for proposals from the Ministry of Interior for software to monitor online social networks.


Civil society draft law would ‘throttle’ Egypt’s NGOs


NGOs on trial

NGOs on trial

A new civil society draft law will “throttle” Egyptian Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and “rob them of their independence”, said Human Rights Watch.

In a Monday statement, the international watchdog condemned the draft law and called for it to be discarded and replaced. The group’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director warned that the draft law would “extinguish a crucial element of democracy in Egypt”.

The Ministry of Social Solidarity presented the draft legislation to Egyptian groups on 26 June. It has garnered criticism since then for restricting the activities of the already struggling civil society organizations in Egypt.

The draft gives the government veto power over all activities of civil society organizations, Human Rights Watch said. Under the new legislation, the government has the power to dissolve organizations without a court order; it can also refuse to license new organizations under the pretext that their activities could “threaten national unity”….

The draft law furthermore restricts the activities of international organizations within Egypt and their cooperation with domestic organizations, as well as imposing “crippling restrictions” on civil society organizations seeking foreign funding….The current law under which civil society organizations operate obliges them to seek government permission before domestically raising funds, which pushes organizations to seek foreign funding.

Twenty-nine NGOs rejected the draft in a joint statement on Wednesday.

Review of post-coup Egypt confirms retreat from democracy

egypt fh infographic

In the year since the July 2013 coup, the interim government has been guilty of an “abysmal failure to restore democracy,” according to the latest Egypt Democracy Compass from Freedom House.

“Although the authorities have taken basic procedural steps such as adopting a constitution and holding a presidential election, Egypt is now much farther from genuine democracy than it was immediately after the coup,” said the group’s Vanessa Tucker, vice president for analysis.

“Political pluralism has all but vanished following the bloody suppression and mass criminalization of the Muslim Brotherhood and parallel crackdowns on leftist and liberal activists. Access to unbiased information has been quashed as critical or independent media are shut down and the surviving outlets obediently toe the government line. And all of this has taken place in a shockingly arbitrary legal environment, with more than 16,000 political prisoners arrested, thousands tried in military courts, and detainees denied the most basic elements of due process. Sadly, given that Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been the de facto ruler for the past year, it is unlikely that the recent election will lead to a change in course.”


Al Jazeera case ends illusions of Egypt’s democratic transition


Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste has said in his first statement since being jailed with two colleagues in Egypt that he is “devastated and outraged,” the BBC reports:

In a statement issued by his brothers, he said the trial had been an “attempt to use the court to intimidate and silence critical voices in the media”. Prosecutors, he said, had failed to produce any concrete evidence that the three had spread false news. The seven-year jail terms handed to the three sparked outrage.

“Al Jazeera definitely was biased,” said Hisham Kassem, founder of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the first publisher of the independent Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper. “It was used by the Qatari government in its mud fight with Egypt,” he said, referring to the Emir of Qatar’s support for the Brotherhood around the region and criticism of governments that oppose the Islamist organization.

“But the way to confront such a thing,” Mr. Kassem said, “is to expose it, not to imprison its journalists.”

The verdict has ended any illusions that Egypt’s democratic transition has been postponed rather than cancelled, observers suggest.

egypt sisi“Who would have thought, when Egypt was in the throes of its revolutionary fervor, when its people had apparently vanquished a dictator with an irresistible cry for democracy, that its people would so soon approve of this farcical, authoritarian injustice?” says analyst Waleed Aly:

We can be outraged by this – even if we didn’t much care until an Australian got caught up in it. We can even deride Egypt, as Peter Reith recently did, as “a very nasty totalitarian police state” with “a pretend judiciary” – even if that has been true for 30 years during which time we were happy to call Egypt our friend. But if we look hard enough, we’ll recognise there is something all too human about this monstrous injustice. We’ll see this is what happens to a nation that has terrified itself. If even durable, mature, successful democracies like us or the United States can trade in our principles for hysteria on occasion, what hope did a dysfunctional nation with no real political culture like Egypt have?

The prosecution has also raised doubts about the independence of the judiciary.

dunne_kaveh_20132“Well, we really don’t know whether there are any instructions to judges and so forth on how to rule in this case. But we can say a couple of things,” says Michele Dunne (right), a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

“One of them is that these cases come out of the Egyptian government. It came out of Egyptian intelligence, the Interior Ministry and so forth. And they played a very active role, she told PBS NewsHour (above).

“The other thing is that, whether or not there is any direct involvement or instructions by Sisi or others in the Egyptian government to the judiciary, certainly, all the signals that President Sisi has sent, everything he says is in line with this, very, very harsh, anti-dissent, anti-Brotherhood, that the Brotherhood are terrorists and so forth,” said Dunne, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“I agree with Michelle that the military-backed political order has created an enabling environment in which repression has flourished. And I do think that it’s very difficult to parse out how things happen and why,” said Michael Hanna, a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation.

“I do know that there were severe disagreements within the Egyptian government, at fairly high levels, when the Al-Jazeera English journalists were arrested. Of course, to try to unwind this kind of case requires the expenditure of a lot of political capital and a very big political fight that no players have as of yet taken up the challenge to accomplish.”

In his prosecution of Muslim Brotherhood leaders and activists, Judge Youssef had brought ridicule to Egypt with his unfair and arbitrary rulings and he should be removed from the case, democracy advocate Kassem told VOA.

“Due process was not observed during any of these trials where mass death sentences were shelled out and it’s continuing,” said Kassem. “Now, obviously there is something seriously wrong. This is not a minor error or so. Death sentences do not come en masse. So, it is time that there is an administrative intervention from the ministry of justice to put an end to this. It is becoming an international farce.”

Sisi Islamic not Islamist

“The attitude of the liberal and secular sectors towards al-Sisi’s religious views is puzzling,” notes Khalil al-Anani, a leading academic expert on Islamist movements, Egyptian politics and democratization in the Middle East.

Some of them seem to have entered a state of disappointment and shock, due to the conspicuous presence of religion in his speeches. Apparently, their conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood prevented them from adequately expressing this shock, so as not to give the Brotherhood a chance to gloat over it. Many of them have, after all, claimed that their support of the July 3 coup was out of fear that the Brotherhood would turn Egypt into a theocracy, not to mention their condemnation of what they considered a crackdown on personal and religious freedoms during Mohamed Morsi’s rule.

“Al-Sisi might not attempt to turn Egypt into a religious state following the Iranian or Pakistani models, as was the case during the rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the late 1970s and 1980s, for example,” he observes. “But he definitely isn’t going to build a free civil state where individuals enjoy personal freedoms without the guardianship of the state and the president.”

Stop playing favorites

“By imprisoning critics and members of the Brotherhood and intensifying a crackdown on dissent, Sisi and his new government risk leaving opponents with little alternative but to take to the streets once again,” says David J. Kramer, President of Freedom House:

No one wants to see more instability in Egypt, but the “stability” Sisi claims to be bringing to his country may be very short-lived. That possibility should force the Obama administration to develop a policy that stops playing favorites with whoever is in power—whether Morsi or Sisi or the next person—and instead focuses on democratic principles. Such a change in approach would serve U.S. interests better than pretending that Egypt is on the right path or buying the rhetoric of Egypt’s latest authoritarian leader.

As if to prove his point, Egypt this week experienced a wave of violent attacks by Islamist militants based in the Sinai peninsula.

“This is going to continue to be an issue so long as Islamists assess that they have no political space in which they can act and so long as the heavy handedness of the security forces continues,” said Firas Abi Ali, Middle East and North Africa analyst at IHS country risk in London.