Freedom in the World
Egypt's civil liberties rating improved from 6 to 5 due to the government's relaxation of restrictions on the media and increased tolerance of public criticism
The government took two steps forward and one step back in its respect for civil liberties in 2004. While no far-reaching political reforms were on the horizon, President Hosni Mubarak eased restrictions on independent print media and tolerated an increasingly vibrant public discussion of controversial political issues, such as constitutional reform and presidential succession, that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. However, the authorities also launched the most sweeping crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood since the mid-1990s and continued to severely restrict the activities of human rights organizations.
Egypt formally gained independence from Great Britain in 1922 and acquired full sovereignty following the end of World War II. After leading a coup that overthrew the monarchy in 1952, Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser established a repressive police state that he ruled until his death in 1970. The constitution adopted in 1971 under his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, established a strong presidential political system with nominal guarantees for most political and civil rights that were not fully respected in practice.
Following the assassination of Sadat in 1981, Mubarak became president and declared a state of emergency (which he has since renewed every three years, most recently in February 2003). Despite receiving billions of dollars in U.S. and other foreign financial aid, the government failed to implement comprehensive economic reforms, and a substantial deterioration in living conditions for many Egyptians fueled an Islamist insurgency in the early 1990s. The authorities arrested thousands of suspected militants and cracked down on political dissent. Although the armed infrastructure of Egyptian Islamist groups had been largely eradicated by 1998, the government continued to restrict political and civil liberties.
High levels of economic growth in the late 1990s temporarily alleviated Egypt's dire socioeconomic problems, particularly poverty and high unemployment among college graduates. However, the country experienced an economic slowdown after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, with tourism revenue, Suez Canal receipts, expatriate remittances, and foreign direct investment declining substantially. Popular disaffection with the government spread palpably, and demands for political change became more vocal. Anti-war protests during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 quickly changed into mass antigovernment demonstrations, which sparked a harsh crackdown by security forces that left hundreds injured.
In the face of both rising internal discontent and growing Western pressure for political and economic liberalization, the government embarked on a high-profile effort to cast itself as a champion of reform in 2004. In July, Mubarak appointed a new prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, a 52-year-old engineer and former minister of communications and information technology, charged with reviving the stalled economic liberalization process, and he replaced nearly half of the cabinet with younger technocrats, most of them under the age of 50. During his first two months in office, Nazif introduced a major overhaul of customs regulations, reduced import tariffs, and cut subsidies on fuel and water, but it remains to be seen whether he has the political clout to tackle more critical economic problems. The removal of several "old guard" ministers who had built extensive patronage networks over the past two decades was interpreted by some analysts as an indication that Mubarak is committed to major economic reforms. However, the fact that all key economic portfolios were awarded to associates of his 41-year-old son, Gamal, raised concerns that the president is paving the way for a hereditary transition.
Talk of succession has been rife since November 2003, when Mubarak nearly collapsed during a televised speech and was abruptly whisked away by bodyguards. Officials claimed that the 76-year-old president was suffering from a stomach flu, but he has made far fewer public appearances since then. In June 2004, he abruptly canceled several high-level meetings with foreign dignitaries and left for medical treatment in Germany (ostensibly to treat a slipped disk). Since Mubarak never appointed a vice president, these incidents sparked vigorous public debate over who will come next - a hitherto taboo topic in Egypt. Gamal's equivocal denials of presidential ambitions have most Egyptians wagering that he'll make a run for the presidency in 2005 if his father is unable to pursue a fifth term.
A broad consensus emerged in 2004 among leftist, liberal, and Islamist political forces as to the components of desired political reform: direct multicandidate presidential elections, the abrogation of emergency law, full judicial supervision of elections, the lifting of restrictions on the formation of political parties, and an end to government interference in the operation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). However, the opposition remained deeply polarized between licensed and unlicensed political groups, which formed rival reform coalitions - the Alliance of National Forces for Reform and the Popular Movement for Change, respectively - during the year. Although the NDP's policy committee, headed by Gamal Mubarak, repeatedly declared its commitment to sweeping political reform, the reform plan unveiled at its annual conference in September was largely cosmetic.
Egyptians cannot change their government democratically. As a result of government restrictions on the licensing of political parties, state control over television and radio stations, and systemic irregularities in the electoral process, the 454-seat People's Assembly (Majlis al-Sha'b), or lower house of parliament, is perpetually dominated by the ruling NDP, as is the partially elected upper house, the Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura), which functions only in an advisory capacity. There is no competitive process for the election of the president; the public is entitled only to confirm in a national referendum the candidate nominated by the People's Assembly for a six-year term. The assembly has limited influence on government policy, and the executive initiates almost all legislation. The president directly appoints the prime minister, the cabinet, and the governors of the country's 26 provinces. NDP candidates won 87 of the 88 Shura Council seats contested in the June 2004 elections.
Political opposition remains weak and ineffective. A ban on religious parties prevents the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups from organizing politically, although their members typically compete in elections as independents. Political parties cannot be established without the approval of the Political Parties Committee (PPC), an NDP-controlled body affiliated with the Shura Council. Since 1977, the PPC has approved the formation of only four new political parties (the most recent being the Free Social Constitutional Party in November 2004), while issuing more than 60 rejections.
Corruption in Egypt is a serious problem - investors frequently complain that red tape and bureaucratic inertia make bribery essential to doing business. Egypt was ranked 77 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of the press is limited. The government owns and operates all terrestrial broadcast television stations. Although several private satellite television stations have been established, their owners have ties to the government and their programming is subject to state influence. A few private radio stations have recently been established, but their programming is restricted to entertainment. The three leading daily newspapers are state-controlled, and their editors are appointed by the president.
The government encourages legal political parties to publish newspapers and exercises indirect control over the publications through its monopoly on printing and distribution, but it has long restricted the licensing of nonpartisan newspapers. Only foreign publications are subject to direct government censorship, but some privately owned Egyptian publications have been forced to register abroad (usually in Cyprus) and are therefore subject to censorship. Two independent private newspapers - the daily Al-Masri Al-Yom (Egypt Today) and the weekly Nahdet Misr (Egyptian Renaissance) - were recently established.
Freedom of expression is restricted by vaguely worded statutes in the Press Law, the Publications Law, the penal code, and libel laws. Direct criticism of the president, his family, or the military, as well as discussions of Christian-Muslim tensions and expressions of views regarded as anti-Islamic, can result in the imprisonment of journalists and the closure of publications. In February, President Hosni Mubarak pledged to end prison sentences for press offenses, but this promise remained unfulfilled. In June, journalist Ahmed Ezzedine was sentenced to two years' imprisonment on libel charges for writing an article accusing the agriculture minister of perjury. Days earlier, four men involved in printing and distributing a bumper sticker that read "Cairo Traffic Rules: Green = Stop, Red = Go, Yellow = Go Faster" were arrested on charges of harming the country's reputation (Egypt has one of the world's highest motor vehicle mortality rates in the world), but the charges were quickly dropped. In November, the editor of the Arab nationalist weekly Al-Arabi, Abdel-Halim Qandil, was beaten by unidentified assailants.
The government does not significantly restrict or monitor Internet use, but publication of material on the Internet has been prosecuted under the same statutes as regular press offenses. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed in 2004 that the government pressured the country's main Internet service providers to block access to its Web site.
Islam is the state religion, and the government directly controls most mosques, appoints their preachers and other staff, and closely monitors the content of sermons. It is implementing a plan to establish control over thousands of small, unauthorized mosques (known as zawaya) located in residential buildings. Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslim, and there are small numbers of Jews, Shiite Muslims, Baha'is, and Coptic Christians. Although non-Muslims are generally able to worship freely, the government has seized church-owned property and frequently denies permission to build or repair churches. Muslim extremists have carried out several killings of Coptic villagers in recent years and frequently burn or vandalize Coptic homes, businesses, and churches.
Academic freedom is generally respected in Egypt, though professors have been prosecuted for political and human rights advocacy outside of the classroom.
Freedom of assembly and association is heavily restricted. Organizers of public demonstrations, rallies, and protests must receive advance approval from the Ministry of the Interior, which is rarely granted. A new law regulating NGOs went into effect in 2003.The Law of Associations prohibits the establishment of associations "threatening national unity [or] violating public morals," prohibits NGOs from receiving foreign grants without the approval of the Ministry of Social Affairs (which generally blocks funding to human rights defenders and advocates of political reform), requires members of NGO governing boards to be approved by the ministry, and allows the ministry to dissolve NGOs without a judicial order. Some groups have avoided the new NGO restrictions by registering as law firms or civil companies. In July, the authorities raided the Cairo offices of the Nadim Center for the Psychological Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence, an NGO that is registered as a medical clinic but engages in extensive human rights activities, and subsequently threatened to close it down.
The 2003 Unified Labor Law limits the right to strike to "non-strategic" industries and requires workers to first obtain approval for a strike from the government-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation - the country's only legal labor federation. Only a handful of strikes occurred in 2004. Egyptian law establishes a minimum wage and requires companies to provide social security insurance, but off-the-record employment is widespread, especially in the agricultural sector.
The regular judiciary is widely considered the most independent and impartial in the Arab world. The Supreme Judicial Council, a supervisory body of senior judges, nominates and assigns most judges. However, political and security cases are usually placed under the jurisdiction of exceptional courts that are controlled by the executive branch and deny defendants many constitutional protections. The Emergency State Security Courts, empowered to try defendants charged with violating decrees promulgated under the Emergency Law, issue verdicts that cannot be appealed and are subject to ratification by the president. Although judges in these courts are usually selected from the civilian judiciary, they are appointed directly by the president. Since 1992, civilians charged with terrorism and other security-related offenses have often been referred by the president to military courts. Since military judges are appointed by the executive branch to short, renewable, two-year terms, these tribunals lack independence. Verdicts by military courts are subject to review only by a body of military judges and the president. Moreover, evidence produced by the prosecution in cases before the military courts often consists of little more than the testimony of security officers and informers. Allegations of forced confessions by defendants are routine.
In March, 23 Egyptians and 3 British Muslims were sentenced by an emergency court to between one and five years' imprisonment on charges of membership in the illegal Hizb al-Tahrir al-Islami (Islamic Liberation Party), although their alleged activities were peaceful. Egyptian officials said in 2003 that only terrorism and other security-related offenses would henceforth be tried in emergency courts, but this pledge has not been upheld. Opposition activist Ashraf Ibrahim was arrested in April 2003 for videotaping police beatings of peaceful demonstrators and charged in the emergency courts with "weakening the prestige of the state by disseminating false information." After 11 months in detention, he was acquitted in March 2004 and released from prison.
The Emergency Law restricts many basic rights. It empowers the government to wiretap telephones, intercept mail, and search persons and places without warrants. Its provisions also allow for the arrest and prolonged detention without charge of suspects deemed a threat to national security. In November 2002, the UN Committee against Torture concluded that there is "widespread evidence of torture and ill-treatment" of suspects by the State Security Intelligence (SSI) agency. According to Human Rights Watch, 17 people died as a result of suspected torture in police or SSI custody in 2002 and 2003. At least six such deaths occurred in 2004. Local and international human rights organizations estimate that more than 10,000 people are currently detained without charge on suspicion of security or political offenses, and that several thousand who have been convicted are serving sentences on such charges. Following the October 2004 terrorist attacks in Sinai by alleged al-Qaeda operatives, according to local human rights groups, the Egyptian authorities arrested some 5,000 residents of the area, some of whom claimed to have been tortured.
Although the constitution provides for equality of the sexes, some aspects of the law and many traditional practices discriminate against women. Unmarried women under the age of 21 are not permitted to obtain passports without permission from their fathers. A Muslim female heir receives half the amount of a male heir's inheritance (Christians are not subject to provisions of Islamic law governing inheritance matters). Domestic violence is common, and there are no laws against marital rape. Job discrimination is evident even in the civil service. The law provides for equal access to education, but the adult literacy rate of women lags well behind that of men (34 and 63 percent, respectively). Female genital mutilation is practiced, despite government efforts to eradicate it. The year 2004 also witnessed the first appointment of a woman to Egypt's Constitutional Court and the first appointment of a woman as director-general of Egypt's national museum.