Freedom in the World
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Egypt's witnessed its most transparent and competitive presidential and legislative elections in more than half a century and an increasingly unbridled public debate on the country's political future in 2005. Limited reforms promulgated by the government of President Hosni Mubarak did not allow for sweeping political change, however, while the arrest and prosecution of Egypt's leading secular liberal opposition leader was a stark reminder that the government has not forsworn arbitrary and ruthless suppression of dissent.
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. Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1980 and established a strong alliance with the United States, which has provided the Egyptian government with roughly $2 billion annually in economic and military aid for the last quarter century.
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 enormous infusions of foreign aid, the government failed to implement comprehensive economic reforms. A substantial deterioration in living conditions for many Egyptians fueled an Islamist insurgency in the early 1990s. The authorities jailed thousands of suspected militants without charge and cracked down heavily on political dissent. Although the armed infrastructure of Islamist groups had been largely eradicated by 1998, the government continued to restrict political and civil liberties as it struggled to address Egypt's dire socioeconomic problems, particularly poverty and high unemployment among college graduates.
High levels of economic growth in the late 1990s temporarily alleviated these problems, but 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 direct foreign investment declining substantially. Popular disaffection with the government spread palpably, and demands for political change became more vocal. Antiwar protests during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 quickly evolved into 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.
Mubarak removed several "old guard" ministers who had built extensive patronage networks over the past two decades, appointed a new cabinet of younger technocrats, and introduced some economic reforms, such as a major overhaul of customs regulations. However, the awarding of all key economic portfolios in the new cabinet to associates of the aging president's 41-year-old son, Gamal, raised concerns that Mubarak was paving the way for a hereditary transition, while the political reform plan unveiled by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) in September 2004 was largely cosmetic.
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 polarized between unlicensed and licensed political groups, with the latter mostly accepting the regime's decision to put off reform until after the 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections.
In December 2004, an informal movement encompassing a broad spectrum of secular and Islamist activists, calling itself Kifaya (Arabic for "enough"), held the first-ever demonstration explicitly calling for Mubarak to step down. Despite a heavy-handed response by security forces, Kifaya persisted with the demonstrations in 2005, leading other opposition groups to do likewise. In a country where the president and his family had long been immune from direct public criticism, it suddenly became fashionable to publicly campaign for his ouster.
Reluctant to crack down decisively on the demonstrations for fear of alienating the West, the government was quick to suppress opposition leaders who crossed the line. In January 2005, the authorities arrested the country's most prominent secular liberal politician, Ghad (Tomorrow) Party chairman Ayman Nour, on charges of forging signatures in his party's petition for a license. (It was widely rumored that he had backtracked on a promise not to oppose Mubarak's reelection in exchange for receiving the license in 2004.)
In February, Mubarak publicly called for an amendment to the constitution allowing for Egypt's first multicandidate presidential election. The amendment, approved by parliament on May 10, restricted eligibility to candidates nominated by licensed parties or a substantial bloc of elected officials. Consequently, all major opposition groups denounced the amendment and called for a boycott of the May 25 referendum approving it.
The presidential election campaign was characterized by open and contentious public debate, as well as by an unprecedented assertion of judicial independence. The Judges Club (a private syndicate) successfully pressured the authorities to permit more direct (if inadequate) judicial supervision of the voting, while the government's refusal to permit independent local monitors was overturned in court just hours before the election. Nevertheless, the results were predictably lopsided-Mubarak won 88 percent of the vote, while Nour finished a distant second with 7 percent. Two (out of three) rounds of legislative elections, held in November, witnessed a strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood, which increased its representation in parliament fivefold, but otherwise confirmed the NDP's political dominance. The third round was scheduled for December 1, 2005.
Turnout in both elections (and in the constitutional referendum) was under 25 percent. Violent attacks on opposition voters by security forces and progovernment thugs increased in the second round of parliamentary elections, and the authorities arrested more than 500 Muslim Brotherhood activists prior to the third round.
Terrorist violence by Islamist extremists, which returned to Egypt in 2004 after a seven-year abeyance, continued in 2005. In April, two attacks on tourists in Cairo left three people dead and at least two dozen wounded. In July, three terrorist bombings in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh killed at least 75 people.
Egyptians cannot change their government democratically. The process of electing the president, who appoints the prime minister, cabinet, and all 26 provincial governors, is not fully competitive. Article 76 of the constitution, as amended in May 2005, requires that prospective presidential candidates must either be on the executive board of a political party controlling at least 5 percent of the seats in both houses of parliament, or secure the support of 250 members of parliament and municipal councils (a grandfather clause exempted candidates in the 2005 elections).
The 454-seat People's Assembly (Majlis al-Sha'b), or lower house of parliament, exercises limited influence on government policy, as the executive initiates almost all legislation. The partially elected upper house, the Consultative, or Shura, Council (Majlis al-Shura), functions only in an advisory capacity. 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, legislative elections do not meet international standards. NDP candidates won 87 of the 88 seats in the Majlis al-Shura (upper house of parliament) contested in the June 2004 elections.
Owing mainly to closer judicial supervision of the polls, presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005 witnessed substantially fewer allegations of massive fraud and violent intimidation than in preceding election cycles, but there were widespread irregularities in both, and international monitors were prohibited.
Political opposition remains weak and ineffective. A ban on religious parties prevents Islamist groups from organizing politically, although members of the Muslim Brotherhood 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, which can reject applicants for failing to offer a "unique and distinct program that enriches political life." The Political Parties Law was slightly amended in 2005 to broaden the composition of the PPC. In April 2005, the PPC rejected an application by the Socialist Democratic Freedom Party.
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 70 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is restricted by vaguely worded statutes criminalizing direct criticism of the president, the military, and foreign heads of state, as well as speech that is un-Islamic, libelous, harmful to the country's reputation, or disruptive to sectarian coexistence. In practice, imprisonment of journalists and closure of publications on these grounds have grown increasingly rare. In April 2005, three journalists were sentenced to one year's imprisonment for libeling a senior government official, but they remained free during the year; a second major libel case ended with acquittals. Several journalists critical of the government have been brutally assaulted (and in one case murdered) by unidentified assailants in previous years. In November 2005, a journalist for Al-Jazeera satellite TV was beaten just prior to a scheduled interview with an opposition politician.
The government encourages legal political parties to publish newspapers, but restricts the licensing of nonpartisan newspapers and exercises influence over all privately owned publications through its monopoly on printing and distribution. The three leading daily newspapers are state controlled, and their editors are appointed by the president. Several independent newspapers, such as the daily Al-Masri al-Yom (Egypt Today) and the weekly Nahdet Misr (Egyptian Renaissance), regularly published criticism of the government in 2005. Foreign publications and Egyptian publications registered abroad (usually in Cyprus) are subject to direct government censorship, but the authorities did not prevent specific issues of such publications from hitting the newsstands in 2005 (in contrast to previous years), and there was only one major case of distributors being forced to remove specific content from a publication: in February, an article was removed from Al-Masri al-Yom.
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. In May 2005, Egyptian police briefly detained an Al-Jazeera film crew to prevent it from covering a meeting of the Judges Club. Films, plays, and books are subject to censorship, especially on grounds of containing information "not in accordance with the principles of Islam" or harmful to the country's reputation. In October 2005, the book Wahhabi Islam: From Revival to Global Jihad was banned.
The government does not significantly restrict or monitor internet use, but publication of material on the internet is subject to the same statutes as the regular press. In October 2005, a law student was briefly detained after attacking the government in his blog. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed that the government continued to pressure the country's main internet service providers to block access to its website.
Islam is the state religion. The government directly appoints the preachers and staff of registered mosques and closely monitors the content of sermons in thousands of small, unauthorized mosques (known as zawaya). Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslims, but Coptic Christians comprise a substantial minority and there are small numbers of Jews, Shiite Muslims, and Baha'is. Although non-Muslims are generally able to worship freely, religious expression considered deviant or insulting to Islam is subject to prosecution. In March 2005, Ibrahim Ahmad Abu Shusha was sentenced to three years' imprisonment for claiming to be divine, and 11 of his followers were sentenced to one-year prison terms. Anti-Christian employment discrimination is evident in the public sector, especially the security services and military. The government frequently denies or delays authorization of applications to build and repair churches. Muslim extremists have carried out several killings of Coptic villagers and frequent attacks on Coptic homes, businesses, and churches in recent years. Members of the Baha'i faith continue to be denied a range of civil documents-including identity cards, birth certificates, and marriage licenses-by the government.
Academic freedom is limited in Egypt. Senior university administrators are appointed by the government, and the security services reportedly influence academic appointments and curriculum on sensitive topics. University professors and students 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. An unprecedented number of unauthorized proreform demonstrations took place during 2005, mostly without direct government interference. Police or plainclothes security agents forcibly dispersed major demonstrations on March 28, May 4 and 25, and July 30, injuring dozens of people and detaining at least 600 people. 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, requires members of NGO governing boards to be approved by the ministry, and allows the ministry to dissolve NGOs without a judicial order. In February, alleged plainclothes security agents disrupted a meeting organized by the World Center for Human Rights, overturning tables and threatening participants. 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-con-trolled Egyptian Trade Union Federation-the country's only legal labor federation. No major strikes occurred in 2005. 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, the Ministry of Justice controls promotions and compensation packages, giving it undue influence. 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. Egyptian officials have upheld an August 2004 pledge to try only security-related offenses in emergency courts. Civilians charged with security-re-lated offenses can also be 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 often handed down on the basis of little more than the testimony of security officers and informers, and are subject to review only by a body of military judges and the president.
The Emergency Law restricts many basic rights. It empowers the government to wiretap telephones, intercept mail, search persons and places without warrants, and indefinitely detain without charge suspects deemed a threat to national security. Local and international human rights organizations estimate that 10,000-15,000 people are currently detained without charge on suspicion of security or political offenses (in addition to several thousand who have been convicted of such offenses). In 2002, the UN Committee against Torture concluded that there is "widespread evidence of torture and ill-treatment" of suspects by the State Security Intelligence agency. At least seven suspicious deaths of detainees in government custody were reported by human rights groups in 2005. The trial of Ayman Nour was suspended for several months after a key witness revealed that he had been coerced into testifying against the dissident leader. Conditions in Egyptian prisons are very poor; prisoners are subject to overcrowding, a lack of sanitation, hygiene, and medical care, and abuse and torture.
The authorities arbitrarily block dissidents from leaving the country to attend high-profile events abroad. In May 2005, playwright Ali Salaam was denied permission to travel to Israel.
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 marital rape is not illegal. 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.