Freedom in the World
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Egypt received a downward trend arrow due to the security forces’ ruthless suppression of political dissent.
Despite constitutional reforms that allowed for multiparty presidential elections in 2005, the Egyptian government in 2006 backtracked on its promises of greater political openness. President Hosni Mubarak postponed municipal elections, fearing a large showing by the Muslim Brotherhood, and extended the 25-year-old Emergency Law despite earlier pledges that it would be replaced with specific antiterrorism legislation. Security services ruthlessly suppressed dissent by political activists who protested the government’s reversals. Extremely limited reforms related to judicial independence and press freedom were enacted for the sole purpose of deflecting criticism and consolidating state control.
Egypt formally gained independence from Great Britain in 1922 and acquired full sovereignty following 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 1979 and established a strong alliance with the United States, which has provided the Egyptian government with roughly $2 billion in aid annually for the last quarter-century.
Following Sadat’s assassination in 1981, then–vice president Hosni Mubarak became president and declared a state of emergency, which has been in force ever since. 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.
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, terrorist attacks in the United States. 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, sparking a harsh response by security forces that left hundreds injured.
In the face of both rising internal discontent and growing U.S. 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 previous two decades, appointed a new cabinet of younger technocrats, and introduced some economic reforms.
Business interests were now well represented within the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and government; this was largely the work of the aging president’s son, Gamal Mubarak. However, the awarding of all key economic portfolios in the new cabinet to associates of Gamal raised concerns that the president was paving the way for a hereditary transition, while the political reform plan unveiled by the NDP in September 2004 was largely cosmetic. Gamal further consolidated his control over the NDP as head of the “Policies Committee,” a group charged with formulating party policy and reviewing legislation. Although Gamal’s “new guard” represents a modernizing trend within the NDP, critics charge that there is little difference between the old and new guard, and that the aim is not so much to modernize the party as to provide a vehicle for Gamal’s succession.
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, Kifaya (Arabic for “enough”), an informal movement encompassing a broad spectrum of secular and Islamist activists, 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.
While reluctant to crack down decisively on the protests for fear of alienating the West, the government was quick to detain opposition leaders who crossed the line. In January 2005, the authorities arrested and then eventually convicted Ghad (Tomorrow) Party Chairman Ayman Nour, on charges of forging signatures in his party’s petition for a license. In February 2005, Mubarak publicly called for an amendment to the constitution that would allow 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 boycotted the May 25 referendum that approved it.
The presidential election campaign was characterized by open and contentious public debate as well as an unprecedented assertion of judicial independence. The Judges’ Club, a quasi-official syndicate, successfully pressured the authorities to permit more direct (if inadequate) judicial supervision of the voting.
Nevertheless, the results were predictably lopsided. Mubarak won 88 percent of the vote, while Nour, still in jail, finished a distant second with 7 percent. Three rounds of legislative elections, held in November and December, featured a strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood, which increased its representation in Parliament sixfold, but otherwise confirmed the NDP’s political dominance. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidates ran as independents, won 87 seats in the 454-seat Assembly; the NDP won at least 311 seats, just nine seats over the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to amend the constitution; and secular independents won a total of 37 seats.
Turnout for the presidential and parliamentary elections, and for the constitutional referendum, was under 25 percent. Violent attacks on opposition voters by security forces and progovernment thugs abounded during the first and second rounds, and increased in the third round of parliamentary elections. Monitors observed that voter intimidation and fraud marred the third round. Security forces cordoned off certain polling stations and prevented opposition voters from casting their ballots in some Muslim Brotherhood and opposition strongholds. One opposition supporter was killed and another wounded when police opened fire on voters in a city north of Cairo, although voting proceeded normally in other areas.
The government in 2006 postponed that year’s municipal elections until 2008. Mubarak argued that the move was necessary in order to make the process more democratic and afford the municipal councils greater powers. In reality, the government feared that another strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood would affect the next presidential election in 2011, since independent presidential candidates must have nominations from 250 elected officeholders, including at least 140 from the local councils.
The assertion of judicial independence during the 2005 elections was suppressed by the government in 2006. The judges’ criticism of the government for its failure to prevent voter intimidation, refusal to certify the election results, and calls for greater judicial independence all angered the authorities. During the elections, security forces assaulted at least four judges monitoring voting stations. Other judges were forced to close their stations because of clashes with opposition members and security forces.
Egypt also experienced a surge in terrorist violence by Islamist extremists, leading some analysts to declare the return of Islamic militant activity after a seven-year lull. In April 2006, three bombs exploded simultaneously in the Sinai resort of Dahab. The blasts killed 23 people and injured 80 others. The Dahab bombings led to detention sweeps by the Egyptian security services in the Sinai area. In December 2006, three men were convicted for the 2004 Taba bombing. However, the trial procedures were seriously flawed; there were allegations of torture, forced confessions, and prolonged detention.
Economic reform continued steadily in 2006. The World Bank ranked Egypt number one for trade-policy reforms out of 155 countries. It was also one of the top 10 economic reformers, according to the World Bank’s “Doing Business” survey. However, the continued growth of the informal economic sector is a barrier to future economic growth and reform. 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. Analysts estimate that Egypt’s informal sector represents 35 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Egypt is not an electoral democracy. 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.
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. Owing mainly to closer judicial supervision of the polls, presidential and parliamentary elections in 2005 witnessed fewer allegations of massive fraud than in preceding election cycles, but there were widespread irregularities in both, and international monitors were prohibited. The Judges’ Club, a quasi-official professional organization, refused to certify the results of the 2005 parliamentary elections, as many judges reported irregularities at polling stations.
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 that 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.
Corruption in Egypt is all pervasive. Investors frequently complain that red tape and bureaucratic inertia make bribery essential to doing business. Some form of payment or influence ( wasta ) is required to get most things done, from expediting paperwork to finding employment to obtaining seats in Parliament. Newspapers have increased their reporting on high-profile corruption cases, however. In 2006, the opposition Kifaya movement published an extensive report titled “Corruption in Egypt: The Black Cloud is Not Disappearing,” which concluded that corruption is hampering Egypt’s economic, social, and political development. Egypt was ranked 70 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 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. Incidents of the imprisonment of journalists and closure of publications on these grounds were declining, but at least four journalists were charged with libel in 2006. In one case, Ibrahim Eissa, editor of al-Dustur, was found guilty of insulting the president and spreading rumors that threatened public security. The Egyptian government also temporarily shut down Afaq Arabiya, a Muslim Brotherhood publication, and arrested 20 of its staff. These recent actions have prompted journalists to call for President Hosni Mubarak to uphold his promise to repeal the 1996 law criminalizing libel. As a concession, the government passed a new press law in July 2006 that abolished custodial sentences for libel, but also increased the fines that could be imposed. Furthermore, journalists and human rights groups say the bill puts new limits on press freedom because it allows judges to determine whether imprisonment is appropriate for related offenses other than libel.
In May 2006, several journalists critical of the government were brutally assaulted, and in one case murdered, by unidentified assailants. One Egyptian American reporter for a U.S.-based newspaper was sexually assaulted by plainclothes security officials the same month as she attempted to cover the judges’ story; a female reporter for al-Dustur suffered the same fate.
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. Foreign publications and Egyptian publications registered abroad are subject to direct government censorship. Independent newspapers were allowed to open in 2005, but limitations on press freedom still abound, especially when reporters attempt to cover issues the government does not want to highlight.
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 2006, reporters from the Qatar-based satellite station Al-Jazeera were assaulted by security services and had their cameras confiscated while covering political protests. 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. A number of books and movies, including The Da Vinci Code , have been banned based on the advice of clerics of Al-Azhar, one of Sunni Islam’s greatest centers of learning and considered the Islamic authority in Egypt.
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. Alaa Ahmed Seif al-Islam, an award-winning blogger, was arrested in May 2006 for public protest. 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. 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. Egyptian law does not recognize conversion from Islam to other religions.
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. In April 2006, a Muslim man stabbed parishioners in three Alexandria churches before being arrested. During the funeral procession for one of the victims, clashes between Muslims and Copts prompted police intervention. One Muslim died and 40 people were injured. Clashes broke out again the following day, damaging stores and injuring dozens more.
Members of the Baha’i faith continue to be denied a range of civil documents, including identity cards, birth certificates, and marriage licenses. An April 2006 court ruling held that depriving Baha’is of ID cards was illegal and upheld their right to state their religion on official documents. However, the Egyptian government, pressured by Al-Azhar and the Muslim Brotherhood, filed an appeal challenging this decision. The Supreme Court upheld the appeal and issued a final ruling in December 2006 in favor of 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. The authorities arbitrarily block dissidents from leaving the country to attend high-profile events abroad.
Freedoms of assembly and association are heavily restricted. Organizers of public demonstrations, rallies, and protests must receive advance approval from the Interior Ministry, which is rarely granted. An unprecedented number of unauthorized reformist demonstrations took place during 2005, mostly without direct government interference. In 2006, however, security services prevented many peaceful demonstrations from taking place, assaulting and arresting hundreds of political protesters.
The Emergency Law allows for the arrest of those who commit innocuous acts such as insulting the president, blocking traffic, or distributing leaflets and posters. The Emergency Law was invoked a number of times in 2006, including one instance where political activists were beaten and detained for voicing opposition to the April 30 decision to extend it.
In May 2006 alone, the government arrested hundreds of peaceful political protesters on charges of “intent to assault property and people, obstructing the authorities work, endangering public transport, disseminating propaganda, and insulting the head of state and public employees” according to court documents. When political rights activists turned out in large numbers to support four senior judges suspended for their calls for judicial independence, state security services arrested over 225 people.
The year 2006 also witnessed a government crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood after its gains in the parliamentary election. The Muslim Brotherhood claims that they have had more than 400 members detained in 2006, among them Muhsin Radi, a member of Parliament, and MB spokesman ‘Issam al-‘Irian. The Kifaya movement reported dozens of arrests for demonstrating in Cairo and Alexandria in April and May; some were beaten and detained by special security service members as they tried to hold a rally in Cairo. Human Rights Watch reports that dozens of Kifaya demonstrators have been charged with “insulting the president,” “spreading false rumors,” and “disturbing public order,” and will be prosecuted under the paralegal state security system, as they were charged under the Emergency Law. One pro-democracy demonstrator, Mohamed al-Sharqawi, was arrested (and sexually assaulted in prison) after attending a peaceful demonstration in May 2006.
The Law of Associations prohibits the establishment of groups “threatening national unity [or] violating public morals,” prohibits NGOs from receiving foreign grants without the approval of the Social Affairs Ministry, requires members of NGO governing boards to be approved by the ministry, and allows the ministry to dissolve NGOs without a judicial order. Security services have rejected registrations, decided who could serve on boards of directors, harassed activists, and intercepted donations. The government has restricted the activity of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute (IRI) in Egypt, recently forcing the organization to desist its activities until it acquires necessary permits.
The 2003 Unified Labor Law limits the right to strike to “nonstrategic” 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. No major strikes occurred in 2006, but a number of independent and opposition newspapers held a one-day strike to protest the new press law.
There was marked debate and controversy surrounding judicial independence in 2006. The Supreme Judicial Council, a supervisory body of senior judges, nominates and assigns most judges. However, the Justice Ministry controls promotions and compensation packages, giving it undue influence. A new Judicial Authority Law was passed in July 2006 that offered some concessions to judicial independence but fell short of the reforms advocated by the Judges’ Club.
The Supreme Judicial Council stripped four outspoken senior judges of their immunity on February 16, 2006, after they publicly called for the dissolution of the council and its replacement by an independent, impartial body. The four judges, Mahmoud al-Khodairi, Ahmed Meki, Hesham Bastawisi, and Mahmoud Meki, have also criticized the government for fraudulent and violent conduct during the 2005 parliamentary elections. Mahmoud Meki and Bastawisi faced disciplinary hearings; Meki was cleared of charges that he had “disparaged the Supreme Judicial Council” and “talked to the press about political affairs,” but the council issued a rebuke and denied a promotion to Bastawisi.
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 in July, 2005. Nour was convicted nevertheless in December 2005 and is now serving a five year prison term. A Cairo appeals court upheld Nour’s conviction in May 2006. Human Rights Watch monitored his trial and reported “serious irregularities” and claimed it “did not meet the standard for a free and fair judicial proceeding.”
Egypt remains subject to the perpetually renewable Emergency Law, renewed yet again in April 2006 despite Mubarak’s promises in 2005 that it would be revoked and replaced with specific antiterrorism legislation. Under the Emergency Law, 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. The detention terms of many political activists arrested in April 2006 were extended because of the emergency law, and their cases were transferred to the state security prosecutors.
Civilians charged with security-related 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 other 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 8,000-10,000 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. Torture is not reserved for political dissidents, but is routinely used to extract information and punish petty criminals.
At least 309 suspicious deaths of detainees in government custody were reported by human rights groups between 1993 and 2005. Interior Ministry officials confirm that there have been no criminal investigations of security officials for torture in the past 19 years, nor have any disciplinary measures been imposed, despite numerous credible allegations. Conditions in Egyptian prisons are very poor; prisoners are subject to overcrowding, abuse, torture, and a lack of sanitation, hygiene, and medical care. At least a handful of high-profile cases in which a jailed protester was sexually assaulted were reported in 2006.
One incident involved 21-year-old Imad al-Kabir who was arrested in January 2006 for resisting authorities and assaulting an officer after he intervened in an altercation between police officers and one of his cousins. He was taken to Bulaq al-Dakrur police station where he was tied up, beaten, and raped while police officers videotaped the torture. When al-Kabir complained to prosecutors of his treatment, he was sentenced to three months in the same prison. Al-Kabir’s case is part of a disturbing trend of growing incidents of police torture of those arrested for minor crimes.
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 heiress receives half the amount of a male heir’s inheritance, though Christians are not subject to provisions of Islamic law governing inheritance. 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 percent and 63 percent, respectively). Female genital mutilation is practiced, despite government efforts to eradicate it.