Monday, March 19, 2007

Egypt turns its back on democracy

Almost a quarter of Egypt’s parliament has walked out in protest over constitutional amendments proposed by President Mubarak. Yesterday the parliament voted in principle to approve 34 articles of the constitution, as well as the drafting of a new anti-terrorism law. The change will ban the establishment of religious parties, allow the adoption of a new election law and do away with the need for judicial supervision of every ballot box. Egypt's opposition has denounced the changes as "opening the way to a police state".

The changes will now go before the legislature this week where Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has a large enough majority to pass the 34 amendments. But Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program, made a statement on Saturday which condemned the proposal saying it will "enrich the long-standing system of abuse under Egypt's state of emergency powers and give the misuse of those powers a bogus legitimacy." The proposed amendments will weaken the role of judges in monitoring elections and give police greater powers of arrest and open authority to monitor private communications.

The laws are aimed at curbing the power of the leaders of the boycott and the main opposition movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood. It was established in 1928 as an Islamist movement under British colonial rule. It was founded by a schoolteacher named Hassan Al-Banna to promote social renewal based on an Islamic ethos of altruism and civic duty. Though initially focused on its educational and charitable work, the Muslim Brotherhood soon quickly grew to become a major political force. Despite calls for the violent overthrow of the regime by more extremist members, the Brotherhood has bee dominated by reformists who want to work within the system. As a result, the movement has been tolerated to an extent, but remains illegal and is subjected to periodic crackdowns. In the most recent elections in 2005, the Brotherhood's candidates stood as independents. Despite arrests and harassment they won a fifth of the seats (88 in all) to become the largest opposition group.

Eleven members of the Brotherhood were arrested in the leadup to the vote. 47 members in all have been arrested since they announced they would boycott the vote on the change to the constitutional laws. According to Hazem Farouk, a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian, the latest arrests occurred on Friday when the men were distributing medical supplies in Cairo. Farouk said police were ignoring an order from a public prosecutor to release them. "We are suffering from discrimination because of our beliefs and political thinking," he said.

The move is the latest in a long line of blows to democracy in Egypt. Last week an Egyptian court upheld a verdict sentencing a blogger to 4 years in prison on charges of insulting Islam and the president. An Alexandrian appeals court approved the verdict issued last month against 22-year-old Abdul Karim Nabil Amer, who was convicted on charges of "ridiculing Islam and insulting" Mubarak in his "Karim Amer" blog. Amer had criticised Mubarak's regime, saying it was a "symbol of dictatorship."

Dictatorship or not, Mubarak’s longterm regime has been buffered by the US who are unwilling to challenge an ally despite its unwillingness to share power. The US is not keen to see the Islamist Brotherhood gain influence. In the 2005 elections independent monitors complained of "a systematic and planned campaign" to block opposition voters from casting ballots in which 14 people were killed and hundreds arrested. But the US defended the election result with a State Department spokesman saying they had "not received, at this point, any indication that the Egyptian government isn't interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections."

Hosni Mubarak has now been in power for 26 years. Mubarak emerged from the Egyptian Air Force where he was commander in chief after serving as Head of the Air Force Academy and the Chief of Staff. Vice president from 1975, he assumed leadership of Egypt after Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. He has since been re-elected in 1987, 1993, 1999 and again in 2005 and has survived at least six assassination attempts. Now 77 years old, Mubarak still rules the country with an iron fist and has abolished the vice presidency since taking control.

Mubarak has been conspicuously silent on his preferences for succession but there are strong rumours he is grooming his younger son Gamal to take over. Gamal himself has said the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood was having "negative repercussions on the electoral and political process." The Brotherhood is unlikely to support another Mubarak pharaoh. The question is will the new laws prevent them from doing anything about it. The further Egypt retreats from democracy, the closer an Islamic Revolution becomes likely. The US protection of the Mubarak regime may yet come back to haunt it.

No comments: