by Vanessa Tucker
Project Director, Countries at the Crossroads
Last week, Freedom House released the 2012 edition of Freedom in the World, its annual survey of political rights and civil liberties. According to the report, Egypt remains in the Not Free category, but with a number of score improvements and an upward trend arrow to reflect progress since the ouster of long-standing president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Some might argue that this assessment does not give sufficient credit to the achievements of the uprising, while others will insist that the improvements registered in the report are not justified in light of ongoing repression.
The most obvious area of progress was in the growth of political pluralism, particularly when compared with the preceding years’ staggering crackdowns on political opposition, as the Mubarak regime prepared for what many expected to be a hereditary succession. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which took power after Mubarak’s ouster, enacted a number of important reforms, including the restoration of judicial supervision over elections, the lifting of severe restrictions on political parties, key improvements to the voter registry, and other changes, reluctantly agreed to, regarding a proportional-representation voting system.
As a result of these reforms, a range of new or previously banned parties were allowed to participate openly in the political system. In perhaps the most notable outcome, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was able to campaign for and ultimately win a large number of parliamentary seats, whereas before Mubarak’s fall, the Muslim Brotherhood was formally banned. While it did contest past elections through candidates running as independents, their success in a thoroughly rigged system was essentially a function of executive whim.
Indeed, the 2011 parliamentary elections, which began in November and ended earlier this month, were by all accounts much more open and competitive than the sham exercises conducted in 2010. Despite some irregularities, a severe lack of organization, and deficiencies in the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC), it was clear that fraud, violence, and intimidation were dramatically less common than in previous elections. Egypt’s scores in Freedom in the World would have been even higher if the elections had been completed and the parliament seated before the end of the reporting period.
It is easy to forget when recounting these striking successes that there were no elected executive or legislative officials in place from the time of Mubarak’s fall until just this week, when the new parliament formally convened. During the intervening months, all state power rested with the unelected SCAF, which gave numerous indications that it was not genuinely committed to a transition to civilian rule. Instead it attempted to carve out special privileges and prerogatives that it hoped to retain under any new constitution. The SCAF also renewed and expanded the widely reviled Emergency Law, effectively criminalizing strikes, the spreading of false news and information, and the obstruction of traffic—a provision used to thwart street protests. (The SCAF partially lifted the emergency law yesterday, with the important caveat that it can still be used in cases of “thuggery.” It is unclear whether this change will prove significant in practice.)
The SCAF’s behavior over the past year represented in many ways a continuation or an attempted reestablishment of Mubarak-era institutions and practices, and this is reflected in many of the Freedom House scores. For example, the initial flourishing of independent media after the uprising in early 2011, including the proliferation of political debate on the airwaves, in blogs, and to a lesser extent in print, has increasingly come under threat. The SCAF has restricted free expression through direct censorship and intimidation, raids on news organizations, bans on discussing military affairs, arbitrary detention of bloggers and journalists, and editorial interference at state media, which played out most egregiously during attacks on mostly Christian protesters in front of the state television building in October.
Intimidation and violence against people who express dissenting views are incompatible with the development of a civilian-led democracy, but this has not stopped the SCAF, like the Mubarak regime before it, from brutally cracking down on protests and their organizers. The problem drew fresh international attention in December, when security forces were filmed stripping and beating a female protester in the street. The enduring structures of repression also continue to operate behind closed doors, where the authorities have engaged in systematic torture and the extensive use of military trials for civilians.
Finally, the SCAF has perpetuated the Mubarak-era pattern of hostility toward domestic and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that work on human rights and democracy issues. Even as it assails such NGOs for subverting Egyptian sovereignty with foreign funding, the SCAF
demands clear confirmation from the United States that the military’s $1.3 billion in annual aid is not in jeopardy.
Photo Credit: Timothy Kaldas
It would be unreasonable to expect the full transformation of Egypt’s political system less than a year after Mubarak’s departure, particularly when some of the institutional reforms that need to occur—the creation of strong anticorruption frameworks, the development of a truly independent judicial system, and a thorough overhaul of the police and security forces, among others—typically take many years to achieve. Even if a new constitution is drafted openly and inclusively this year, with protections for women and minorities, and the subsequent presidential election is free and fair, these longer-term reform challenges mean that Egypt is unlikely to be rated Free in Freedom in the World for some time to come.
It is reasonable, however, to expect the SCAF to abandon the repressive tactics on which the Mubarak regime relied for decades. As the past year has vividly demonstrated, these tactics are not nearly as effective as once assumed. A central lesson of the uprising is that when a government treats its citizens as adversaries rather than political actors with legitimate demands and interests, it cuts off all possibility of a substantive policy debate. Such debates are unpredictable and often messy, but the only alternative to a clash of ideas—in the halls of parliament, among civil society organizations, and in independent courts and media—is a far more dangerous confrontation in the streets.