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New accusations of deliberate food poisoning at an anti-government demonstration reflect continued mistrust of the military, which saw its approval rating plummet from 90 percent last July to 43 percent in late November, despite assurances by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that it will transfer power back to civilians after a presidential election no later than July 2011.

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Bread protest in Egypt

Like most revolutions, Egypt’s uprising was fueled by economic grievances. Widespread frustration with several parallel phenomena -- the authoritarian regime’s hijacking of the economy, state- sponsored corruption, mounting inequality, monopolism and cronyism -- brought together diverse segments of society in shared discontent.

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Second round of parliamentary elections

Most polling stations have closed after the second round of parliamentary elections. Final results are not expected until December 17 or 18, but the Freedom and Justice Party’s Secretary General, Saad al-Katatny, is already predicting that the party will retain its lead from the first round.

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Second round of voting in Egyptian elections

Voting is in progress in nine governorates for the second stage of parliamentary elections, in which 3,387 candidates are competing for 180 seats. There were widespread reports of illegal campaigning outside of polling stations and scattered fights between supporters of rival candidates, particularly members of the Brotherhood's FJP and Salafi Nour Party.

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Egyptian Salafis

As newcomers to the formal political arena, Egyptian Salafi parties are the dark horse of Egypt’s parliamentary elections.

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Man walking by Egyptian election posters

3,387 parliamentary candidates are competing in the second round of voting this week. Representatives of the Revolution Continues Alliance, which includes six parties along with the Revolutionary Youth Coalition, say that the alliance learned from its losses in the first round and is staging a more organized and better-staffed campaign this week.

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Egyptian election posters

Egypt's political factions are preparing their supporters for a second round of voting in the post-Mubarak democratic parliamentary elections scheduled to take place on December 14th and 15th. According to the Egyptian Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, approximately 18.8 million Egyptians from Giza, Ismailiya, Sharqiya, Menoufiya, Suez, Beheira, Beni Suef, Aswan, and Sohag will have the opportunity to cast their ballots. In the wake of the unexpected domination by Islamist parties in the first round, the tri-polar political contest between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the Islamists, and the liberal parties will undoubtedly intensify and could possibly lead to localized violence in the second round.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), derived from the Muslim Brotherhood and the clear front-runner in this year's elections, has come under considerable scrutiny from liberals for its religious ideology and for violating the law banning campaigning ahead of voting. Yet, the surprising electoral gains by the Salafis’ Nour Party exemplify the distinct trend towards a more Islamist Egypt. The Salafis have vowed to follow a conservative path that many in Egypt fear would have a negative effect on foreign investment and tourism, and could severly impact the rights of women, minorities, and secular Egyptians by imposing a narrowly defined version of Sharia. Given the demographic of the governorates in the second round of elections, this trend is likely to continue. During the runoff phase last week, high tensions and even reports of threats of physical violence against FJP campaigners illustrated the divisions between the Islamist parties.

Liberal and leftist parties, still reeling from the last round's poor showing, have learned from the FJP’s strategies and seek to take a more aggressive approach this time around. One prominent liberal coalition, the Egyptian Bloc, has increased its door to door campaigning and plans to increase its presence at the polling stations to monitor suspicious activity and provide a counterbalance to the Nour and FJP organizers who may try to influence voters or judges. The Bloc has also stated it will campaign directly to voters at the polls despite the ban on this type of political activity. Some liberal parties have also decided to work with remnant politicians from Mubarak's now defunct National Democratic Party (NDP) - otherwise known as felool - to boost their standing and name recognition. Others, like the Revolution Continues, however, have rejected this strategy, preferring to lose than to reinstate any part of the former regime. 

At the center of all the political maneuvering stands the SCAF and now its newly appointed advisory council and Ganzouri cabinet. Although the SCAF has expanded the powers of interim prime minister Kamal al-Ganzouri to hold full executive authority except in issues related to military and judicial affairs until the presidential elections, the SCAF has carefully chosen the man least likely to buck its authority. Ganzouri’s appointment of Police General Mohamed Ibrahim -  the man responsible for the controversial clearing of Sudanese protesters from Mohandeseen in December 2005 - as Minister of Interior raises some alarm that strong-arm tactics may be used to quell protests that could arise over a number of issues ranging from the campaigning issue to the formation of the constituent assembly. Many Egyptians view the advisory council, a body in which the FJP declined to participate, as a fig leaf for unpopular SCAF initiatives aimed to preserve its power and authority.

The current context for the second round of elections clearly points to a highly charged climate. Will competition turn violent if rival political parties clash in front of polling stations? Will the security forces, still acting with impunity as seen in the response to protests in November, take matters into their own hands? If violence disrupts the voting process, how could that affect the results? The relatively peaceful first round may have cleared the way for the gloves to come off in the second - literally. Egyptians will find out the answers to these questions for certain on Wednesday.

Tarek Radwan is an Egyptian human rights activist specializing in international law and conflict resolution. He has worked for Human Rights Watch's MENA division and the United Nations mission (UNAMID) in Darfur as a Human Rights Officer. He currently provides consulting services on civilian protection and Middle East issues.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

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The SCAF’s newly appointed advisory council issued its first statement on December 11 and affirmed that only the parliament has the right to select the members of a committee that will draft the new constitution. SCAF member Major General Mukhtar al-Mullah suggested last week that the advisory council would provide input on the committee’s members.

1) Ongoing labor protests outside of the Planning Ministry have forced the Prime Minister Ganzouri’s cabinet to relocate from its temporary office in the planning Ministry to the Investment Ministry. Workers from the Damietta-based fertilizer factory MOPCO have been staging a protest outside of the Planning Ministry to demand that the factory be reopened. [al-Ahram, English, 12/12/2011]

2) Field Marshal Tantawi paid a visit to Tahrir Square on December 12 with the purported aim of ensuring the flow of traffic around the square. Hundreds of protesters are still camped out in the area next to the administrative Mogamaa building, where they are demanding a transfer of power to civilian leaders. [al-Ahram, English, 12/12/2011]

ADVISORY COUNCIL:

3) The SCAF issued a statement on December 12 insisting that the advisory council’s mandate will be limited to expressing opinions and consulting on national affairs, and its role will end with the election of a new president. [al-Masry al-Youm, Arabic, 12/12/2011]

4) The SCAF’s newly appointed advisory council issued its first statement on December 11 and affirmed that only the parliament has the right to select the members of a committee that will draft the new constitution. SCAF member Major General Mukhtar al-Mullah suggested last week that the advisory council would provide input on the committee’s members. [al-Ahram, English, 12/12/2011]

ISLAMISTS:

5) The Salafi Nour party will seek to enforce a ban on beach tourism and serving alcohol to Egyptians and foreign nationals, according to the party’s spokesman, Nader Bakar, who also said that the party plans to establish a chain of hotels in compliance with Islamic Law. [al-Ahram, English, 12/12/2011]

6) The Brotherhood is developing a “renaissance project” that will include short-, mid- and long-term visions for reforming administrative structures, the educational and healthcare systems and revitalizing the economy. Deputy General Guide Khairat al-Shater, who is spearheading the project, said that the Brotherhood is consulting with advisors from Turkey, Malaysia, South Africa and Singapore. [al-Masry al-Youm, English, 12/12/2011]

PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION:

7) An independent campaign supporting the presidential candidacy of Field Marshal Tantawi has been collecting signatures in several provinces and in Cairo’s Ramses Square. [al-Masry al-Youm, Arabic, 12/12/2011]

U.S. POLICY:

8) Senator John Kerry expressed support for the SCAF’s role in “protecting” the transition and called attention to the deteriorating economy, saying, “There is a need for an infusion of cash into the Egyptian governing process.” Kerry also visited the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party headquarters and met with the party’s leaders, who assured him that the party will respect Egypt’s international treaties and would not seek major changes to the constitution or investment laws.   [The Daily News Egypt, English, 12/12/2011] [al-Ahram, English, 12/12/2011]

NGO FUNDING:

9) A fact-finding commission appointed by the Justice Ministry to investigate the financing of Egyptian NGOs reported that over 300 civil society organizations have received foreign funding over the past six years. The commission was tasked with investigating NGOs that may have received funding through illegal channels or are operating without the required licenses. The ministry is examining all sources of foreign funding, not just the United States. [al-Masry al-Youm, English, 12/12/2011]

ECONOMY:

10) Egypt’s stock index dropped the most in nearly three weeks after Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri stated that austerity measures may be required to reverse the economic slowdown. [Bloomberg, English, 12/12/2011]

11) The Egyptian pound fell to its lowest level in nearly seven years, as the central bank appears to be allowing the currency to weaken gradually since it broke the 6 pound to the dollar barrier at the end of November. [Reuters, English, 12/12/2011]

Photo Credit: Reuters

Egyptian NGO assistance

Non-Egyptian activists and policy wonks are too heavily focused on the electoral politics of the Islamist Freedom and Justice and Nour parties. Many are still trying to come to terms with the fact that the Arab awakening has indeed elevated a variety of voices, some of which are less appealing to Western audiences than others. But in addition to energizing the political arena, the Arab awakening has had an equally significant, but less visible consequence: reactivating Egyptian civil society. Egyptian activists and public policy advocates attest to how the uprising has provided a much-needed jolt for civil society organizations that were dormant for much of Mubarak's thirty-one year reign. In a new burst of activism, Egypt’s estimated 24,500 civil society groups are currently working to reframe the “how” and what of civic engagement by drafting new legislation like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with assistance from the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association (EARLA). If enacted, this vital new law will ensure the free flow of information between media and the newly formed government, an essential feature of the democracy Egypt aspires to become. As Egypt’s transition continues to unfold, watchdog institutions have an important role to play in advancing transparency and freedom of expression.   

Given EARLA’s support for legislation protecting freedom of information, some were confused by the association’s decision to withhold the names of Egyptian civil society organizations with which it works. The decision to withhold this information was meant to shield Egyptian organizations from a harsh legal and regulatory environment, which a study by Peter Gubser has described as “one of the most restrictive in the world.” 

Recently, the interim government has taken several steps to intimidate and increase oversight over Egyptian NGOs, including threats of prosecution for groups that receive allegedly illegal funding from the United States and other foreign donors. The severity of the government’s crackdown on NGO activity became apparent in August, when the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, along with 35 other Egyptian human-rights organizations, issued a complaint to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemning the military’s campaign of harassment targeting civil society activists and organizations. On September 14, the cabinet announced that the Justice Ministry would begin investigating 30 NGOs accused of “treason” for receiving foreign funding without being registered with the Social Solidarity Ministry as required by the Law on Associations and Foundations (Law 84 of 2002). On November 16th, the Justice Ministry shared its investigative commission findings and claimed that Qatar, Kuwait, and the U.S. have been attempting to influence the outcome of elections by pumping foreign funds to Egyptian civil society groups. Meanwhile, the state-owned newspaper Al-Akhbar, claimed that local Salafi groups are receiving millions in donations from religious foundations in the Gulf states. 

As if the current legal framework weren’t restrictive enough, the Ministry of Social Solidarity is now working to tighten regulations on foreign assistance for Egyptian NGOs, reportedly preparing amendments to the Law on Associations and Foundations (Law 84 of 2002) that will “tackle loopholes” used by Egyptian NGOs “to obtain foreign funding to serve foreign interests.” In mid-November, Egyptian banks were instructed to report back to the government on the assets and financial transactions of 28 NGOs. Given this pattern of harassment and intimidation, EARLA’s decision to withhold the names of its Egyptian partners seems like a necessary precaution. 

While EARLA’s refusal to disclose the names may seem hypocritical in light of the association’s support for freedom of information, in this case safety trumps transparency. Authoritarian governments have often justified censorship and lack of transparency as necessary measures to protect national security interests. When governments control and restrict information, the result is to consolidate the regime’s power and constrain civil society. But when civil society actors themselves work to control and manage the flow of information, the dynamic is reversed, and watchdog organizations can actually gain power relative to the government by protecting themselves from undue surveillance and interference. Withholding information from the bottom up can have the effect of empowering civil society, which was one of the fundamental goals of the Arab Awakening in Tahrir Square, Alexandria and beyond. 

Yes, it is somewhat ironic that a non-profit group that advocates transparency does not publicize the names of its Egyptian partners. But far greater hypocrisies have left their mark on Egypt’s transition, with much more serious consequences. For example, the United States expressed support for the Egyptian uprising while at the same time allowing the export of U.S-manufactured teargas to the Egyptian government, which unleashed these chemicals on peaceful protesters. We have seen what the Egyptian government is capable of doing to its own people. Until the new constitution and other protective legislation is enacted, the confidentiality of Egyptian NGOs must sometimes be preserved to guarantee a safe space for civic activism.  

Mehrunisa Qayyum is a freelance international development consultant and editor of PitaPolicy, a blog focusing on the political economy of the Middle East and North Africa.

Photo Credit: 3Arabawy

Bread protest in Egypt

Although Egypt’s electoral process has been dominating the headlines this week, it’s important to remain focused on deteriorating economic conditions as the political transition progresses. Egypt’s economic situation is dire, reflecting continued depletion of international reserves, estimated at less than US$20 billion – barely enough to cover 4 months of imports. The continued depletion of international reserves increases depreciation pressures on the Egyptian pound.

Immediate priorities for the interim government should be focused on securing a cushion to supplement the international reserves position. One possible course is to secure a loan from international institutions at a concessional rate and with a long grace period to ease pressures on the pound and avail resources to accommodate higher levels of borrowing needed to finance government spending. More importantly, a loan from the IMF or World Bank would help catalyze additional concessional funds and boost investors' confidence.

On the domestic front, Egypt’s new cabinet and the next parliament will need to focus on restoring stability, both on the political and security fronts to revive natural sources of foreign income, primarily tourism and foreign direct investment.

As the political process continues to unfold, priorities for the new government should be focused on reducing pressures on the budget and reforming public finances. This requires pressing ahead with necessary reforms, such as rationalizing the system of fuel subsidies and mobilizing additional revenues, to create fiscal space to accommodate growing social demands and stimulating the economy.

Efforts to stimulate the economy should be focused on mobilizing support to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Beneficiaries of this measure would be the "necessity entrepreneurs" who are eager to resume or start their business activity to get out of unemployment and earn their living. SMEs account for 75 percent of the economy in Egypt and have suffered long before the revolution from lack of access to credit, and many institutional hurdles that have hampered their activity and made it very difficult for them to survive in a deteriorating business environment that has suffered severe setbacks.

Availing credit in support of SMEs, coupled with institutional support, including production subsidies and tax incentives if necessary, will help grow jobs and stimulate the economy. Stimulating economic activity will help revive consumption and increase the prospects for investment, assuming progress is maintained on the political and security fronts.

In addition, to short-term cash assistance and concessional lending from international institutions, it is important to mobilize pledges that have been made by the international community in support of the political transformation. This requires an action plan from the Egyptian side to match potential financing with specific projects that could help mobilize activity, create jobs, address social concerns and supplement international reserves.

Over the medium-term, economic partnerships in the form of trade and investment relations will help sustain economic development and satisfy the demands for inclusive growth that started the revolution. To that end, a gradual approach of anchoring necessary reforms in strategic sectors that could unleash the potential of bilateral trade and investments will help increase mutual benefits of economic partnership and mobilize political support on both sides of the process towards a broader form of integration and/or free trade agreement.

Investing in stabilizing economies in transition will help support the democratic transformation and unleash their growth potential to address the social concerns of growing young population and reap the benefits of long-lasting growth in the form of higher standards of living and greater integration in the global economy.

Magda Kandil is the executive director of the Egyptian Center for Economic Studies. Previously, she worked with the International Monetary Fund where she held the positions of advisor to the executive director and senior economist.

Photo Credit: Reuters