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Copts mourn the martyrs of the Maspero clashes

Some political parties – including al-Ghad al-Thawra and Tagammu’ – have agreed to support the supra-constitutional principles as long as Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmi’s latest revisions are implemented, but most Islamist forces reject the amendments and are still calling for a mass demonstration on November 18. Although the Brotherhood has not yet announced its official stance on the protest, a Brotherhood source told al-Jazeera that the group views al-Selmi’s latest concessions as insufficient and has decided to participate in Friday’s rally.

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Field Marshal Tantawi with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta

Amidst signs that Egypt’s ruling military council is seeking to preserve and expand its political and economic privileges in the post-Mubarak system, journalists, activists and NGOs are facing a repressive crackdown, sectarianism is escalating, and the civilian police force has failed to fully restore security and public order. As the military council continues to resist calls for a transfer of power to elected civilian leadership, the Working Group on Egypt, co-chaired by Michele Dunne, has issued a statement urging the United States to impose conditions on future aid to the Egyptian military, if it continues to obstruct the democratic transition.

Conditioning Aid to Egyptian Military: A Statement by the Working Group on Egypt

November 17, 2011

Nearly ten months since the start of the Egyptian revolution, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has yet to take basic steps towards establishing a human rights-respecting, democratic, civilian government. On the contrary, in many areas Egypt is witnessing a continuation or return of Mubarak-era tactics of repression, as well as increasingly obvious efforts by SCAF to extend and even increase its own power in the government well beyond the scheduled parliamentary elections. The SCAF is also resisting calls to schedule a presidential election in an effort to hold on to executive power while a new constitution is written. These policies risk placing Egypt’s rulers in conflict with its people once again – an outcome that would be terrible for Egypt and for the United States. The U.S. should make clear its support for a genuine democratic transition that will require an end to military rule in Egypt, and use all the leverage it has to encourage this goal, including the placing of conditions on future aid to the Egyptian military.

Despite repeated promises to do so before elections, the SCAF has yet to lift Egypt’s state of emergency and has instead expanded its scope beyond what it was under Mubarak. It has kept a tight control on the reins of government, limiting the authority of civilian officials. It has violated the due process rights of more than 12,000 Egyptian citizens, including activists, bloggers and protesters, who have been subjected to unfair trials in military courts. It has given orders restricting media freedom.

While recognizing that the existing Law of Associations is deeply flawed and must be reformed, the government has simultaneously initiated criminal investigations into the foreign funding of many of the most prominent and effective civil society organizations in the country. Units of the military have been involved in torture, sexual abuse, and outright killings, as occurred on October 9 when 27 Coptic Christians and one military officer were killed in the Maspero area of Cairo after members of the military ran over protesters using several military vehicles. In each of these situations the military has either failed to investigate its own crimes, or refused to disclose any information about such investigations. The SCAF has failed to carry out police reform during 9 months in power, leading to a dangerous rise in crime and sectarian violence, excessive and illegal use of force by the riot police in policing demonstrations, and ongoing cases of torture and police abuse. And Egypt’s economy is continuing to deteriorate, due to a pervasive sense of insecurity and uncertainty about the political transition and weakness of the rule of law.

The SCAF is also seeking to protect its special privileges and increase its influence over any future civilian government. On November 1, the SCAF-appointed Deputy Prime Minister issued a document of “supra-constitutional principles” that would shield the military from civilian oversight. It would also give the military the power to overrule legislation and control selection of the members of a constituent assembly. While public opposition seems to have led SCAF to state it is willing to discuss these demands, the military’s anti-democratic intentions are clear.

Today, the outcome of the revolution remains mired in doubt, and it is far from clear that the SCAF is willing to truly give up the reins of power.
President Obama has rightly stated that “the United States supports a strong, peaceful, prosperous and democratic Egypt that responds to the aspirations of its people.” In a recent phone call to head of the SCAF, he urged Egypt to “lift the emergency law and end military trials for civilians.” But while this message is important and must be repeated by other senior US officials, it appears to have had little immediate effect on the SCAF’s actions.

In large part, this may be because of the administration’s stated reluctance to touch the $1.3 billion in military aid that it gives to Egypt every year, and which makes up as much as a quarter of the Egyptian military’s yearly budget. The SCAF has a huge stake in ensuring that this money, and the access to U.S. military advice and technology that comes with it, continues to flow. In fact, precisely because of the lack of civilian oversight of the military – and its budget – in Egypt, it becomes all that more important that the United States, including the U.S. Congress, effectively use the leverage they have over the Egyptian military.
The Senate version of the 2012 Foreign Operations Appropriations bill includes a modest provision requiring the Secretary of State to certify that “the Government of Egypt has held free and fair elections and is implementing policies to protect the rights of journalists, due process, and freedoms of expression and association.”

These are very basic standards that get to the heart of what needs to happen in Egypt if the country is to emerge as a stable, democratic country. They are not difficult to satisfy, and give the Department of State flexibility in analyzing the situation in Egypt. But they also send a strong message to the Egyptian military about the consequences they could face should they decide to sabotage the transition and keep the country in its current undemocratic, repressive state. The Egyptian military needs to understand that the close cooperative relationship it currently enjoys with the U.S. military will inevitably suffer if it continues on a path of obstructing democratic progress in Egypt.

The United States Congress should adopt these conditions, and the Obama administration should welcome them. 

The Working Group on Egypt is a nonpartisan initiative bringing substantial expertise on Egyptian politics and political reform, and aimed at shaping an effective U.S. policy response to Egypt’s transition.

For information about the Working Group, please contact Michele Dunne (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.).

Photo credit Zimbio.

Protesters condemn the proposed supra-constitutional principles

As the threat of a large anti-SCAF demonstration scheduled for Friday November 18 looms, reports are trickling out of a new set of concessions that Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmi made after meetings with political parties and prospective presidential candidates over the last few days.  It is not entirely clear what al-Selmi conceded, or whether the SCAF has approved the concessions, but here is how it looks so far.

Original provisions of the supraconstitutional principles to which political parties particularly objected were:

  • Calling the military the “protector of constitutional legitimacy” (which implies a right to intervene in political processes)
  • Giving the SCAF exclusive oversight over its own budget and perhaps military appointments (the language says that “The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces - without any other - is in charge of handling all the affairs of the armed forces and discussing its budget.”)
  • Giving it a veto over legislation related to the military
  • Laying out in great detail who should compose the 100-member constituent assembly (thereby depriving the parliament to be elected of its main task)

According to press reports, al-Selmi agreed last week to make a couple of revisions:

  • Deleting the “without any other” language regarding exclusive SCAF oversight of the budget and other affairs
  • Adding language suggesting that a new “National Defense Council” chaired by the president would revise and approve the military budget

But those revisions were insufficient to get the Muslim Brotherhood, other Islamists, and some youth groups to back off from their threat of a million man march on November 18.  Now the latest concessions, according to Wahid Abdel Meguid (a former Wafdist currently participating in the Brotherhood-led Democratic Alliance) reported in Ahram Online) include:

  • Oversight of the military budget by a secret session of parliament or national security committee in parliament
  • Election of the 100 members of the constituent assembly

This is probably not enough to satisfy Salafists, who also objected to other aspects of the principles, and certainly has not appeased the formerly militant group al-Gama’a al-Islamiyaa, which boycotted this week’s meeting with al-Selmi and renewed its call for a mass demonstration on November 18. Although the Brotherhood has not yet announced its official stance on the protest, a Brotherhood source told al-Jazeera that the group views al-Selmi’s latest concessions as insufficient and has decided to participate in Friday’s rally. 

Michele Dunne is Director of the Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

No to Military Trials

Several political forces and presidential candidates have reportedly reached an agreement with Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Selmi on amendments to the heavily criticized constitutional principles. The Brotherhood and Islamist groups, however, rejected the agreement and threatened to escalate street protests leading to a “new revolution” on January 25, if the draft document is ratified.

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Magdy Samaan, Stephen McInerney and Michele Dunne (left to right)

EgyptSource blogger Magdy Samaan spoke at an event co-hosted by the Hariri Center, the Wilson Center and Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) in Washington announcing the blog's launch and previewing Egypt's elections.

Michele Dunne, director of the Hariri Center, participated in the discussion with panelists Magdy Samaan and Ibrahim Houdaiby (who joined the conversation from Cairo by Skype), moderated by POMED director Stephen McInerney.

Houdaiby, a freelance journalist and political analyst, identified three major challenges that could complicate Egypt’s three-stage parliamentary elections, slated to begin on November 28: 1) security challenges, 2) media censorship and 3) the need for an independent judiciary.  A dysfunctional security apparatus that has failed to fully redeploy civilian police officers since the January uprising appears ill-equipped to maintain order at polling stations, particularly if voters turn out in record numbers as expected (recent polling data indicates that almost 90 percent of Egyptians intend to vote, compared to 41 percent in the March constitutional referendum). Meanwhile, an unhealthy media environment characterized by state censorship and corruption will hinder transparent and accurate coverage of the elections. Nearly 10,000 judges will be responsible for supervising polling stations, but Houdaiby cited concerns that the judiciary may lack sufficient independence to adequate monitor the voting process.

Election results are difficult to predict in light of the diverse political field and lack of identifiable leaders, as well as the fact that millions of Egyptian who have never voted before are likely to participate.  Houdaiby said that polling data suggest that some 27 percent of Egyptians support Islamist movements, including about 15 percent for the Muslim Brotherhood. Polling data indicates that Egyptians are primarily concerned with political and economic rather than ideological or religious issues, a trend that will undermine popular support for Islamist parties that fail to address voters’ practical concerns in their platforms, according to Houdaiby.  He predicted nonetheless that Islamist parties might capture about 45 percent of the seats in the new parliament.

Magdy Samaan, a freelance journalist and blogger for EgyptSource, agreed with Houdaiby that Egypt’s deteriorating media environment and the ongoing detention and censorship of journalists are impeding the development of an open society and pluralist political system. Samaan also warned that despite the ruling military council’s stated intention of transferring power to an elected civilian government, there are signs that the military is seeking to preserve and even expand its political and economic privileges in the post-Mubarak system, including a constitutional provision to shield its budget from parliamentary scrutiny.  Far from playing a constructive role in the democratic transition, participants noted that the military leadership is deploying many of the same tactics used by the Mubarak regime to intimidate and silence its critics.

Michele Dunne echoed Samaan’s concerns about the military’s intentions, noting that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ (SCAF) efforts to wrest control of the process of choosing members of a constituent assembly calls into question what the powers of the new parliament will actually be.  There is a widespread expectation that the elections scheduled to begin November 28 will be fairly run, a first for Egypt.  At the same time, however, the new electoral system is so extraordinarily complicated that even well-meaning electoral administrators might make errors or differ in their interpretation of important issues such as seat allocation.  This raises the real possibility of violence and unrest surrounding the elections, which could disrupt the process and detract from the legitimacy of results.  

Stephen McInerney described the features of the electoral system as well as electoral monitoring, noting that there remain many uncertainties about the details of the system and whether domestic monitors and international observers (being called “witnesses”) will be able to watch all phases of the voting and counting process.  Some results (for the one-third of “individual” seats) will be announced immediately, whereas the other two-thirds (“proportional” or party list seats) will not be announced until the end of the process—mid-January for the People’s Assembly and mid-March for the Shura Council.  With rumors and leaks of results likely, this phased announcement of results might also lead to suspicion about rigging and possible violence.

For additional coverage of the discussion, please visit POMED’s website. The Wilson Center has produced an audio recording of the event.

Supreme Administrative Court

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and other major political forces signed a statement threatening to stage mass protests on November 18 if the SCAF refuses to withdraw its controversial draft constitutional principles by November 16.  Meanwhile, a major court ruling affirmed the right of former NDP members to compete in upcoming elections.  Semi-official statistics indicate that more than 1,500 former NDP members have registered to run as independents or on other party lists.

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Map of Egyptian Political Parties

Jacopo Carbonari has shared via The Arabist a schematic diagram that sheds some much-needed light on the relative ideological orientation of Egypt's political parties. In addition to positioning the parties along two axes -- religious/secular and left/right -- the map shows the distribution of parties among the four major coalitions: 1) the FJP-dominated Democratic Alliance; 2) the liberal-oriented Egyptian Bloc; 3) the Salafi-led Islamist Alliance; and 4) the youth-driven Completing the Revolution Alliance. In addition to the four official coalitions, the map also identifies the informal category of NDP remnants, representing 7 new parties. It is unclear to what extent the NDP-affiliated parties will cooperate in the upcoming elections, but their candidates -- many of whom benefit from pre-revolutionary patronage networks and tribal backing in rural regions  -- will be serious contenders in the upcoming elections. 

Egypt is preparing for its first real multi-party parliamentary elections without the grip of Hosni Mubarak and his abolished National Democratic Party (NDP), ousted over nine months ago. The electoral law finally announced on October 8 has made the Egyptian electoral system one of a kind: with 2/3 of parliament to be elected via proportional party lists and 1/3 through first-past-the-vote system, while retaining the quota of 50 percent for workers and farmers. Further complicating the process is the arrangement of huge electoral districts that make it difficult for candidates or parties to feasibly reach voters with their campaigns. Parliamentary elections will start with the People’s Assembly (Lower House) on November 28.  This will be the first stage of a three-round system to elect 498 members to parliament in a process set to end in January 2012.  A similar process will be used for the Shoura Council (Upper House) elections to choose 180 members during a period from January to March 2012.  In light of the complexity of the new electoral system, international and domestic monitors will have a particularly important role to play in scrutinizing the multi-stage polling process and reporting any irregularities that may arise. However, new regulations on election monitoring have troubling implications for the ability of monitors to effectively supervise the voting process.  

Initially, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had refused to allow international monitoring (Morakaba in Arabic) of the parliamentary elections saying that “we reject anything that affects our sovereignty,” a statement that was very disappointing to pro-democracy groups. But perhaps taking into account backlash from Egyptian civil society and the international community, the SCAF backed down from its position and announced that local and foreign non-governmental organizations (NGOs) would be allowed to “follow” the elections.

On October 17, the High Electoral Commission (HEC) issued a decree to regulate the process; clearly indicating that only registered local as well as international NGOs would be able to watch the elections. The question of election monitoring in Egypt has been long debated, and the Egyptian authorities have always taken a strong stand against international observation, seeing it as an infringement on sovereignty. Despite some initial positive steps taken by the HEC toward the NGOs like extending the registration period and issuing accreditations for free, human rights activists are still skeptical that the HEC will allow monitors full access to all stages of the polling process, including the all-important counting facilities where elections results will be tabulated. Albeit welcoming the decision to allow election “followers,” civil society groups and NGOs fear that the HEC won’t accredit their teams on time for the elections and that a “follower” (Motabe’ in Arabic) will not be endowed with any meaningful authority. As for the foreign groups, in addition to being registered, they have to get pre-approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) before they are able to even apply for permits. So far, the Carter Center is the only foreign entity that will be allowed to follow the elections after being invited by SCAF.

Confusion over the vague terminology of election “followers” and uncertainty over whether or not they will be allowed to supervise all aspects of the electoral process is adding to concerns over Egypt’s highly complex and evolving electoral system. This chaotic system underwent several significant changes before it was finally announced – after repeated delays – by the SCAF in October. 

An earlier draft of the electoral law released by the military council on May 30 drew criticism from most political parties and revolutionary forces. Parties and analysts were stunned by the SCAF’s lack of transparency and  shocked that the law had been drafted without any consultation with political groups and civil society. The care-taker government and SCAF came back in July after meeting with political parties to approve new amendments to the original draft, but many remain concerned about the confusing structure of the electoral system and its uncertain implications for the composition of the next parliament.

The parliament to be elected holds an extreme importance to most Egyptians and indeed the political parties, as the first elected assembly of the post-Mubarak era and the one that will be responsible for drafting the new constitution through selection of a 100-member constituent assembly. According to Article 56 of the Constitutional Declaration released following Mubarak’s stepping down on February 11, the SCAF holds authority of the President and Parliament until elections are held.  Given the importance of the upcoming elections, the latest changes to the electoral law – which reflect the chaotic political environment and lack of clear guidelines or framework for a transition – are particularly troubling

Most of the parties, especially those formed after the fall of Mubarak, have no or limited experience and insufficient time to build national constituencies. This explains the amount of complaining and whining about each step in the process. They have been focusing more on issues not of high importance for Egyptians. According to polls conducted, security and economy come on top of everything else Egyptians look for now. On the other hand, the SCAF is clinging to power using the rights given to it by the Constitutional Declaration, which led to a lot of criticism. The military junta was accused of not being serious about reforms and the public began to question their motive for not identifying a clear timeline for transitioning power to civilians; and many began to suspect that the generals wanted a weak parliament that won’t challenge their powers during the transitional period. This was apparent on several fronts, such as the court decision to allow Egyptians abroad to vote; the controversy over the supra-constitutional proposal presented by Dr. Ali al-Selmi, Deputy Prime Minister for Political Affairs; and a momentous court ruling on November 11 banning former NDP members from running in the parliamentary elections.  

The fact that all of the previous examples have occurred just weeks before the start of  elections is probably not a coincidence and suggests that the SCAF and the interim government  not only lacks a vision for Egypt’s transitional period but is also determined to keep the post-Mubarak political order as opaque as it was under the former regime.

 

Freedom and Justice Party campaign rally during Eid al-Adha festivities in Mansoura

 Much has been said and written since January about the influence, power and fear of the Muslim Brotherhood and its role in Egyptian politics post-Mubarak. A well organized, structured and financed organization that has grown considerably in strength since its establishment by Hassan El Banna in the late 1920s, the Brotherhood and its official political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), is by far the most prepared political force in Egypt when it comes to the upcoming People’s Assembly elections.  But putting aside the fearful tone in local and international newspapers, anxiety within Egyptian liberal movements and western political powers, coupled with the recent electoral success of Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Al-Nahda Party (suggesting Islamist support is on the rise in the region), a much more fascinating internal battle is raging, one that could very well prove to show that fears of an Islamic Egypt are unfounded …at least for now.

The Freedom and Justice Party vs. the Brotherhood

The Freedom and Justice Party’s greatest struggle is not about the Revolution, politics, or Islam. It is a simple case of branding.  With their political and street support waning in light of their confusing rhetoric over the percentage of seats they aim to win, and their overtures in support of Sharia Law and its place in the Egyptian constitution, the Brotherhood can ill afford a slip-up as basic as this.

As candidates hit the campaign trail, competition in the streets is beginning to distinguish the political heavyweights from their less serious counterparts who have little chance of winning representation in the next parliament. Although the Freedom and Justice Party is widely assumed to be one of Egypt’s strongest and most popular political forces, the party’s inability to brand itself effectively is proving to be its biggest obstacle. In continuing to use the same logo as the Brotherhood organization on its advertising and the ongoing public and internal debate over whether to use the Brotherhood’s traditional "Islam is the Solution" slogan versus the less ideological "The Good for Egypt," the majority of voters seem unaware that the Brotherhood now carries a new name in the political arena. This is particularly true in rural areas, where the Freedom and Justice party’s campaign is being overshadowed by a barrage of Brotherhood activities, especially targeting the poor, including the hundreds of toys and kilos of meat distributed during the recent Eid al-Adha festivities. These services are nothing new to supporters of the Brotherhood, but the fact that they are continuing during the campaign season is causing confusion among voters and even some candidates who are having trouble distinguishing the new Freedom and Justice Party from the familiar Brotherhood social movement.  This phenomenon is most notable in the Upper Egypt governorates of Qena and Luxor, where the Brotherhood organization has in recent years enjoyed strong support.  

The Brotherhood as an organization is undeniably popular – polls since March have consistently shown an approval rating of 30 percent – but many voters will head to the polls unaware that the group’s official political wing has adopted a new name, and as a result, they will be looking for the Brotherhood’s name on the ballot without recognizing the FJP. Furthermore, the media’s tendency to use the Brotherhood’s traditional name as a catch-all for the political party is also adding to its woes, creating a branding problem that may cause the FJP to lose ground to more liberal parties as Election Day looms.

In a large field of 52 other parties, most of which are comparatively weak and disorganized, the Brotherhood’s decision to join the Democratic Coalition – which was partially motivated by its desire to calm fears of an Islamist takeover -- has failed dramatically. Having cornered smaller parties into accepting a majority of 80 percent Freedom and Justice representation on the joint lists, the coalition eventually filed their candidates in late October under the FJP’s name. However, even with the support of more moderate parties (such as al-Ghad and the Nasserites) on their lists, the Brotherhood’s traditional support base alone will not be enough to translate into a majority of seats in Parliament. This is due to the fact that Egyptian society is overall becoming increasingly moderate in its ideological orientation. Fear of the Brotherhood and other Islamists was originally manufactured by Mubarak to hold onto power amidst growing calls from a US administration pushing for democratic reform, but now this fear has become real and widespread in the Egyptian street, and many citizens are genuinely concerned about the extent to which the Brotherhood might mix religion with politics in the new system.

Many Muslims carry the same view: We do not want our religion dictated to us. Although fears of an “Islamist takeover” cannot easily be reconciled with the relatively moderate proposals outlined by Freedom and Justice Party’s manifesto – calling for a civil state, and democratic partnership with all political powers – anxiety about the Brotherhood’s political intentions appears to have shifted the majority of moderate Muslims toward the path of more centrist parties such as al-Wasat , Eladl, and the old, comfortable Wafd.

Whilst other parties remain crippled by their own fears of the Islamists, the Brotherhood continues to fail in capitalizing on the weaknesses of its competitors. Two weeks before the start of parliamentary elections, if you ask most Egyptians about the Freedom and Justice Party, the answer you’ll most likely get is: “Who?...” Others will simply confuse it with many of the new parties emerging using similar names, such as the Eladl Party and the Freedom Party, to name but a few.  If the party continues to struggle with branding and name recognition on the campaign trail, those who fear a Brotherhood victory will probably be relieved by the election results. 

Photo Credit: The Egypt Report

Egypt campaign banner

Parties and movements are divided on whether or not to participate in a protest planned for November 18 to demand a swift transfer of power to civilian leadership and reject the supra-constitutional principles. The Brotherhood-dominated Democratic Alliance and most major Islamist forces including the Salafi Nour Party have issued statements rejecting the principles, but Tagammu’ is backing the principles and the Wafd has yet to announce its official position. 

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