Once again, the Egyptian regime has responded to violence at home by consolidating the authoritarian structure of the state. On April 30, following two deadly terrorist attacks in the Sinai, President Hosni Mubarak extended the emergency laws that have stifled Egyptian liberties since 1981. Then, just last week, Cairo looked like an army garrison when 10,000 police and security forces cracked down on pro-democracy activists demonstrating to express their support for an independent judiciary.
The Mubarak regime needs to understand that it is the lack of political freedom, transparency, and accountability that has helped breed fanatics willing to perpetrate horrific attacks. Currently, Egyptian civil-society activists are engaged in heated battles for meaningful reforms that will help establish an independent judiciary and a free press–essential pillars of any democracy. If the regime continues to deny these changes, it can expect to face increasing radicalism.
The tension between the regime and the judges and their supporters has increased following calls for reform by Egypt’s top judges. Since the 1952 military coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the military-backed authoritarian regime has compromised judicial independence by mandating that the executive branch control judges’ budgets, promotions, and bonuses. Consequently, the regime has exerted enormous influence over who becomes a judge and who advances within the system.
Many of Egypt’s top judges increased the pressure for more freedoms in 2005 by threatening not to oversee the presidential election, as the Egyptian constitution requires. In response, last February the regime launched an investigation against two of the most obstreperous judges, Hisham al-Bastawisy and Mahmoud Mekky, both from the Court of Cassation, Egypt’s highest appeals court. The Judges’ Club, an official entity acting as a de facto judges’ syndicate, however, created enough of an uproar, through demonstration and mobilization of the opposition, that it hoped the regime would back down. According to Zakaria Abel-Aziz, head of the Judges’ Club, Egypt’s judges will not settle for less than the true independence of the judiciary. At the time, the regime promised to issue new laws for the judiciary, but it has yet to deliver.
Journalists, for their part, seek to abolish the reprehensible but common Egyptian practice of imprisoning those who publish criticisms of the regime. Though Egypt enjoys a relatively more open press than other Arab countries, it is far from free. According to Law 93, introduced in 1996, journalists can face up to two years in jail for “publication offences,” a vague concept that is manipulated for political ends. Journalists and their syndicate are trying to force the government to abandon prison sentences for publication offences. Recently, two journalists were imprisoned, fueling a heated war of words between the government and the syndicate. Their jailings served as a catalyst for several demonstrations.
The syndicate went as far as to draft a new law that was submitted to the government. Technically, the decision to change the laws that persecute journalists lies in the hands of the parliament, but the ruling National Democratic party delegates will only move if they get instructions form the regime. Two years ago, President Mubarak promised to amend the current law, and the government has pledged issue a new law before the end of the current parliamentary session this spring, but reformers remain skeptical.
Agitation for political change in Egypt is not new. For over a year, nearly all the opposition parties and movements have united under the same banner: to change the outdated, authoritarian, socialist-style constitution; to decrease the power of what is commonly referred to as a “pharoanic” presidency; to increase the authority of a fairly elected parliament and prime minister; to establish a truly independent judiciary and a free press; and to secure the right to create new political parties, demonstrate, and strike without first applying for permission as the emergency laws require.
Mubarak, thus far, has barely flinched. After much internal and external pressure, the Egyptian regime made some cosmetic amendments and permitted the first ever competitive but highly controversial presidential elections in 2005. Large-scale irregularities were reported by judges, civil-society organizations, and the opposition. Before holding free elections, the Egyptian regime should open the political space and allow parties and movements to work in a free and fair environment.
The extension of the emergency laws is a blow to civil liberties and another indication that the regime has no intention of genuinely reforming the political system. No longer satisfied with cosmetic measures aimed at easing American pressure, Egyptians realize that empowering the judiciary and the press could mark the beginning of a true transition to democracy. If the political leadership is genuine about tackling Egypt’s security problems at their core, it too will need to recognize that transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of any society that aspires to progress.
–Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.