The Middle East Channel

Give Egyptians Their Rights

Three of Egypt's most prominent activists are in jail. Free assembly and expression are endangered species. Political choices simply don't exist. It's not likely the future that millions of Egyptians who took to the streets on June 30, 2013 envisioned for their country. Egypt's interim government has curbed freedom of speech, public assembly, free media, and political dissent throughout the implementation of the roadmap articulated in the July 8 constitutional declaration. The latest step on this roadmap was an imperfect constitutional referendum held on January 14 and 15, which led to the adoption of the country's new constitution. The interim government views the referendum result as a mandate to move forward on the roadmap despite that many of the laws it currently relies on to repress dissent are inconsistent with the new charter. If Egypt's interim government is truly committed to a democratic future, then it's time it begins giving its people the rights they endorsed when they voted to adopt this constitution.

Egyptian politics today is dominated by two polemical views. The state narrative warns of a war on terror against an Islamist enemy that will stop at no end to violently impose its vision for the future of Egypt as a modern caliphate. The political opposition that is the target of the state's campaign rejects the legitimacy of the post-June 30 roadmap and the removal from office of former President Mohamed Morsi, and is furious about the crackdown on its supporters that has been ongoing since the violent dispersal of anti-government protesters in August 2013.

But for many Egyptians, the choice between a government that increasingly resembles the old Mubarak-era regime and an Islamist led government that when given the chance did its best to consolidate power and ignore the day-to-day problems of citizens, is a choice between bad and worse. Most Egyptians want political stability, their economy back on track, and to live in a country where they don't fear the simple expression of their will. At the moment, neither side of the political paradigm offers this and it's likely it can only be achieved if the two sides can come to an agreement on a political path forward that provides all those who wish to do so an opportunity to compete freely in Egyptian politics.

Whether such an environment can emerge is the key question for the success of Egypt's political future. The National Coalition for Legitimacy, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), will be forced to adopt a more politically pragmatic position should it want to participate in Egyptian politics, despite its strong convictions regarding the legitimacy of the interim government's roadmap. Continuing to call for the reinstatement of the Morsi government is unrealistic and ignores the will of the millions of citizens who took to the streets on June 30. The interim government will need to take real action to welcome members of the coalition into Egypt's political space so that the parliament that eventually emerges from the roadmap can be more representative of the different political views prevalent in Egypt. It must also begin to allow for more robust public debate.

This won't be easy, particularly now that the government feels its mandate has been strengthened by a new constitution passed by an overwhelming margin through recent referendum. I helped lead Democracy International's international observation mission to this referendum process and saw first hand how divided Egypt's politics are today. Our findings on the referendum process and the context in which it took place were critical. The most troubling aspect of the process was the environment for campaigning, which was severely restrictive. Parties and movements that attempted to mobilize citizens against the adoption of the draft constitution were met with hostility by the interim government and security forces and in many cases faced arrest and imprisonment. The government justified these moves by relying on a statute that prohibits citizens from taking actions against the constitution, a law clearly not intended to be enforced during a public referendum on a new constitution. The restrictive protest law passed in November 2013 was also used as the basis to repress opposition voices and imprison activists and party representatives. These repressive actions were and are counterproductive to the stated goals of the roadmap and ultimately tarnished the referendum process.

Then there's the matter of the substance of the constitution itself. While some of the constitution's articles propose to defend political rights, others, if implemented, will only complicate Egypt's immediate political future. One such article prohibits religious-based political parties. As Amr Moussa, the head of Egypt's constitutional drafting committee, told me last week, this will require parties to amend their manifestos to remove references to religion and reregister. This will not only affect parties like FJP, but also the Salafist Nour party, which has been supportive of the roadmap and campaigned for the adoption of the constitution. Forcing government allies like Nour to abide by the article and abandon their religious based manifestos could alienate them and further polarize Egyptian politics.

If Egypt's democratic roadmap is to succeed, the interim government must take genuine steps to give Egyptians the rights they asked for by approving the draft constitution. The constitution is supposed to protect freedom of speech, by guaranteeing freedom of thought, opinion, and expression through "speech, writing imagery, or any other means of expression and publication" (Article 65). It should protect the right to assembly, by ensuring the "right to organize public meetings, marches, demonstrations, and all forms of peaceful protest" (Article 73). It also mandates that the state abide by human rights treaties it has endorsed. Those arrested should be afforded the right to remain silent, opportunity for counsel, and the right to appeal (Article 54). The constitution is also meant to curb censorship (Article 71).

Early indications are not good that the interim government will change its posture and begin to protect the rights articulated in the constitution. On January 19, an Egyptian prosecutor issued charges of insulting the judiciary against the prominent liberal intellectual Amr Hamzawy for a tweet he posted months ago. A number of other prominent Egyptians were also charged with the same offense on Sunday, including Morsi. This is exactly the kind of activity the interim government should be preventing and is surely not consistent with the new constitution's provision protecting freedom of thought and expression.

While the interim government now has a responsibility to afford the rights articulated in the constitution to the citizens of Egypt, the National Coalition for Legitimacy and other forces opposed to the interim government should be prepared to engage in meaningful dialogue, should the interim government take actions to ease restrictions on the parties in the coalition. The opportunity for opposition political parties and social movements to offer alternative visions is critical for a free and democratic society. Unfortunately, that opportunity has been severely restricted in Egypt.

To this point, the interim government's democratic rhetoric has been inconsistent with its actions. The process for preparing for upcoming elections is a real opportunity for the government to make a course correction by engaging opposition political actors and providing real avenues for public expression. The process for determining both the sequence of events and the system by which parliament will be elected should be more inclusive than the constitutional development process. To improve the democratic deficiency that exists in Egypt today, the government should review and amend the protest law and release activists imprisoned for violating it. In addition, it should release journalists imprisoned on charges of threatening national security. The constitution is intended to protect the media and the interim government should act swiftly to provide that protection.

The legitimacy of the roadmap is ultimately for the Egyptian people to decide, but the success of Egypt's democratic transition depends on what course the interim government chooses to pursue. If it truly wants democracy to succeed, it must take genuine steps to allow for a more free and open political debate to take place in Egypt, one in which activists and opposition figures do not fear for their safety and lives should they publicly express dissenting opinions. The current environment is counterproductive to the stated goals of the roadmap and threatens the opportunity for Egypt to emerge from its current state and achieve a truly democratic future. If democracy is what it wants, then it's time the Egyptian government give its people the rights that make democracy reality.

Jed Ober is director of programs at Democracy International, Inc.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Syria Peace Conference Opens With Bitter Remarks

A long-planned peace conference opened Wednesday in Montreux, Switzerland with the Syrian government and opposition meeting face to face for the first time since fighting began in March 2011. In his opening remarks, opposition leader Ahmed Jarba accused Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of war crimes, bringing up new evidence of torture investigated by three war crimes prosecutors, and demanded the government delegation agree to the "Geneva I" transition of power. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem accused the West of "pouring arms" into Syria and backing terrorism. He addressed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said Assad had lost legitimacy and that there could be no place for him in a transitional government, asserting, "No one, Mr. Kerry, has the right to withdraw legitimacy of the [Syrian] president other than the Syrians themselves." U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon appealed to the warring parties to seize the opportunity to resolve their conflict. The conference began with more than 30 international governments, but is expected to be followed by mediated talks between government and opposition representatives at the end of the week. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose invite to the conference was withdrawn on Monday, said the peace talks were unlikely to succeed due to the lack of influential players at the meeting. Russian and U.S. officials noted the talks would be complicated and the process would not be quick, though according to a senior U.S. administration official, "the opening of the process is important." Meanwhile, clashes were reported in several areas of Syria on Wednesday including the suburbs of Damascus, Daraa, Idlib, and Homs. Additionally, a government airstrike killed 10 people in the northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.


  • An Israeli airstrike on Wednesday killed two Palestinians, one of whom the military claimed fired rockets into southern Israel during last week's funeral for former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
  • Yemeni parties at the National Dialogue Conference have agreed on a document upon which a new constitution will be based, after a Houthi representative traveling to the meeting was killed.
  • Algeria sent 3,000 police officers to the southern desert city of Ghardaia in efforts to calm weeks of clashes between Sunni Muslims and Berbers, arresting seven men.
  • Israel has announced plans to build 381 additional West Bank settlement homes, threatening Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said would not extend past nine months.
  • Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said he will remain in his position despite the resignation of five Islamist ministers from his government protesting continued insecurity. 

Articles & Analysis

'Reflections on a Referendum' (Tarek Radwan and Lara Talverdian, Atlantic Council)

"Overall, however, observers reported no systematic flagrant technical violations that could have jeopardized the integrity of the vote and none of the individual violations would have a statistically significant effect on the results. The official announcement of the more than 98 percent approval vote and 38.6 percent turnout was more than believable and matched our impressions of the process, but the politics of the referendum never took place inside the polling centers.

The bigger questions related to the inarguably politically repressive climate in which the referendum was held. In and around the polling centers Egyptians were gripped by a festive fever, as if proudly affirming to themselves, and the world, that they have a handle on their country's democratic transition. Between the music, banners, and ululation, there was a pervasive feeling that the country was celebrating a range of conflated issues: support for Sisi and the military, support for Morsi's removal, support for the constitution and the implicit rejection of terrorism, with the Muslim Brotherhood having recently been designated a terrorist organization. As the man at the sugar cane stand revealed, however, a large cross-section of the population was never invited to the party. Although the government announced turnout figures higher than the 2012 referendum (figures impossible to verify independently), the tally reveals a significant portion of population opted to stay at home. Unclear, however, is how many abstained from voting as an active boycott or due to a returning sense of apathy pervasive under the Hosni Mubarak regime."

'Syria's Polio Epidemic: The Suppressed Truth' (Annie Sparrow, New York Review of Books)

"Once the most feared disease of the twentieth century, polio in most countries had long ago passed into the history books. Syria was no exception. Polio was eliminated there in 1995 following mandatory (and free) immunization introduced in 1964 after the Baath party took power. Yet wildtype 1 polio -- the most vicious form of the disease -- has been confirmed across much of Syria.

Ninety or so afflicted children may sound like a small number, but they are only a tiny manifestation of an enormous problem, since for each crippled child up to one thousand more are silently infected. Polio is so contagious that a single case is considered a public health emergency. Ninety cases could mean some 90,000 people infected, each a carrier invisibly spreading the disease to others for weeks on end.

This man-made outbreak is a consequence of the way that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has chosen to fight the war -- a war crime of truly epidemic proportions. Even before the uprising, in areas considered politically unsympathetic like Deir Ezzor, the government stopped maintaining sanitation and safe-water services, and began withholding routine immunizations for preventable childhood diseases. Once the war began, the government started ruthless attacks on civilians in opposition-held areas, forcing millions to seek refuge in filthy, crowded, and cold conditions. Compounding the problem are Assad's ongoing attacks on doctors and the health care system, his besieging of cities, his obstruction of humanitarian aid, and his channeling of vaccines and other relief to pro-regime territory."

'America Must Stand Firm on Syria at the Geneva II Conference' (Fred Hof, The New Republic)

"Diplomacy is often a matter of making chicken salad out of another substance entirely. Given the unlikelihood of Bashar al-Assad taking practical responsibility for the ruin he has brought to his country, is there anything at all to be gained by the West at Geneva II?

Washington would do well to come to Geneva with a hard-edged, take-no-prisoners attitude. This is no time for even-handed equivocation. Russia can be counted on to support the regime. Any American inclination toward mediation will result in the opposition delegation being isolated and perhaps stampeded out of Geneva.

The Syrian delegation, led by the Syrian National Coalition, should use the Geneva spotlight to reintroduce itself to Syria and to the world. Specifically, it should table the long-awaited alternative to the Assad regime: a transitional governing body roster reflecting excellence, experience, inclusiveness, and decency. Assad has convinced the credulous that the only alternative to him is Islamist extremism, including Al Qaeda. Geneva II is where the Syrian National Coalition can expose Assad's big lie for what it is. It is vital that the opposition keep the conference focused on political transition and that it be supported unequivocally by the United States and its allies to this end."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber