Browsing articles in "Middle East"
Jan 22, 2014

The other 62%

Poll officials counting ballots of the constitutional referendum in Egypt (from Al Jazeera)

Poll officials counting ballots of the constitutional referendum in Egypt (from Al Jazeera).

Last week Egypt held a constitutional referendum. After many months of work and frequent controversies, the constitutional draft was ready to be submitted to the Egyptian citizens for a vote of confidence. 98% of the voters supported the new document. This figure has been largely taken as an overwhelming support for the constitution and the people who is behind it, namely the Army and the Army-appointed president Gral. Abdel Fatah Al-Sissi. Yet, the participation rate was at a low 38%. What would the remainder 62% of voters have to say about the document?

One answer is that they could be against what the constitution and its supporting group represent. There have been some reserves in calling the constitution democratic. For instance, Islam continues to be the state religion, and it is uncertain whether the political influence of the military has been reduced. This is, the role of religion and the Army have not been entirely constrained, what would be expected in a democracy. Thus, the constitution would have fallen short of the democratizing expectations which surrounded Hosni Mubarak’s downfall three years ago. People dissatisfied with the outcomes of the political processes in Egypt would feel the constitution is “more of the same”.

However, the constitution includes some precepts that contrast with attitudes of the government headed by Mohammed Morsi, toppled by the military last summer. For instance, there is a prohibition to create political parties based on religion, race, gender or geography, which practically outlaws the Muslim Brotherhood. As well, in spite of the official character of Islam, there are provisions guaranteeing the protection of religious minorities. Quite notably, the document says that women cannot be discriminated from being appointed to senior positions in the public and judicial administrations, and, for the first time in Egypt, the state has the responsibility to protect women from all kinds of violence. The inclusion of these rights marks a clear contrast with the previous rule of Mubarak and the short-lived administration of Morsi and the Brotherhoon. Those whose power could be affected by these new rights, particularly the Brotherhood, could be among the 62% who did not go to the polls. They would have felt it was an exercise aimed at damaging them, and would not legitimize it by participating in it.

That said, it is worth noticing that the 38% turnout rate in last week’s referendum is in fact higher than that of the previous vote of confidence for a constitution back in 2012 (33% of participation, with 64% of voters supporting the constitution), when the document was heavily influenced by the Brotherhood and there were more grounds to doubt of its democratic credentials. Despite all its problems, including those already visible by the institutions it designs and those that can be foreseen in enforcing the new rights, this version of the constitution generated more enthusiasm than its predecessor.

In such an agitated political system it is difficult that no group feels threatened by practically any new constitution. There will always be losers and winners in the process of trying to define who the actors will be and under what rules they will play. Also, due to the upheaval of such process (evident in political maneuvers but also in violent episodes, not absent from this referendum), people who would like to participate in it but cannot make their voices heard, or who feel alienated from it, could not be very eager to respond to the call of officials to go to the polls. In the end, the low turnout rate in the referendum could be read as a symptom of the convulsed process of political change in Egypt.

Nov 28, 2013

Political Order in Egypt

Protests in Egypt have been a constant at least since January 2011, before the ousting of Hosni Mubarak (from Al-Jazeera).

Protests in Egypt have been a constant at least since January 2011, before the ousting of Hosni Mubarak (from Al-Jazeera).

Earlier this week, the Egyptian President Adly Mansour signed a bill regulating public protests. The government has explained that its goal is to prevent violence and disorder in public gatherings. On the contrary, opposition groups and civil society organizations have severely criticized the law because, in their view, it imposes major limits to the rights of assembly and protest, obstructing even more the construction of democracy in Egypt. Not surprisingly, clashes between protestors and security forces have continued, if not increased, after the new legislation became effective, completely failing its official purpose.

Since October, some organizations had warned against preliminary drafts of this law, making some recommendations to eliminate what they considered were its most worrying precepts. In spite of these preventive measures, the final version of the document includes many aspects that constitute obstacles to the right of demonstration. Concerns have two sources. On the one hand, there are the limits it imposes. For instance, organizers of a demonstration are required to inform the government three days in advance the realization of any public activity (if it is for electoral purposes, the meeting must be informed of one day in advance). Their briefing must include purpose, slogans, time and address of the meeting and, if a march will take place, its route. However, a permit for the protest will be denied if the government considers that there are not sufficient guarantees that the event will take place in a peaceful manner. Infamously, the new legislation also prohibits electoral marches of more than ten people. With all these elements, civil society organizations complain their right of manifestation is seriously compromised.

Failing to comply with those regulations brings about high fines. However, there are quicker penalties. The second source of concern about the new law is that the state can use the force if the regulations are not respected. Indeed, the police is authorized to use batons, tear gas, water cannons and, if they consider necessary, cartridge bullets, which if shot from a short distance can be lethal. These powers are not new. However, the law mentions that police can use those tactics when and if protests are not peaceful, without defining that term nor explaining how such an assessment will be made. Furthermore, there are no provisions regarding the investigation and prosecution of eventual abuses committed by the police.

Civil society organizations disregard this law. Its first challenge came the day after it was promulgated, when protestors organized a meeting in front of the upper legislative chamber, without any notice, to protest against a law allowing civilians to be trialed in military courts. Expectedly, there were violent clashes against the police. The leader of the April 6 Movement, Ahmed Maher, says that the injustice of the new law will provoke protests against it, trusting that it will eventually be repealed, as other unpopular laws have, such as that which gave ousted President Morsi de facto legislative powers and the capacity to overrule judiciary decisions. Another organization, Kefaya (Enough), suggests that the legislation on protests is a clear example that the new government has not understood that the relationship between citizens and the state cannot be the same as during Mubarak’s rule, with the state adopting a paternalist attitude by deciding what is appropriate and not for society.

The new law on protests shows that Egypt has not yet found a legitimate mechanism by which to solve power conflicts. Protests, an essential component of the policy cycle in democratic regimes, are seen as a threat by the government. Hence, authorities’ logic would dictate, some limits are put to them. On the other hand, citizens, dissatisfied with the performance of politicians and with the capacity of formal institutions to process their interests and demands, recur to protests to express themselves and to try to have a saying in political processes. While the regulation of protests to prevent them from affecting “public peace” might be a sensible objective, the limitation of the handiest form of participation is a major blow for Egyptians. Imposing obstacles to protests and not improving other channels of participation blocks the political rights of citizens and hinders democratic change in Egypt.

Sep 26, 2013


Muslim Brotherhood supporters marching in Cairo earlier this month (from Al Jazeera).

Muslim Brotherhood supporters marching in Cairo earlier this month (from Al Jazeera).

On Tuesday, a court in Egypt banned all activities of the Muslim Brotherhood and ordered to seize all its assets. This is expected to be the final blow for the organization that has received the largest blame for placing obstacles to democracy during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi (by neglecting the construction of political institutions and the rebuilding of the economy but dedicating more attention to the implementation of the Sharia) and for instigating instability after the President was toppled down (even being accused of terrorism). With the detention of some of its leaders, including its spokesman Gehad El-Haddad, its newspaper shut down, and now the whole group being declared illegal, the goal is to remove the Muslim Brotherhood from the mainstream Egyptian political scene.

A basic rule in a competitive democratic system is that it should be open to any political group interested in taking part in it provided that it does not play against its rules. An actor cannot be prohibited from participating in it because others do not agree with its world vision or objectives. It is between those two perspectives that the reactions to the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood can be placed.

On one side, there are those who, as mentioned above, blame Morsi and the Brotherhood’s one-year long administration for ignoring the most important concerns of Egyptians and just looking out for themselves. To this group belong a part of citizens, who were not willing to tolerate a closed and non-democratic regime similar to that of Mubarak (with not real freedom of cult and with Morsi trying to coopt legislative and judicial powers), and the Army, which did not feel comfortable in an unstable environment derived from political decisions that provoked strong reactions from the citizens. For them, banning the Brotherhood represents getting rid of a hurdle in the institutionalization and democratization of Egypt.

On the other side, there are those who view the Brotherhood as the victim of the story: they won the first democratic elections, they were trying to establish the foundations of a new authority, but were ousted by angry citizens and the Army. As it has done since Morsi was forced out of office in early July, it will not be surprising that the Brotherhood fights back the measures against it. The only difference is that any riposte is now illegal. Furthermore, as a pro-Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood activist commented in an interview for The Guardian, the ban will make little difference in the group’s activities, because for more than 80 years of its existence the Brotherhood was illegal. Even under such circumstances, when the system was opened the group easily emerged as the strongest, more articulate and better organized political force in Egypt. They are ready for whatever challenges may come.

At the same time, other members and sympathizers of the Brotherhood, mostly young people, in a way are thankful of the government’s measures against it. With the detention of its leaders and the suppression of its activities (including political rallies and publications), they argue that the most radical and aged sector of the group has lost its share of power. Now that they have left, the idea continues, more pragmatic and committed to democracy people can constitute a modern alternative of an Islamic political discourse. If that is really their objective, they will have to convince the electorate that there is a space for some version of political Islam in Egypt that actually fits in a democratic regime. As the Court’s decision illustrates, there seems to be not a lot of current support for such idea.


Sep 6, 2013

Terrorism in Egypt?

Damage left by a bomb attack against Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim's car (from The New York Times).

Damage left by a bomb attack against Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim’s car (from The New York Times).

Yesterday, Egyptian Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim was the target of a bomb attack while he was riding his car in Cairo. He survived, but the explosion caused major damage in a building, caused one death, and left at least seven injured, including a child. As of Friday morning, no group had officially claimed responsibility for the strike, which the government has not doubted in labeling as an act of terrorism.

The first question is: who and why would like to see Ibrahim dead, who reported having received some recent death threats? The answer, although not in a definitive way, points to the Muslim Brotherhood. Since President Mohammed Morsi, member of the Brotherhood, was ousted in early July, the group has been continuously attacked by the government, especially by the police, under the command of Ibrahim. Many arguments have been put forward against the Brotherhood and Morsi: they wanted to impose a backward Islamic state, with religion dictating the social norms and with limits on the freedom of speech and religion, a prospect rejected by most Egyptians; they were more occupied in designing the religious structure of the new state as opposed to attending economic, political, or social problems; Morsi worked against any steps taking towards democracy by trying to assume powers above the courts or the legislature; or the administration was committing very similar human rights abuses in fighting the remnants and former supporters of Mubarak than those the ancient dictator committed against the opposition. For all these reasons, the Muslim Brotherhood was perceived to be an enemy of democracy. Hence, the new administration, controlled by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and, to a lesser extent, by Acting President Adly Mansour, have fought the Brotherhood, who now would be striking back by bombing Ibrahim’s car.

Notwithstanding who actually orchestrated the attack (in the lawless Sinai Peninsula there are many rebel groups rejecting any kind of central authority in order to exert their own power there who could have also carried out the attack), it seems to be the case that it will be more relevant who the government or the public opinion think was behind the attack, and the interpretation that is made of it. Although everything seems to suggest that the target was the Interior Minister (hence, it was a political assassination attempt), the government was quick in calling it a terrorist attack, advancing the idea that every Egyptian citizen could be the next victim. Hence, the second question that emerges after the bombing of Ibrahim is, what comes now?

In other words, how will the government react to the perceived growing presence of terrorism? Under such a threat, even more with the military having the upper hand in decision-making processes, it would be easy for controls on the press, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and other civil liberties to increase, thus potentially augmenting the number of human rights violations and other kind of abuses. Clearly, this scenario is no good prospect for the advancement of democracy or the reconstruction of the state in Egypt. However, today some peaceful demonstrations took place asking to end with the military rule in the country. At first glance, these rallies do not seem to have the same large numbers than those against Mubarak in 2011 or against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in this year’s summer. At the same time, they serve as a reminder that, notwithstanding the popularity of the military for having ended with the despised Muslim Brotherhood rule, it is not a military administration what people want, but a secular, weighed, and open democracy. It is the presence and activism of that kind of citizens that now will be the strongest force pushing towards democracy in Egypt.

Aug 29, 2013

The Phantom of Liberty

USS Gravely, reportedly deployed and ready for an eventual attack against Syria (archive photo from El Pais).

USS Gravely, reportedly deployed and ready for an eventual attack against Syria (archive photo from El Pais).

After accusations of chemical weapons being used in the conflict in Syria, the international community has raised its voices and threatens to intervene in some way. Leaders from the U.S. (who has prepared Tomahawk missiles pointing towards Syria), France and the U.K., (François Hollande saying the infamous gassing of innocents will not be left unpunished, while the British Parliament waiting for the U.N.’s inspection to finish to define what it will do), NATO (assuring the unacceptability of the use of such weapons), Russia and Iran (threatening with some kind of retaliation if Syria is attacked) and other major military powers emphasize they either will not stand still in the face of the use of chemical weapons or in the face of an “unprovoked” attack against Syria. As in the days of the Cold War, both sides seem just to be waiting who makes the first move to have a motive for reaction.

There are several questions that must be addressed in this context. One of the first issues is why a potential intervention would have to wait until now. Of course, the alleged reason, the utilization of chemical weapons by Bashar Al-Assad’s government against its opposition, is sufficient. The international community is ready to defend human rights and to prevent a President from hurting the citizens of the country he’s ruling. It is difficult, though, not to think that if in case an intervention would have happened earlier the use of chemical weapons could have been prevented in the first place. However, this leads to another problem which brings uncomfortable memories about the Iraq campaign: what argument would be wielded to explain action in Syria? If it would not have been something shocking, such as now is the use of chemical weapons, then the call would have had little echo and would have contributed to stamping the “imperialist” or another kind of label in whoever made it.

Furthermore, again retrieving the Iraq experience, it is not clear what will the objective of an intervention would be. For sure, it is too early to think about such purpose, even more because no course of action, uni- or multilateral, is yet defined. One can just speculate about when and how the mission will be completed. Will the masterminds and operators of the chemical attack be detained, trialed, and punished? That would be the case if the intervention strictly stuck to punishing the use of such weaponry. But their use was not an isolated event, as it occurred in the context of an authoritarian government fighting its people. It can be argued that such leaders should not be allowed to continue in office because of the domestic and potentially international threat they represent. The problem then goes to that will be done the day after Al-Assad is gone. The Syrian opposition has been in pains trying to form a united front against the government, for which it can be expected they will not have either an easy time when it is their turn to rule.

Unfortunately, all those questions are very difficult to answer. For each argument supporting intervention, there will be another one condemning it under grounds inefficient past intervention or of sovereignty violation, or arguing that a multilateral approach, centered on U.N. action, must be followed. Additionally, it is unclear who will have ears for the answers to those questions and be willing to change their behavior in relation to what the discussion says. Now it is time to speak up and, hopefully, prevent an already complex situation from becoming even more complicated by involving the international community in warfare.


Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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