Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Quality of Egypt's Democratic Institutions

Much of the efforts by Egyptian civil society, human rights and political reform organizations were directed toward asserting rights in an oppressive political system. Activities, such as civic education, voter registration, increasing the participation of women in political campaigns, building political parties and strengthening civil society's oversight of the government and security sector, were in many ways premature.  They assumed that Egypt's democratic institutions were transparent, responsive and accountable.  This assumption was invalid.

The current Egyptian Constitution, put in place in 1971 by President Sadat, facilitated the rise of a regime that used Egyptian institutions and government resources to assure its survival. Under the 1980 amendment, Islamic law (Sharia) became the principal source of legislative rules. After the assassination of President Sadat in 1981, President Mubarak used the control of the Parliament by his political party, the National Democratic Party (NDP) to repeatedly declare a state of emergency, which continues until this day. The state of emergency removes citizens' protections and provides the military and state security with the legitimate authority to abuse rights and freedoms.  Consequently, these entities, along with the national police, view their mandate as protecting the Mubarak regime, rather than the citizens or the state.

Constitutional amendments in 2005 and 2007 provided a veneer of political reform, including allowing elections of the President for the first time.  However, the restrictions on eligibility for presidential candidates were so tight that only President Mubarak's party will be eligible to nominate a candidate for the planned September 2011 elections. The Constitution does not contain term limits for the presidency, which has allowed President Mubarak to stay in office for thirty years.

Many Egyptian bureaucrats were given large discretion over government resources, but received low salaries. The result was extensive and systemic corruption, which allowed abuses by the elite, harassment of women and the poor and enrichment of senior government officials. Citizens receive inadequate or poor quality social services, such as education and health.  Few mechanisms existed for citizens to provide feedback to government officials. The Muslim Brotherhood filled this vacuum by providing citizens with the social services they needed.

Despite regular elections, the NDP, has been able to gain control of the Parliament either by itself or in coalition with other parties.  The NDP has been given the authority to approve or disapprove new parties.  By using governmental resources to reward its supporters and punish its opponents, the NDP has prevented its opponents from gaining power.  Strong partisan political leaders, such as Ayman Nour, have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges.  Consequently, no true political parties exist today.

The Parliament is under the complete control of the NDP.  It operates as a rubber stamp for the legislation and budget bills submitted by the Government. In the 2005 Parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood won 20% of the seats of the lower house. While its members were able to raise issues, they were not in a position to influence the legislative agenda. Parliament rarely exercises its authority to provide oversight of government operations.

The justice system is the least discredited Egyptian institution. Judges are well trained and more conscientious than bureaucrats about pursuing the public interest. Through the Council of State, the judiciary can condemn and penalize the government for its actions. During elections, citizens trust them to resolve problems at voting stations. Yet corruption tempts judges and court administrators. In some cases, government officials can influence the outcome of cases.

As Egypt enters a post-revolutionary period, the Egyptian people will  need to take on a role not only of holding government accountable, but also of overseeing the complete restructuring of Egypt's Constitution, legal framework and democratic institutions. They will require strong support by the international community as they attempt to accomplish this decades-long set of tasks.

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