Saturday, May 7, 2011

Looking Forward, Looking Back in Egypt

Tora Prison – Where Mubarak’s political prisoners were tortured and government leaders now await trial

Egyptians recognize that they have little time to overcome the power of the traditional elite groups and put in place the rules and the institutions needed to guarantee the rights of all citizens, especially those who were marginalized under the Mubarak regime.  At the same time, they need to deal with the legacy of past abuses.  They need to express their sense of justice by dealing with those who escaped it or suffered from its absence under the Mubarak regime. The challenge is to create a sense of closure without slowing the process of creating a more democratic society.
Addressing the wrongs of a deposed authoritarian regime is generally known as transitional justice. Under Mubarak, Egypt had an enormous number of wrongs, and all but a few Egyptians were victims of his regime.  He kept a state of emergency in place for 30 years, nullifying constitutional protections. Mubarak used State Security to protect his regime and control all aspects of society, using persecution, repression and torture to keep the population and all organized groups in line. Police were allowed to prey on the population, especially political opponents, human rights advocates and the Muslim Brotherhood, employing torture as standard practice. The security institutions made it impossible for civil society, political parties, media and labor to exercise the independence needed to challenge government abuses. Mubarak’s government strong-armed the judiciary, often telephoning in the decisions that were to be reached and preventing any serious investigation of corruption. The ruling National Democratic Party used state resources to bribe the population into voting for its candidates and turned the Parliament into a rubber stamp for government decisions.  Mubarak and his family, friends and business partners became enormously rich from corruption that permeated the entire government. 
To establish transitional justice, Egyptians must first assess what factors allowed Mubarak to gain such extraordinary power over their lives and the ability to abuse the country’s resources without adequate checks or controls. They must differentiate the victimizers from the victims. Only then can they punish the most corrupt and those who caused the greatest suffering, compensate those who suffered the most and forgive those who had no choice but to use the privileges given to them by the regime to oppress their fellow citizens. In the medium term, Egyptians must assess the weaknesses of their security, political and financial systems that facilitated abuse and corruption. Based on such assessments, they must reform these systems so that they serve people, rather than oppress them.
Since the end of World War II, many countries have adapted transitional justice tools to their needs to deal with past abuses. These tools included removing political leaders; releasing political prisoners: holding war crime trials, using domestic, regional or international courts; undertaking civilian court prosecutions for corruption and human rights abuses; organizing truth and reconciliation commissions, to identify perpetrators and seek forgiveness and reconciliation; compensating victims; and memorializing those who lost their lives.  Many countries have added to these symbolic efforts major reforms of security sector institutions.

Some of the demands of Egypt’s revolutionary youth focused on transitional justice. Here is their status as of May 4, 2011:
  1. Removing Mubarak from office - completed
  2. Dissolving the People's Assembly and Shura Council - completed
  3. Canceling the emergency law – promised before Parliamentary elections in September. However, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has backtracked. Their Law No. 34 of 2011 stipulates a prison sentence and a fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian Pounds (about $8,400) for anyone who takes part in or encourages others to join a sit-in or any other activity that prevents, delays or disrupts the work of public institutions or public authorities. If there is any violence or if protests damage public and private property, lead to the “destruction of means of production” or cause harm to “national unity and public security and order,” the fine rises to 500,000 Egyptian Pounds (about $84,000) with at least a year’s imprisonment.
  4. Prosecuting individuals responsible for the murder of revolution martyrs –Ex-Minister of Interior El Adli and four high ranking security officials were referred to trial for ordering murders of protestors. Mubarak is being questioned about his role.  The Minister of Justice expects to charge him for the deaths of protestors, and says he may be eligible for the death penalty.
  5. Prosecuting those responsible for major corruption – Many ex-government leaders and businesspeople have been charged. Ex-Minister of Interior El Adli was sentenced to 12 years for corruption.
  6. Releasing political prisoners – Thousands of prisoners were released during the revolution. Dozens of Islamist political prisoners have been released since then, including two who were imprisoned for assassinating President Anwar Sadat. Hundreds remain in prison.
  7. Abolishing State Security – completed, but the fate of officers is unclear.
  8. Dissolving the National Democratic Party and transferring its assets to the state – completed
  9. Comprehensive reform of the Ministry of Interior – No plans identified
In early March, a group of Egyptians created the Egyptian Movement for Transitional Justice to identify and advocate for the actions required to cleanse their society of the Mubarak regime and to maintain pressure on the military and civilian governments to undertake them quickly. Their demands are in five areas:

1.   Prosecution of Regime leaders – To be credible, these trials must meet international standards. The purpose is to show that the people will eventually hold these leaders accountable for their crimes. The civilian transitional government rather than the military should determine who to prosecute.
2.   Establishment of a fact-finding committee to identify crimes against the people – Such a committee will identify and publicize the crimes, determine how and why they occurred and pardon those who confess.  One of the more appropriate models for Egypt is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission established by South Africa to deal with the crimes of the apartheid era.
3.   Provide restitution to victims – Since most Egyptians were victims in some manner, those who were hurt most severely should be compensated, perhaps with payments or with employment.  The objective is to help the population overcome a feeling of victimhood.
4.   Reform oppressive institutions – Through a new constitution, revised legislation and the creation of effective internal and external controls, prevent institutions from being used as tools of oppression by government leaders. These institutions include the Ministry of Interior, the police, the judiciary and the media.
5.   Prevent the reestablishment of authoritarianism – Undertake actions to prevent the population from forgetting the severity of their oppression under Mubarak. For example, create a museum that documents torture by State Security and the police.

After their horrible experience under President Mubarak, Egyptians truly need transitional justice.  The efforts of the revolutionary youth provided an important focus on addressing the obstacles to progress. The Egyptian Movement for Transitional Justice has provided a clearer picture of the steps that must be taken.  Pressure from these groups has forced the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to undertake some actions that the vast majority of Egyptians never dreamed would occur in their lifetime. 

Addressing the past should not obscure the measures required to create the legal framework and institutions that Egypt needs to tap all of its human and natural potential.  It will take a conscientious, persistent effort by new visionaries to keep Egyptians focused on both challenges simultaneously.

Rick Gold
cross-posted in Secular Perspectives

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