Egypt’s Soft-Coup Shuffle
New York City – Today’s ruling by the Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court derailed the country’s democratic experiment that had so far produced an elected parliament as well as a first round of presidential elections. Human Rights First urges the U.S. government and Egypt’s allies around the world to make clear to Egypt’s political leaders that a civilian democratic government which upholds rule of law and the rights for all is the goal to which they must all be working. The court’s ruling declared part of the law governing parliamentary elections to be unconstitutional and cannot be appealed, meaning that one third of the members of parliament, elected in so-called “single -winner seats” are removed from office. This leaves the 508-seat parliament without a quorum and raises the possibility that new parliamentary elections will have to be held. In addition, the effective dissolution of the parliament calls into question the viability of the 100 person assembly it appointed in collaboration with the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to draft a new constitution. “Egypt’s fundamental problem is that it needs a legitimate, civilian government after these past 16 months of disruption and instability. So far the electoral processes it has carried out have not provided one,” noted Neil Hicks of Human Rights First. After 50 years of suppressed political competition, there is now a real political contest in Egypt. This need not be a disaster if Egypt’s competing political forces that include the ruling military council and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other Islamist groups and a broad range of leftist, liberal and other secular parties, can find a way to form a government that enjoys both popular and legal legitimacy. As no one political faction enjoys majority support, that government looks increasingly as though it will have to be a coalition. It will then face the challenge of building Egypt’s governmental institutions so that they are up to the task of running a democratic state. In order for Egypt’s political transition to move forward, the Egyptian authorities must safeguard the political freedoms of all Egyptians. Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly must be protected. Peaceful protesters should not be detained or prosecuted or subjected to physical violence. Independent civil society organizations should be free to criticize government policies and not subject to prosecution and criminal investigations for carrying out their legitimate, valuable activities. The necessary elements of democratic government are well known: a freely elected legislature, an accountable executive branch and an independent judiciary, bolstered by a free press, independent civil society and the legal protection of basic rights and freedoms for all. Building this infrastructure on the basis of decades of authoritarian rule is a daunting task, as the political chaos Egypt is now experiencing eloquently testifies. Nevertheless, Egypt must move forward with its efforts to build a legitimate, democratic government to put a decisive end to decades of military rule. The international community should support Egypt as it goes through a confusing transitional phase.