The Egyptian Revolution and the Rule of Law after the Arab Spring

Written by Judge Mostafa Farrag*

          Egypt has faced many revolutions and uprisings throughout its history, the most famous of which was the nationalist uprising in 1879-1882 against the Egyptian ruler Khedive Tewfik Pasha and European influence in the country. Led by and named after Colonel Ahmed Urabi, Urabi’s Revolt had a long lasting significance as the first instance of Egyptian anti-colonial nationalism, and would later play a major role in Egyptian history.

The symbol of 1919 revolution (Photo courtesy of Michael Collins Dunn)

          

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

         

          

 

          The Egyptian Revolution of 1919 was a countrywide revolution against the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan.  It was carried out by Egyptians and Sudanese from different walks of life in the wake of the British-ordered exile of revolutionary leader Saad Zaghloul other members of the Wafd Party 1919. It was the first revolution involving women in Egypt. The revolution led to the release of Saad Zaghloul, Britain’s recognition of Egyptian independence in 1922, and the implementation of a new constitution in 1923.  Britain, however, refused to withdraw its forces from the Suez Canal Zone, a fact that would continue to sour Anglo-Egyptian relations in the decades leading up to the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.

          The Egyptian Revolution of 1952 began on July 23, 1952 with a military coup by the Free Officers Movement, a group of army officers led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. The revolution was initially aimed at overthrowing King Farouk. However, the movement had more political ambitions, and soon moved to abolish the constitutional monarchy and aristocracy of Egypt and Sudan, establish a republic, end the British occupation of the country, and secure the independence of Sudan.

Tahrir Square, the place from which raised the sun of freedom (Photo courtesy of Jetpac)

          Last but not least, on January 25, 2011 the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak ended three decades during which Egypt suffered from poverty, unemployment and inequality between citizens. The uprising of against President Mubarak started with a call for change through social media, including Facebook and Twitter.  This call asked the people to protest in the streets for liberty, equality and better standards of living for everyone. Despite attempts by the government to stop the revolution from its cradle, the people fought for their rights and persisted in their demands until their dreams came true.

          The Egyptian revolution is known as the uprising that caused President Hosni Mubarak to step down from his dictatorial throne after 30 years. The Egyptian people were frustrated by an oppressive government, corrupt leaders, a lack of jobs, and a fraudulent parliamentary election that gave the majority of the parliament to the “National Democratic Party” (NDP) that the former president represented. Mubarak tried to consolidate all power in his hands and the hands of the NDP, when tens of thousands, and subsequently millions of Egyptians first took to the streets to demand political change.

          After less than three weeks of protesting, during which Egypt had lost many of its men and women, Vice President Omar Suleiman announced on February 11, 2011 that Mubarak would step down as president and turn power over to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The military junta, led by effective head of state Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, announced on February 13 that the constitution would be suspended, both houses of parliament dissolved, and that the military would rule for six months until elections could be held.

          The first round of voting in the country’s first presidential election in history was held on May 23 and 24, 2012, and by June 30, 2012 Mohamed Morsi was sworn in as Egypt’s first democratically elected president before judges at the Supreme Constitutional Court.

The Concept of Democracy 

          Bearing in mind that a democratic form of government does not automatically ensure the freedom and liberty of all citizens and inhabitants, since it remains possible for powerful majorities to abuse and deny the rights of minorities, and since the democratic process itself may be corrupted, resulting in a despotic government; the democratic rule of law is essential to help the government confront these challenges. The rule of law itself does not ensure the existence and enforcements of laws; there should be a moral content as well. This moral content should include the dignity, equality and human rights of all persons. If these moral contents are absent, the citizens may be subject to the rule by law rather than the rule of law.

          The fact that Egypt boasted two houses of parliament and held regularly scheduled elections did not diminish the fact that Egypt was a police state in which “rule by law” rather than “rule of law” prevailed. 

  The Effects of Corruption in the Middle East on the Rule of Law

          In early 2011, many countries in the Middle East and North Africa faced poor economic conditions from high food and energy prices, to high unemployment rates among young people, to weak economic reforms, and unclear measures to fight political corruption. For these reasons, economic reform is, and continues to be a top priority of countries that toppled former governments in 2011, including Egypt.

          So far, countries that experienced civil revolts such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Bahrain are the economies most negatively affected, at least in the short-term, by the Arab Spring. According to the IMF, Gross Domestic Product (GDP) losses in these countries are estimated at US$ 20.56 billion for 2011 alone. Because of the importance of stability in these countries to the world energy market, the world can only hope that financial reform and a return of the rule of law will help these countries return to much needed economic growth.

          The most achievable near-term opportunities for reform might be understood as those occurring in the “voice and expression phase” of transitional development. More complicated challenges loom for the rule of law, including overhauling the judicial system and the reorganization of the police and security services to ensure that they are subordinate to civil authorities and subject to meaningful checks on their power. These structural reforms will require years to accomplish, as they entail the implementation of extensive training programs, complex reconstruction of legal codes, and the establishment of new institutional habits and cultures.

          The months since Mubarak’s ouster have revealed a much darker outlook for reform. By the end of October 2011, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had resorted to familiar methods of repression, including severe limits on the activities of civil society and independent media, and the fomenting of sectarian tensions for political gain. The SCAF’s extension and expansion in September 2011 of the country’s oppressive emergency law, a hallmark of the Mubarak era, sent a chilling signal to those working toward democratic governance. The scope of the law—nominally restricted in 2010 to narcotics and terrorism offenses—was widened to include labor strikes, traffic disruptions, and the spread of false information.

          Rule of law principles exist to prevent unfair domination of voting mechanisms or the manipulation of the results. Such principles can also play an essential role after elections are concluded by empowering opposition parties to publicly critique the ruling party. Looking ahead to the days following the Egyptian elections the rule of law remains weak, not only in Egypt but in most Arab countries as well. Egypt now has a golden opportunity to begin reshaping its future by evaluating candidates and new political parties in accordance with its commitment to these principles. This would be a way to prevent the new government from abusing its new-found powers or prejudicing future elections and their outcomes. Failing to strive for a strong rule of law may precipitate a reversion to old dictatorships and new monopolies on power in the Arab world.

Challenges with Egypt’s latest Constitution

          The Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the fundamental law of Egypt. It was signed into law by President Mohamed Morsi on December 26, 2012 after it was approved by the Constituent Assembly on November 30, 2012 and passed in a referendum held December 15-22, 2012.

          The struggle over Egypt’s constitution, which may be the most influential example of a constitution among countries in the region undergoing change, demonstrates the difficulty of protecting human rights, as noted by Human Rights Watch in their World Report 2013. The constitution has some positive elements, including clear prohibitions on torture and arbitrary detention, but broadly worded and vague provisions on speech, religion, and the family have dangerous implications for women’s rights and the exercise of social freedoms protected under international law. The constitution also seeming reflects an abandonment of efforts to exercise civilian control over the military.

          The creation of a rights-respecting State can be painstaking work that requires building effective institutions of governance, establishing independent courts, creating professional police forces, and resisting the temptation of majorities to disregard human rights and the rule of law. Sadly, the desire for freedom from oppression and corruption heralded in the Arab Spring has been hijacked by those who seek to replace fallen regimes with rulers who have even less respect for human rights, including the rights of women, as well as religious and ethnic minorities. It is incumbent on the community of nations and NGOs to support peaceful transitions of governments in the Middle East and to persuade, through diplomatic and economic means, the Islamic theocracies in the region to apply the rule of law to protect religious and ethnic minorities and promote equality for women.   

          Finally, democracy and the rule of law are interdependent and both are necessary to create an environment in which human rights can be realized. The big gain of the Arab Spring would be realizing the matching of these essential elements to build a successful form of government and to realize the dream of all the people.

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* Judge Mostafa Farrag is a Hubert H. Humphrey fellow in law and human rights. He was a professional affiliate with International Humanitarian Law Dissemination at the American Red Cross from May-June 2013.  Mr. Farrag is a judge in the Damanhur Primary Court in Egypt and a lecturer at the Arab Academy for Sciences, Technology and Maritime Transportation. He is a member of several boards, including the Arab Association for Commercial and Maritime Law, the Executive Board of the Egyptian State Alumni Association, Rotary International, and the Egyptian Association for Francophone Jurists.  Mr. Farrag holds an LL.M. degree in Logistics of Judiciary and Alternative Dispute Resolution from the Arab Academy for Sciences, Technology and Maritime Transportation and an LL.B. degree in law from Alexandria University.  He has publications including a book entitled Understanding Human Rights which includes a discussion of international humanitarian law, and a second book entitled Egyptian Tourism Legislation.

References:

Robert Stein, Rule of Law: What Does it Mean? 18 Minn. J. Int’l L. 293 (2009) available at http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/edumat/Rule%20of%20Law%20Stein%20English.pdf

Arab Spring Human rights, and the Rule of Law, LexisNexis, Dec. 31, 2011 available at http://www.lexisnexis.com/community/international-foreignlaw/blogs/issues-spotlight-rol/archive/2011/12/31/arab-spring-human-rights-and-the-rule-of-law.aspx

Marc Fisher, Arab Spring Yields Different Outcomes in Bahrain, Egypt and Libya, The Washington Post, Dec. 20, 2011 available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/arab-spring-yields-different-outcomes-in-bahrain-egypt-and-libya/2011/12/15/gIQAY6h57O_story_2.html

Human Rights Watch, World Report 2013: Challenges for Rights after Arab Spring, 2013 available at http://www.hrw.org/news/2013/01/31/world-report-2013-challenges-rights-after-arab-spring

Christopher Walker and Vanessa Tucker, After the Arab Spring: The Uphill Struggle for Democracy, 2011 available at http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/algeria/overview-essay

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