Transformation Processes in the Arab World – the Case of Egypt - International Reports
Transformation Processes in the Arab World – the Case of Egypt
Demokratiedefizite und Reformimpulse
The states of Middle East and North Africa (‘MENA states’) are still struggling for the recognition already accorded to the sub-Saharan states in transformation research. One of the reasons for this is Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations in which he categorically proposes that Islam is incompatible with democracy.The attacks of September 11, 2001 unexpectedly put the spotlight on Huntington’s theory, focusing the interest of the global public on the Islamic world and giving rise to the question whether Islamic societies could be democratized at all. Perennial marginalization of the MENA region in global politics has its own price that is now being paid by the population of war- and terror-ravaged Iraq.Today, there are many who regard the theory that Islamic states are incapable of implementing democracy as disproven. In their opinion, there is reason to hope that democracy might take root in Islamic countries, as it did in certain Catholic states, such as Italy, Spain, and Portugal which, believed to be largely impervious to democracy as late as the 19th century, are now rightly regarded as shining examples of a successful transition to just that form of government.Transition research distinguishes four ideal types of political transition: Those that are initiated by the ruling authoritarian system, by a pact between the forces of reform and moderate opposition forces, by an overthrow of the regime, or by re-establishing the state.In the Arab Republic of Egypt, signs have been indicating for some time that its head of state, Hosni Mubarak, is prepared to adopt reforms. If these should be successful, the country’s transition to democracy might make it a role model for the entire region. In this context, it is interesting to take a look at Egypt’s legal framework conditions. It would make sense to base such a review on seven criteria, namely elected representatives, free elections, the universal right to vote and stand for election, and the freedom of opinion, information, and association. The transition researcher Robert A. Dahl developed this catalogue as the smallest common denominator describing the institutional guarantees that permit designating a system under investigation as ‘democratic’.‘Elected representatives’: The Egyptian constitution empowers the president of the Republic to appoint and dismiss the head of the Council of Ministers and his deputies as well as the cabinet ministers and their deputies. Instead of being elected by Parliament, therefore, the government is appointed by the president of the state. ‘Free elections’: Members of the National Assembly are elected by direct, secret, and universal ballot in elections that take place regularly. However, the text of the constitution itself makes no mention of the word ‘free’, and indeed, there is no way of ensuring that elections cannot be rigged. ‘Universal right to vote’: All men and women aged 18 and over are entitled to vote. ‘Universal right to stand for election’: Egypt’s Parliament is elected by direct, secret, and universal ballot, and all citizens are entitled to stand for election. ‘Freedom of opinion’: Freedom of opinion is guaranteed in the constitution, and self-criticism is even believed to benefit the security of the fatherland. While censorship and sanctions against journalists and the media are admissible only in a state of emergency, this self-same state of emergency has been prevailing in Egypt ever since 1981, obliterating the freedom of opinion and the freedom of the press.‘Freedom of information’: Although this is guaranteed in the constitution, observations indicate that free access to information is being restricted increasingly. ‘Freedom of association’: The citizens of the country are generally permitted to form associations unless their activities run contrary to the societal order, are conducted in secret, or are military in character. A glance at the legal and factual situation of the political parties in Egypt shows that, on the bottom line, true freedom of association is nothing but a theory.Before the law was changed in 2005, political parties had to conform to some harsh requirements: recognising the Sharia as a source of legislation, respecting the revolutionary principles of 1952 and1971, and recognizing the principle of national unity, social peace, and a socialist system.While the law of 2005 permits party programmes to oppose these criteria, they have to be distinct from the programmes of other parties. Decisions about the admission of political parties are made by the party committee, a body composed of the chairman of the Shura council, the speaker of the House, and a number of former presiding judges appointed by the president. The same body is responsible for monitoring the activities of the registered parties, so that any internal wrangling about the composition of the executive may lead to the temporary cancellation of all the activities of the party concerned. This is certainly not useful for the process of democratization in Egypt.Established only recently, the party tribunal is the last instance to which parties whose application for admission has been rejected by the administrative court may appeal. However, there is no appeal from any decision taken by the party tribunal, whose dependence on the executive power constitutes, according to some jurists, an infringement of the principles of power separation and judicial independence. Both the party committee and the party tribunal are ‘quasi-governmental institutions’, the consequence being that it is the executive power which decides what parties are to be admitted.The Arab Republic of Egypt is headed by its president, Mr Mubarak. Together with the council of ministers, he determines the policies of the state, and it is he who appoints and dismisses the prime minister, the members of the council of ministers, and the under-secretaries of state. He is empowered to proclaim a state of emergency and transfer proceedings from civilian to military courts. In other words: The government of the state lies in the hands of its president. According to the constitution, legislative authority rests with the National Assembly, the government, and the president. As a general rule, however, any laws proposed by the president will be passed by Parliament without debate. Furthermore, Parliament may be dissolved by presidential referendum – yet another indicator of its weakness.Next to a constitutional and an administrative jurisdiction, Egypt has a council of state, an independent judiciary under the Minister of Justice, and military and/or special tribunals. The latter category includes the value tribunal and the state-security courts. There is no appeal whatsoever from the rulings of the value tribunal. Together with the president’s right to transfer civilian proceedings to military courts, this places civilians in a sphere that is outside the law, a grave infringement of civil liberties in Egypt.As this analysis shows, Egypt conforms only in a limited way to the criteria specified by Robert A. Dahl. While both the election of representatives and the right to stand for election are assured, free elections, the right to vote, and freedom of information are out of the question. Similarly, both the freedom of association and the liberty of the political parties give rise to some concern. Lastly, there is a regrettable lack of respect for the freedom of opinion, the independence of the judiciary, and the separation of powers.Egypt stands in need of a new democratic constitution, which should pay attention to the modalities laid down in the electoral laws. The process by which parties are admitted needs to be revised, for additional parties, though small, might offer alternative political concepts to the voters. Furthermore, independent legitimation should be stipulated for both Parliament and the government.Finally, relations between the state and religion need to be redefined in a manner which reflects the profound religiousness of the Arab population. While some believe that it would be appropriate to separate state and religion categorically, this would require a lengthy process of societal transformation which, as past experience in Catholic societies suggests, cannot be compelled.The Egyptian opposition has been calling for reforms for years. However, it lacks the power to push through its demands. It would be important to create conditions under which a gradual transition to democracy would appear the most reasonable solution to the regime itself. International pressure might contribute towards creating just such conditions in Egypt.The overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq is not the only event which teaches us that ad-hoc democratization in the MENA region is out of the question. This goal could be approached, if at all, only with patience, sensitivity, and long-term commitment. As the Egyptian example shows, this task is of such diversity and complexity that it should not be undertaken lightly.