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Winter for Egyptian Democracy

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It is winter in Egypt. The days are overcast, and surprisingly cold. Whereas the United States is celebrating the arrival of the cherry blossoms, here we just have sand and more sand, punctuated by palm trees and formal shrubs such as arbor vitae, which all look like they need a bit more water. Overall, the news from Egypt is not that heartening, from the standpoint of ensuring democracy. The New York Times reports seem upbeat. I am an optimist, however, the coverage in Cairo gives me pause, and the mood is calm, but concerned.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for September. This gives political parties five months to form and prepare for elections. This short time line arguably heavily favors already established groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party. New parties will need the approval of at least 5000 voters from ten of Egypt’s 29 provinces. I attended a lecture at the American University in Cairo on Tuesday night, in which the analysts said that this provision also requires publication in two major newspapers. The costs for this could run to one million Egyptian pounds, which would also disadvantage new parties.

A controversial law on political parties is also being bandied about that would disallow political parties with religious backgrounds. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) enacted a political party formation law which would ban parties based on religion. One potential problem with such a law is how one determines whether a party is based on religion. What criteria will be used for this determination? In my view, this law is potentially repressive. The presidential election has also been postponed.

After some highly questionable amendments to the repressive 1971 Constitution were rushed through in the past week without adequate time for national dialogue, Al Jazeera reports that an entirely new constitution will be drawn up after the election, but exactly when it will be put in place is unclear. The fact that a vote was held on the constitution was momentous, as was the high turnout, and the largely peaceful conduct of the vote. The amendments were written by a secretive group appointed by the military with no discernible criteria, and then were rushed through in four weeks. The vote  was held without adequate time or education for national dialogue in a country with a thirty percent illiteracy rate. I am concerned.

According to Al Masry Al Youm, The SCAF has also passed an anti-protest law that criminalizes sit-ins, marches and demonstrations paralyzing daily life and affecting the national economy. The draft law states, “anyone organizing or calling for a protest would be sentenced to jail and/or a fine of up to LE500,000.” This amount, which is about $100,000, is a staggering amount of money in a country with high inequality of wealth, where half the population lives on less than two dollars a day. These conditions are pernicious in a country whose “Revolution,” was based on just such protests.

The military has been in the press lately over allegations of detention, torture, and arbitrary sentencing of protesters. Most of these new laws strike me as void for vagueness. In addition, the fact that the military is handing down edicts, benign or not, makes me uncomfortable. Apparently, many Egyptians agree with me, since hundreds of protesters gathered on Sunday night to decry the decision. Hopefully, conditions will improve, and spring will truly arrive in the next few weeks.

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About Warigia Bowman