Freedom House, an American think-tank that evaluates freedom around the globe, has recently released their 2011 Countries at the Crossroads study entitled “After the Arab Spring: The Uphill Struggle for Democracy” by Christopher Walker and Vanessa Tucker. In the main Countries at the Crossroads study, Freedom House evaluates the performance of 35 countries including a handful of countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), most particularly in light of this year’s uprisings in Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt and Yemen. These uprisings have proven that authoritarian systems are not immune from change, however, recent events in Egypt show that even with uprisings, meaningful change may be very slow to come in the Middle East. For the purposes of this posting and in light of the recent activity in Syria, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, I will focus on the MENA portion of the study.
Let’s open with look at the scores for all 35 nations in the study to give us a frame of reference to work with:
Each of the four facets of freedom are scored out of seven (i.e. seven is a perfect score for each facet and 28 is a perfect overall score). Of the 35 nations in the entire study, Eritrea is the least free followed by Libya and Syria. Not surprisingly, China is not far behind, coming in with the sixth lowest overall score followed by Egypt with the seventh lowest score. Greece and Italy come in first and second among the entire set of nations in the study.
Let’s now take a more detailed look at the overall scores for the six MENA nations keeping in mind that each of the four categories (accountability and public voice, civil liberties, rule of law and anti-corruption and transparency) is scored out of seven for a total score out of 28:
None of the six nations are even close to a perfect score with Libya coming in last with a score of 4 out of 28, Syria second last at 6 out of 28 and Egypt third last at 8 out of 28. As I noted above, out of the 35 nations in the study, Libya comes in second last and Syria comes in third last. Both Egypt and Libya have ousted their respective leaders leaving the countries open to meaningful change, however, they are also open to replacing their former dictators with either religious or military governments that could well be just as repressive. Obviously, removal of a dictator is just the first step in the end of authoritarianism as protestors in Tahrir Square are finding out. In the cases of both Libya and Syria, it appears that the countries are (or have) suffered from sectarian civil war which has (or will) divide both countries further along tribal and cultural lines. As well, the complete lack of a political system that is independent of a long-term dictator has left both countries very vulnerable because of the complete implosion of the previous political system.
Now let’s take a detailed look the nation of Egypt, its performance in accountability and public voice, its civil liberties, its rule of law and its anticorruption and transparency. This will be followed by steps that could be taken to improve Egypt’s democracy. Let’s open by looking at the detailed analysis of each facet of freedom in Egypt as assessed by Freedom House:
Egypt has been in the news a great deal over the very recent past. This year’s implosion of the ruling National Democratic Party came as a surprise to both Egyptians (including President Mubarak!) and outsiders alike. Deterioration in the country had increased in recent years with increasing labour unrest; this was capped by public objections to rigged elections and the possibility of hereditary dictatorship (Mubarak’s son Gamal Mubarak) once Mubarak left office. The death of Khalid Said while in custody was a major contributing factor to the genesis of the uprising. As well, economic reforms were clearly rigged to benefit regime insiders contrasting sharply with the extremely high unemployment among Egypt’s youth. The use of force to quell public disturbances and other political unrest had increased in recent years; both the General Intelligence Service and State Security Investigative Service employed an estimated 1.5 million people by 2010 to control Egypt’s population. In fact, the country spent more on internal security than it spent on housing or health.
First, let’s take a brief look at accountability and public voice. While Egypt held both national and local elections during Mubarak’s 30 year reign, they were generally so rigged that voters declined to vote resulting in very low voter turnout with only 27.5 percent (some reports say that turnout was as low as 5 percent) of 41 million eligible voters turning out to vote in the 2010 elections, among the most fraudulent elections in Egypt’s recent history. Those who did vote were often compelled to do so by the state; the country’s poor were often drawn to vote by getting paid to do so or by threat that their state financial assistance would be removed. Opposition voters and candidates were often intimidated by gangs of hired thugs with the result that, in 2010, the official NDP candidates and their allies took 478 of 508 seats. The election of 2005 was an exception; in that election, the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 of the 444 seat People’s Assembly, however, in the 2010 election, it failed to win a single seat. Some commentators state that the 2010 elections were engineered so that the NDP could win a monopoly through the use of fraud and rigged balloting. In order to control the political system, thousands of Egyptians were imprisoned with the number of political prisoners held without charge for over a year growing to more than 20,000 and the number of prisons growing fourfold during Mubarak’s tenure.
Now let’s take a look at civil liberties in Egypt. The use of torture and rape to intimidate Egyptians held in custody is widely reported. The El Nadim Center for Psychological Management reports that systemic torture in Egypt has led to the death of victims. The close association of the President and the country’s security forces is well known. Egypt is fortunate because it has a relatively homogenous population both ethnically and in its religious composition, unlike both Syria and Libya. That said, the recent conflict that resulted in the deaths of Christians shows that sectarian trouble could be brewing just below the surface. Coptic Christians, who make up roughly 10 percent of the population, have suffered from increasing levels of violence in recent years with clashes leading to the death of eight Copts in January 2010. Discrimination against Copts is not systematic in Egypt, however, there is a double standard that leaves the Christian minority vulnerable to violence. In the final years of Mubarak’s rule, 53 incidents of conflict occurred between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority.
Now let’s examine Egypt’s rule of law. Egypt’s lawyers and judges are among the most highly trained jurists in the Arab world. President Mubarak has generally left the judiciary independent, however, he attempted to expand his control over judicial appointments. The repeated imposition of emergency rule, however, resulted in Egypt’s security courts controlling the trials of citizens who were afforded few legal protections. Certain laws allowed the trial of civilians in special courts for alleged terrorist activity along with the use of military tribunals. The independence of Egypt’s judiciary is regarded by many Egyptians as a lead-in to the move toward true democracy.
Finally, let’s take a look at anti-corruption and transparency in Egypt. Egypt suffers from high levels of graft with corruption pervading daily life. This corruption takes the form of both bribery and the use of exploitation of personal connections to facilitate government transactions. Many Egyptians regard corruption as part of the misery that they face on a daily basis including the increase in commodity and food prices as well as low wages. As well, a study shows that 42 percent of small businesses made illegal payments to remain in operation. A study by Cairo University found that corruption cost Egypt $11 billion annually through graft in education, tax collection and the steel and cement monopolies. Transparency International ranked Egypt 98th out of 178 countries in its 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, scoring a 3.1 out of 10. A major part of the problem with corruption was a lack of prosecutions since such prosecutions would have interfered with the economic interests of the ruling elite.
What does Freedom House recommend that Egypt’s new SCAF leadership and its future democratically elected government do to improve liberties for Egyptians? First, a system that ensures that fair elections will be held needs to be implemented accompanied by independent supervision of November’s electoral process. Laws, including a March 2011 law passed by the SCAF that threatens protestors with jail and fines up to $90,000, need to be changed. Those that incite violence against religious minorities (Copts in particular) need to be held accountable in the country’s formal legal system. Egypt’s security system needs to be held accountable for their actions within the country’s independent legal system and the use of military tribunals to try civilians should end immediately. As well, the new government needs to fully implement its anti-corruption legal reforms and prosecute offenders.
I’d say that Egypt’s new leadership has its work cut out for it. It will be interesting to see if freedom improves after the November elections but my suspicion is that the process of change will be a hard fought and not easily won battle considering how entrenched the current system is.
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