The Path Forward for Restoring Democracy in Egypt

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Prominent Egyptian opposition leaders at the National Press Club offered their view on how to put the country back on track towards a true democratic transition. They painted a gloomy human rights picture in Egypt, brought to greater international attention in late January 2015 just prior to the panel, by the killing of poet and peaceful protester Shaimaa Al-Sabbagh, after she attempted to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution by laying a wreath in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Right Council Keith Harper’s confirmed this ongoing degradation in human rights, stating unequivocally that Egypt had violated “freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association [and] deprived thousands of Egyptians of fair trial guarantees.” At Washington’s National Press Club, the delegation of leaders from Egypt’s parliament in exile and representatives of Egyptian opposition groups reported on their visit to Washington DC to engage with policymakers, congress, think tanks, academia, the media, the Egyptian community, and the general public to discuss ways to move Egypt forward in the direction of restoring the democratic transition. These well-known leaders–some of whom are affiliated with political parties and some of whom are independent–laid out a vision of how to put Egypt back on track toward good governance and respect for human rights.

Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy  Founding President Dr. Radwan Masmoudi welcomed the audience, noting one of his organization’s main missions was to remind everyone that there can be no stability with dictatorship. Five regimes in the Middle East and North Africa had collapsed in a two month period in 2011, showing that people in the Arab world do not want to be ruled by authoritarian regimes. Democracy is and will remain the only antidote to this situation, the only way to provide real stability, dignity, and development. Democracy by its nature has to be inclusive. People in the Middle East and North Africa have learned that they cannot build democracy and exclude a large portion of the population, in this case Islamic parties that represent over 30% of the population–whether in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, or any other country. CSID has been calling for inclusive national dialogue that includes all of the parties. Dialogue is the only way to solve problems and to counter mistrust and misunderstandings, especially between Islamists and secularists, and to build together a common vision for democracy.

The Egyptian panelists stressed that what took place on July 3, 2013 in Egypt was, in fact, a military coup against a democratically-elected president. The Egyptian people chose their representatives in several democratic elections after the January 25th Revolution. The panelists repeatedly reminded the U.S. administration that it should take a clear position on the flagrant human rights violations in Egypt and the crimes being committed by Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s regime to strengthen his illegitimate position. They stated that the Egyptian army has to give up politics and return to its bases. The current regime is a system of state terrorism and uses oppression against peaceful protesters, including killing, mass arrest, and serious violations of human dignity.

Dr. Maha Azzam, head of the Egyptian Revolutionary Council, stated that the current regime led by General Sisi is a dictatorial regime, using oppression, rape and torture as means of governing. She argued that the threat of extremism is higher with an oppressive regime and that the general environment in Egypt was deteriorating and untenable. The goal of Egyptians is to restore democracy and not to be controlled by the military. Sisi’s regime is unstable and unsustainable does not deserve support from the U.S. and Europe. She argued that backing Sisi is to abandon the obligation to defend basic human rights and principles of democracy, which has underpinned official U.S. policy for many years. The resistance in Egypt will continue, and CSO’s in Egypt will continue to play an important role in facing this regime. She stated that continuing the revolution is the sole option to end the military hold on power and restore civil society, so that freedom and respect for law and order will be guaranteed.

Dr. Sarwat Nefei was recently elected speaker of the Egyptian parliament in exile. He emphasized that Egypt is dominated and controlled by the military.  The military is also controlling the media, which has been offering a significant support to the dictatorial regime. The military has killed hundreds of protesters, including a mass killing during the “Rabaa” protest [which Human Rights Watch called “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history.”] The government has detained most of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters and a wide range of representatives of civil society. There is a need for a united voice against Sisi and the military regime, a first step toward restoring democracy in Egypt. Dr. Nafei put Sisi’s supporters in two categories: people who are afraid and people who benefit from the military system. He pointed out the differences between Morsi and Sisi, stating that the freedom of speech and protesting was guaranteed in Morsi’s era while these rights are abrogated by the current regime. The speaker stressed that stability will never be achieved through dictatorship.
Judge Walid Sharabi, Secretary General of the Egyptian Revolutionary  Council, was removed from his position as a judge by declaration of the Sisi regime in August 2014 and has led the way in calling for accountability regarding the Rabaa massacres and other human rights abuses. He pointed out that the current regime uses deception to create a “fake” conflict where religion is the central focus. He stated that the real problem is that the military controls three main pillars of Egypt society. It controls power, it controls wealth, and it controls the vision and messaging of it through the media. The military authority is taking over the wealth of the country, and they are not willing to give it back. To accomplish this, the regime has to use violence to maintain its power. He also mentioned that the independence of the judicial system in Egypt is threatened not only by ongoing illegal actions by coup-supporting judges against the regime’s political opponents, but also by sanctions against those judges who seek to get the country back onto the democratic track.

Dr. Abdul-Mawgoud Dardery served as President of 2012 Egyptian Parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee. Dardery stated that a key crime of the Sisi regime was that it killed at least 3,000 Egyptians, including at  least 1,000 members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime imposed sweeping bans against any public demonstrations and arrested tens of thousands, sending many of them to secret prisons and torture centers. Peaceful protesters attempting to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the revolution were slaughtered, with sixteen people killed in protests over the course of that one weekend. The military system will continue killing Egyptians to sustain its power and control over Egypt and its resources. The country is still going through a period of political turmoil, resulting in grave violations of the right to a fair trial, freedom of expression and association, freedom of religion and gender equality. Regarding the international reaction, he indicated that the EU issued a resolution against Sisi and the violation of human rights. The U.S. interests are not in sustaining a system that relies on killing and torturing its opposition.

Dr. Mohamed Heshmat, Deputy of the Egyptian Parliament in Exile, began by stating that Hosni Mubarak’s regime was repressive, which led in part to the revolution. Yet in the treatment of prisoners and many other ways, Abdel  Fattah el-Sisi’s regime is worse. Through its actions, it is clear that the U.S. still believes that Sisi’s regime can provides stability to the country and the region. But this will result in more violence and extremism. For more than thirty years, it was U.S. policy to support autocratic government in Egypt as a means to regional security. The U.S. Defense Department’s links with the Egyptian military have remained throughout this period. Officials are steadily restoring the flow of aid and equipment that was temporarily suspended in the wake of the coup.
Panelists discussed the following elements of a roadmap to restore democracy in Egypt:
  • There is need for an inclusive national dialogue.
  • Political parties have to start planning for the post-Sisi era and should focus on four points: economic prosperity, freedom, human resources, and social justice.
  • For  an interim transitional period before a full restoration of democracy, there will need to be an agreement on power sharing and institutional reforms.
  • The U.S. should take a clear position regarding the violation of human rights in Egypt and the current military regime.
  • The Egyptian community in the U.S. needs to advocate for Egypt, especially regarding human rights.
The panelists insisted that the revolution has to continue. It is the only strategy capable of ousting the government brought to power by the coup and to bring democracy back to Egypt.
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