Arab Awakening's columnists offer their weekly perspective on what is happening on the ground in the Middle East. Leading the week: Will Islamic fundamentalism be a threat to democracy?
By Ahmed Medien
Not so long ago, a dozen Salafis occupied the campus of Tunis University. Two months had gone by and students weren’t allowed into the classrooms because a handful of niqabi-wearing students insisted on infringing the rules governing the university’s dress code.
A week ago, Salafis rioted in Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid. Their presence is more and more apparent in the streets. They seem to be omnipresent - your local grocery owner, the taxi cab driver, the DVD shop salesman and your city’s municipality employee. They believe in one truth, theirs. They contrast in this with the overwhelming majority of Tunisian society who firmly believe in the separation of the state from religion, freedom of faith and gender equality – all beliefs which have made Tunisia one of the best places to live in the Arab Muslim world. They are a threat to our revolution.
What do these Islamists have to offer Tunisia? Is Islamic fundamentalism a threat to the emerging democratic modern state of Tunisia, and how shall we deal with these fanatics? I say that it is up to the youth, including me, to answer these questions and to take action. But what about Dorra Agrebi, 21, a student at the University of Arts in Manouba, where the Salafi sit–in took place, who missed two months of her education? What does she say about this? She is a lively and passionate co-founder of AMENA, one of the first associations to combat sexual harassment in Tunisia, and also the coach of an all-girl basketball team. Dorra Agrebi thinks that, ‘Tunisia needs not only its Islamists, but all the constituencies that exist in our society. Islamists – those who are not extremists - can bring some balance to the Tunisian landscape”.
She thinks that Salafis came out of the woodwork all of a sudden - with the ascent of the Islamist Ennahda party to power; and that they will disappear just as swiftly once the party is voted out.
But Dorra is wrong. Ennahda has a good party profile that will hugely influence Tunisian politics for decades to come. They represent the hopes and the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of the forgotten ones, persecuted and marginalized during more than a half century of dictatorship. Salafis think that the modern state of Tunisia conflicts with their Arab Muslim identity, and that society should comply with Islam, only one interpretation of it, theirs.
Salafi views are conservative not only in economic terms, as in their stance on jijya, but also in such areas as gender equality. Isn’t Dorra afraid that a more patriarchal society will marginalize her opinions and deny her equal opportunities? She remains optimistic:
“Our hard work and consistent quest for perfection as females are the things that make us count in such a society. I personally do not blame patriarchy for everything; on the contrary, underestimating my abilities always motivates me to go further. It is true that there are always men ready to take a stand, saying, “I’m a man, I can do it. You’re a woman, you cannot” - but I don’t really care. All I have to do is to prove him wrong - which would be a great pleasure.”
But Dorra may have to deal with more than fanatical patriarchs if this phenomenon grows. She might need to set up another association, this time against religious harassment.
Salafism has become a much-feared, inflammatory topic in recent weeks in Tunisia. On the one hand there is a certain thrill in the way they have brought together Tunisians from different parts of the spectrum of political ideology in condemnation of their unrelenting campaign for new recruits. However, their way of combating individualism, creativity and capitalism is also increasingly feared. Tunisians now have to think twice before manifesting any religious, sexual or ideological identity.
Dorra, like many people of her age, thinks that society can still absorb Tunisia’s young Salafis and perhaps help them soften their narrow views on Islam. She says:
“Most of them are just young people driven by the desire to do something useful with their lives. When you get to know some of them and really talk to them as I have done, you will notice that they are as afraid as anyone else and just trying to find a place in this world, by trying to define who they are.”
Dorra is certainly not the only Tunisian who thinks that it is important to include every Tunisian citizen in Tunisia’s democratic transition with no exception. Intellectuals and artists have long fought for a more liberal and democratic Tunisia of this kind. But photographer Hela Ammar has a rather different approach to this challenge:
“Ideological violence in my opinion is the result of decades of frustration and humiliation of all kinds. Given the situation that prevailed in Tunisia, it was inevitable. Now we need to address and counter it by the most appropriate measures: education, dialogue and sanctions for a violation of the law.”
Hela Ammar is a Tunisian painter, photographer and law instructor. She recently exhibited, at the “Printemps des arts” fair, a photograph of a Tunisian woman, struggling somehow between her femininity, the wave of the Arab Spring, and the male-dominated world around her.
Her message to the youth is simply, “to open their eyes and their hearts. Art is synonymous with freedom: it is of the essence of humanity and bears no hindrance.”
When considering what Qatar might have in common with Arab countries which experienced revolutions following December 2010, one might get easily confused. There was no Arab Spring here, people did not take to the streets in protest. Indeed, most Qataris hold a genuine affection for the Emir, something which cannot be said for many other Arab nations.
It follows then that Qatar must be unaffected by the macro social processes that led to the outbreak of the Arab Spring. For if Qatar did not experience any of the symptoms it surely did not suffer from the illness, right?
Wrong, Qatar, like every Arab country in the world is struggling to deal with a number of social issues,ranging from a youth demographic boom, to political Islam, to inherent tribalism which pervades the public sphere.
Of most importance is the struggle between traditionalism and modernity, between the values of a mostly Bedouin orientated society clashing against western ideas. The struggle that many of the country’s young population go through on a daily basis is painfully obvious, as they attempt to combine the expectations of their families with growing up in a globalised world which their parents fundamentally do not understand.
This social cleavage leads to a society which awkwardly steps into the future, leading the ruler Sheikh Hamad Al Thani to plot a course which combines a mix of modernising polices on one hand with concessions to conservative forces on the other.
In recent years, this process has begun to accelerate.
Firstly Qatar has increased its reach to the world, and welcomed in large numbers of expatriate workers, who bring with them ideas and culture alien to Qataris. Some aspects of this alien culture have been absorbed, while other aspects are totally rejected.
But the real driver of change is the huge number of Qataris studying in the United Kingdom and the United States, fully funded of course by the endlessly deep pockets of the state.
For those who shun the temptation to pay for their degree and stick out four years in college, the inculcation of western ideas and values is an inevitable part of their learning experience. Such types are easy to spot, usually by their beautifully accented and flawless English, which in many cases is of a higher standard than their Arabic.
In recent years many of these cultural crossbreeds have made their way back to Qatar, and the result has been both positive and noticeable. Local think tanks designed to encourage Qataris to build their own civic identity from the ground up are finding their feet, and entrepreneurial Qataris now tentatively push for liberalising reforms. It is a slow painful process, but the first signs of real change in Qatar are there.
What is noticeable in Qatar now is that the Arab Awakening has given this process more edge and vitality, and imbued these younger educated members of society with a sense that change will come, and that they must be part of that change. Conversations in the majlis are now more alive with the idea that Qataris must play a more active role in being the change they wish to see.
To some extent this is not against the wishes of the ruling house. Her Highness Sheikha Moza long envisaged a more active public space for Qatar. That the Arab Awakening may have begun to push this process forward a little quicker may be unsettling, but the process was to some extent inevitable.
It remains to be seen if this transition led by young educated Qataris inspired by different values, and the courage of their fellow Arabs in other nations, leads to genuine change and egalitarianism. One thing is for certain, processes of social change have started, which will not be undone.
By Tareq Baconi
Jordan is facing considerable economic challenges which require structural reform. The government, however, appears to be attempting to circumvent such reform by prescribing inadequate solutions and temporary measures in an attempt to elicit a quick fix. Perhaps it fears provoking popular outrage in the midst of a dire economic situation, but the haphazard approach has neither limited the public backlash nor provided a sufficient response to Jordan’s economic imbalance.
On May 24, the government announced new electricity rates which were 23% to 125% higher than the rates to date, raising electricity prices to, on average, 89 fils/kWh. In response to the anticipated demonstrations, the government was quick to highlight – and assure Jordanians – that these rates would impact only specific sectors within the country, including banking, telecommunications, water, hotel, ports, large industry (mining) and street lights (municipal).
The government insisted that these increases were fair and would shield citizens and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) that would have otherwise been unfairly impacted. It also stressed that the rise in the price of 95-Octane fuel (which it announced almost concurrently) to JD1/litre from JD0.795/litre would similarly target specific sectors and exempt citizens.
These tenuous justifications have barely staved off swelling opposition. Consumers and exempted sectors not immediately impacted by the price hikes will nonetheless almost certainly be affected by the rising prices of commodities and services. Sectors that face the brunt of the price increase will invariably have to cut their own costs and reduce employment.
The public reaction was reminiscent of the 1989 Jordanian uprisings – April 1989 protests in South Jordan against economic hardships which ultimately caused martial law to be lifted - with the added virtual dimension. Over the past two weeks, Jordanian blogs and social networks have been filled with angry protestations and accusations against government actions. These criticisms further swelled when the government announced additional taxes on alcohol and tobacco, with citizens quipping that the government was taxing their last consolation.
Facilitated by the internet, these protests were widespread, both geographically and demographically. Unlike the 1989 riots, they were not centred in Jordan’s southern governorates but were widespread across the country. Neither were they limited to low earning citizens but rather they transcended income brackets.
Most importantly, they sprang off a yearlong struggle which has been calling for reform and change.
There is no denying that the government has an urgent need to tackle the economic challenges Jordan is facing. Specifically, it needs to rationalise the discrepancy between its costing and pricing of power generation; even after these increases, the price of electricity remains less than half of the National Electricity Company’s (NEPCO) generation cost.
Nonetheless, the price hikes were clearly not perceived by Jordanians as the right approach to deal with these underlying economic issues. Despite their tangible impact, they were actually viewed by many as insufficient, ill-informed or wrongly targeted. Alternative strategies such as the overhauling of the taxation system to introduce tax brackets were immediately put forward and debated in the mainstream media.
The government’s attempt to underplay the impact of these price hikes served simply to fuel resentment against the new policies and feed suspicions of corruption. Jordanian citizens might have been more adaptable to understanding the rationale behind price rises if they were coupled with an effort to achieve a more transparent and just form of governance. In the absence of this, discourse emerging from the protests is likely to continue to reflect a deeply held perception that ending corruption and holding embezzlers accountable will generate far more income for the government than these price hikes ever could.
In a recent public statement to the press, Bahrain’s Economic Development Board (EDB) sounded the alarm: “EDB Stresses on Need to Diversify Away From Oil”. Although the need to diversify away from oil is news to no one, the matter has been given renewed urgency by a study carried out by the International Monetary Fund that placed Bahrain’s break-even oil price, i.e. the oil price at which the country can balance its annual budget, at $114 up from $80 in the 2008, an increase owed mainly to growing recurrent expenditure.
The EDB has played a diminished role in shaping public policy in Bahrain since protests erupted in February 2011. Its statement can be seen as more of a message to the government itself than anything else. Its most recent Economic Quarterly review (Q4 2011 – Q1 2012) argues that due to the kingdom’s heavy reliance on oil revenues and a growing non-oil deficit, the country’s ‘budget was exposed’ when oil prices fell sharply in late 2008, catapulting government debt from a mere 6% of nominal GDP at the end of 2008 to 35% by the end of 2010.
In a tense political situation however, the government does not seem eager to slash and redirect any of its public expenditure, which is deemed highly inefficient. In a 2010 study, the EDB estimates that only 3.6% of the country’s welfare spending goes to the lowest household income group earning BD2,400 ($6,367) per year. In contrast, the top category of households earning BD30,000 ($79,584) and above per year receives about 17%, i.e. about 5 times more. Given the country’s regressive welfare system and the absence of a progressive income tax regime, households on the top of the income ladder who can afford to consume more end up benefiting disproportionately. In other words, Bahrain’s current welfare spending policies not only do nothing to help its debt situation but also clearly exacerbate income inequality.
Yet, old habits die hard. Instead of heeding both the EDB’s and the IMF’s warning, Bahrain’s oil minister announced in early May plans to invest $15 billion over the next two decades to increase the island’s crude oil and gas production capacity. Enhancing gas production capacity is deemed critical especially in light of plans to considerably expand Alba, the country’s aluminium smelter, given Qatar’s obscure refusal to provide Bahrain with its additional gas requirements. Moreover, the IMF points out that in August 2011, civil servants received a salary hike of 15%, a move aimed at allaying political pressure. The government also dealt a blow to its non-oil revenues end of last March when, succumbing to pressure from the Chamber of Commerce and business owners, it extended the freeze on a fee levied on businesses for every expatriate worker they employ to June 31 of this year. For its part, the parliament, renowned for not being the epitome of fiscal responsibility, has honoured its populist ‘hand-outs’ tradition by approving a one-time marriage assistance sum of BD1,000 ($2653) to newlywed couples, a watered down amount relative to the initial proposed sum of BD5,000 ($13,264), despite the absence of any downward demographic pressure.
For the time being however, the government believes that it can count on the $10 billion aid package that GCC countries have pledged to solve its difficulties in the short-medium term, and this may very well be true. Without a clear and decisive plan to attain long term sustainability though, Bahrain might soon find itself back right in the same position it is in today.
By Amro Ali
Egyptians may have been left with the dilemma of an Ahmed Shafiq-Mohamed Morsy reverse suicide pact (for the voter), yet the revolutionary forces’ tactical loss has been compensated by a strategic gain – their anointed candidate Hamdeen Sabahi vanquished his opponents in Alexandria in what could be a long-term game changer.
During the two day elections, I volunteered for Shayfenkom (‘We can see you’), an independent body that monitors voting irregularities. I overheard Sabahi’s name at every polling station I attended, including Muharam Bey, a traditionally Muslim Brotherhood base. If Sabahi could penetrate this heart of old Alexandria, then the city was sold to him before the results were out.
The election results were telling for the coastal city: Sabbahi: 34 per cent; Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh 22 per cent; Amr Moussa 16 per cent; Morsy: 15 per cent; Shafiq: 12 per cent. Minus other variables, it is a revolution in itself if a secular candidate can win over the so-called Islamist bastion of Alexandria.
So - what just happened to Alexandria?
According to Samuli Schielke’s brilliant take on the social sciences of the elections, Alexandria’s distance from the “government’s sight makes it a structurally oppositional city that suffers from neither the conservative inertia of the rural regions nor the vested interests and proximity to political power of the capital.” This arrangement has worked well for Islamists in past decades, but now it seems to work equally, if not better, for civil society forces.
Alexandria as it now stands is more or less divided into two camps as Schielke puts it. The liberal revolutionary forces dominate the political current in terms of ideological positioning and public opinion, while the Islamist current is stronger in terms of organisational power. So was the Islamist bastion more like an illusionist bastion? Not quite, the stage just became much more crowded in post-revolutionary Egypt and the Islamists have done themselves no favour by their mismanagement and theatrics in parliament. I wrote about this Islamist disorientation on the streets before the election in “The shock therapy moment in Salafi politics.”
Alexandria became known initially for the revolution’s poster-child Khaled Saeed, then for its ‘No’ Vote in the constitutional referendum, and now finally Sabbahi’s success has given rise to the expression ‘Revolutionary Alexandria’ in popular discourse. So perhaps it was not surprising that on the second anniversary of Saeed’s death, 6 June, the who’s who of the revolutionary movement showed up in Alexandria – Sabbahi, Abul Fotouh, Ahmed Harara, Khaled Youssef, and other prominent figures, including many familiar faces that I get to see in Tahrir upon my regular visits. Tens of thousands packed the Cornice as they made their mark in their newly acquired (or at least perceived) revolutionary stronghold. Even Tahrir rituals were imported onto the scenic beaches, as can be seen in this photo from one of my Tweets. Cairo revolutionaries, it seems, felt quite at home with the welcome they received (plus for some, maybe the chance to pursue the traditional practice of escaping the Cairo summer heat).
Meanwhile, home-grown liberals have begun to display somewhat emboldened behaviour in a street politics that is sometimes ferocious, as this video shows of pro-Sabbahi supporters going on the rampage and tearing down Morsy posters, that I shot from my balcony. Protests have been happening every single day since the election results with no let up.
The challenge for a Morsi or Shafiq presidency could well be how to gain legitimacy in the city known as the vanguard of the country in terms of its socio-political dynamics. Also across Egypt’s urban centres, the duo’s popularity is very low and public suspicions are running high both at the felol (regime remnants) and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the dubious electoral process in rural areas that won it for Morsy and Shafiq. For either of the two, it could turn out to be a case of winning the battle, but losing the war.
By Kacem Jlidi
Culture, traditions and religion are red lines that will not be flouted by gay rights, says Samir Dilou, Tunisian minister of human rights and transitional justice and spokesman of the Tunisian government.
The minister announced in a press conference held in Tunis on June 2 his rejection of calls by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the decriminalization of same-sex acts and religious defamation.
‘Tunisia has its own identity as an Arab Muslim state’, argues the minister. The concept of ‘sexual orientation’ is ‘specific to the West’, he was quoted as saying by Tunisia Live magazine.
The minister emphasized the importance of abiding by the supremacy of Tunisian law, which defines Tunisia as an Arab Muslim country. There is no such thing as absolute freedom; all freedoms are restricted by the law, he added.
Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, from the Islamist Ennahda party, said in a previous interview with French newspaper Le Monde that homosexuals may well join the party ‘if they obey the principles [that are] against same sex acts.’ He adds that there are no sanctions in Tunisia that are specific to homosexuals: ‘There are criminal laws that everyone must respect’ – he said, referring to Tunisia’s inherited French colonial penal code that decrees three years of prison for same sex acts.
The two rejected recommendations are part of a total of 124 recommendations that were addressed by the Human Rights Council meeting taking place in Geneva in late May (22-25) during which the Tunisian delegation – headed by Dilou – presented the country’s second human rights status report.
Among the total recommendations, 110 recommendations touching on the importance of judiciary reform and the need to respect the rights of women, children, and the disabled were approved.
The Human Rights minister clarified during the press conference that the remaining twelve recommendations are pending approval and his delegation needs more time to deliberate on such agreements as they are currently subject to national debate among the different movements of civil society and political parties.
The pending UNHRC recommendations mainly concern abolition of the death penalty, which hasn’t been practiced in Tunisia since 1991; equal inheritance rights between men and women; child custody; and the elimination of remaining forms of discrimination against women.
This is the second time this year that the Tunisian Minister of Human Rights has announced publicly his opposition to gay rights. Earlier this year Dilou referred to homosexuals as sick individuals who deserve medical treatment in a response to the launch of Tunisia’s first gay magazine - a position seriously criticized by Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders and Act up Paris.
The UN Human Rights Council’s recommendations also coincide with previous calls made this year by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay during a panel on violence and discrimination against Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) individuals.
“I certainly agree with the rejection of the recommendation to decriminalize religious defamation, as that would open the door for much giving of offence to people’s beliefs, and might plunge the country into a disastrous ideological anarchy, but I’m a bit more optimistic about the gay rights situation. I’m not too disappointed by this initial rejection as that’s exactly what we expected at this point. I think this marks the start of a process – what is positive is that we succeeded in putting LGBT rights on the government’s agenda and it’s being discussed in public”; said Zahra, a 26 year old lesbian from Monastir city.
‘This rejection doesn’t mark the end of the fight, but shows that advocacy efforts towards equality and ensuring gay rights are not in vain. We need to keep the pressure up.”
“Dilou and his delegation might find themselves ensnared in a heap of contradictions if on the one hand they claim that as Islamists all governmental matters have to obey Islamic law which insists on full equality between men and women, when it comes to inheritance for example - then use the same arguments to oppose gay rights,” explained Fadi Krouj, Gayday magazine’s editor
“The challenge is to convince the government and the general public of the irrelevance of their cultural and religious arguments and fears. The game has just started”- he added in a post that appeared in his magazine.
With their right to visit their relatives in prisons denied, families of Palestinian prisoners have to endure only a hazy information supply on the conditions of their relatives. Due to the ongoing siege of the Gaza strip, the only way for families to express their concerns is a weekly protest before the Red Cross headquarters in Gaza, and more recently, a solidarity tent, erected after the series of hunger strikes took off in Israeli prisons.
For over 82 days, Mahmoud Al Sarsak, a member of the Palestinian national football team, has been on hunger strike in protest at his 3-year detention in Israeli prisons. The Palestinian footballer was heading to Balata Refugee camp in the West Bank after obtaining an Israeli Permit to cross the Erez checkpoint when he was transferred by the Israeli authorities to Ashkelon prison instead of being allowed as he expected to cross to the West Bank to join the Palestinian national team there. He has since been detained under Israel’s ‘Unlawful Combatants Law’, which permits the detention of Palestinians from the Gaza strip for unlimited periods of time and with no charges or trials. Those detained under the law are provided with no legal protection and their legal status is even worse than those detained under administrative detention in the West Bank.
Sarsak’s health is deteriorating as he’s now lost over one third of his body weight to weigh less than a hundred pounds, turning his dream of pursuing his career in football into a much more nightmarish possibility. Despite his rapid deterioration, Israel still refuses to transform Sarsak to a civilian hospital for proper treatment in response to the calls of over 12 human rights organizations. Sarsak, along with Akram Rikhawi who has been on hunger strike for over sixty days, issued an appeal from Israel’s Ramle Prison where they are detained at the moment, which was published by the Addameer human rights organization. Sarsak pleads for immediate action:
“There is still enough time to act. Solidarity which comes late is better than that which never comes. It is better to receive us alive and victorious now than dead in black bags later.”
The determination of Sarsak to go on with his hunger strike reflects his desperation at such prolonged and unjustifiable incarceration, after his detention was renewed six times with no charges filed against him.
Sarsak’s struggle runs in parallel with the first Palestinian mass prisoner’s hunger strike which began on April 17 as an outcry against the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Israeli Prison Service against Palestinian prisoners. On May 14, an agreement was reached between the Israeli Prison Service and the Higher Committee for Prisoners: the mass hunger strike would end in return for meeting their demands, including the end of administrative detention. The failure of Israel to comply with this agreement has resulted in the continuation of individual hunger strikes, including that of Sarsak.
The issues regarding Palestinian prisoners and the grave violations of their rights are hardly ever brought to the attention of the media. It is hard to convey the intensity of Israel’s daily practices against the entirety of the Palestinians. Only through unrelenting hunger strikes have Palestinian prisoners somehow found a voice that might reach out to the world to speak of their suffering. They have nothing but their frail bodies to speak of this injustice.
I have always had a strong feeling against the previous government’s loyalists for they were obviously party to the crimes committed against the Tunisian people and I thought for a moment that they might want to redeem their twenty-four years of bootlicking after the fall of their ‘idol’. To my surprise, the downfall of Ben Ali has brought to the fore an ever-growing fan club of the newly-elected Islamist government to replace them.
The longstanding tradition of devotion for the glory of decision-makers has
persisted and is even amplified with the coming of the Islamist leaders and if,
'God forbid', one deviated from this righteous path; he or she would soon be
punished according to the laws of the jungle.
Only yesterday, president Marzouki in a televised interview made it clear that he is a legitimate president of a legitimate government elected by legitimate citizens. His highness did not forget to utter the magic word “I will not step down” which relieved millions of people in his fan club. Six months ago, the president promised Tunisians that he would resign if he could not improve the economic conditions, provided that protests and sit ins would be suspended for that period. The bad news is that almost nothing has changed and the good news is that the president will not now resign and the rationale behind this sea-change is not that he is too attached to that comfortable presidential seat - but that he is clinging onto hope.
Unfortunately, I suffer from low hope and optimism, and I decided to visit
a political analyst (who happens to work as a blood analyst in his free time)
to put this problem to him, and he recommended that I acquaint myself with the
loyalists that envision such a rosy future, and learn how to refill my patience
battery, until such a time that the legitimate government achieves the goals of
the revolution, mainly those concerning development and jobs. Be patient! Look
to the half full glass.
He told me that we will be rewarded because the majority did vote for pious people with clean hands and clear signs of prayer on their foreheads. I remembered the experience of people in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Iran and I felt grateful to say the least.
If you display a blind and fervent loyalty to the government, there is no doubt about it that your chances of being appointed in a key governmental position will increase. One of the key qualifications and skills that the best candidate must have is an unprecedented ability to defend the government and tout its miraculous 404 not found achievements.
Chances are that you will get to smell tear gas in a protest against the government. But when it comes to counter-protests to support the government you don’t have to worry, you are exercising your right of free speech and free assembly.
Regardless of whether you are involved in an opposing party or not you will be mocked systematically for belonging to the camp of the losers, those who could not make it in the October elections, those who are motivated by their greed to secure a high post or rank in the government.
You will be stamped as a traitor serving the foreign agendas of the devil that have nothing in their minds but to destroy Green Tunisia.
Gone are the days when we worked hand in hand in a leaderless revolution to achieve a Tunisian spring.
By Soha Farouk
Since the announcement of Hosni Mubarak's trial verdict, and in particular the acquittal of his sons, the business tycoon Hussein Salem as well as the senior Ministry of Interior officials, Egypt has been thrown into a maelstrom of public anger and strife between, and within, the three main political players; the judiciary and the SCAF on the one hand, the parliament's Islamist majority and the revolutionary forces.
Thousands of protesters have massed spontaneously in every square in the country accusing the judges of bias, calling for the application of revolutionary justice against Mubarak's family, his corrupt policemen and regime icons; the dismissal of the public prosecutor and, two days later, the implementation of Egypt’s political isolation law which aims at prohibiting officials of the former regime from occupying political posts. In one stroke, this would exclude Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's former prime minister, from the imminent presidential run-offs. Harsh attacks upon the judiciary, both from the general public and the MPs, have placed calls for banning public criticism of the judiciary slap up against the necessity of guaranteeing freedom of speech and debate in a society in transition.
During the Mubarak era, preserving a judiciary independent of executive power was always tricky. The former authoritarian regime retained its own tools to interfere indirectly in the judiciary, such as rewarding those who were loyal to the system by appointing them to senior justice posts, or using the military and state security courts against its opponents. Meanwhile, judges' silence regarding the executive power's abuses and human rights violations became part of their survival. Moreover, they had little sympathy for any kind of public criticism of their rulings. After the revolution, many intertwined issues - in particular, the fate of various executive and legislative powers - were placed into the hands of the judiciary, namely, the constitutionality of the parliament; the legality of the political isolation law, as well as the fate of all the corrupted officials of the toppled regime.
Hence, commenting broadly on the courts’ decisions has become a central preoccupation. For defenders of the judiciary's impunity, commenting on judges' behaviour is perceived as an interference in judicial affairs which could influence the judges' decisions, erode public confidence in their impartiality and threaten the integrity and proper administration of the whole justice system. However, advocates of freedom of expression argue that free speech is a vital constitutional right of every citizen. In a society attempting to adopt a participatory system of democratic governance, the promotion of public debate is essential in fostering the accountability of judges. Well-founded criticism, based on a good understanding of the legal system and the role of judges, and excluding any personal attacks, would enhance public trust in the judiciary system and does not necessarily contradict its autonomy.
In short, in the aftermath of authoritarianism, debate regarding how to achieve justice and accountability is intensifying, and oscillating between traditionalist and progressive arguments. While judges fight back to regain their autonomy, empowered citizens insist on judicial accountability and a stable future based on rule of law. Public dissatisfaction with the judicial system, manifested in on-going million-man marches and, recently, a sit-in and hunger strike staged by a few activists at the parliament headquarters, renders some kind of reform inevitable. However, revolutionizing the judicial sector, with all its internal struggles, is an uphill battle. After a transitional period of sixteen months without healing the wounds of the martyrs' families and sentencing the perpetrators, a sense of delayed justice culminating in the acquittals of the police chiefs has placed justice in Egypt in jeopardy. A bloodless path to democracy can only be ensured where "justice is not only done but also seen to be done".