The unfolding story of Egypt poses a challenge to the meaning of Democracy. As far as the international community is concerned, it seems that the ballot box is the only criterion overlooking the nature of emerging regimes. It is generally acknowledged that there are a number of necessary components criteria to the ideal of democracy besides electoral majorities: rule of law, a free press, judicial oversight, rights of minorities, access to information and fairness are as necessary to make votes legitimate as are the votes themselves.
President Morsi issued a decree that prevents the judiciary from challenging his laws and decrees. He has decided to accept a draft constitution from a committee comprised almost wholly by members of one political creed, that of political Islam. All the non Islamist members had resigned and the vote on the draft constitution took place in an all night session that included 11 new members who had been inducted into the committee on the day of voting. Moreover, he decided to take this draft to a national referendum despite the boycott of judges who refused to oversee a referendum in the midst of what they have described as an environment of lawlessness. He has, in response, rescinded this degree, but insisted on its effects - including the appointment of a new prosecutor general and the protection of the constitutional committee from any court order to disband it. He thus may have convinced some judges to oversee the referendum.
People opposing the president have been described by his supporters as traitors, apostates, prostitutes ( for women only) and meriting death (an equal opportunity threat!) and have been threatened as well as attacked. In one demonstration a senior member of the ruling party, but not a prominent one, forcibly silenced Shahinda Maklid by placing his fist in her mouth. Shahinda has been an activist since the 1960’s and defending peasant rights for decades since her own husband was murdered by thugs.
A number of Islamist parties and social movements have also decided to impose their own version of free speech by announcing a purge against satellite TV stations and independent newspapers. They issued a list of journalists and media personalities to be purged for their position against the president and his decrees and constitution. They have also camped outside the studios of these channels and are threatening to burn, kill and silence those who work there. No condemnation has been issued from the presidency as there was no condemnation of the protestors who surround the constitutional court in order to prevent the court from meeting or deliberating.
It would seem that incitement to kill, defamation, intimidation and obstruction of justice do not matter as long as there is a ballot box on the horizon.
A second ambivalence concerns women and their rights. Although many governments promote a narrative of gender justice in theory, they fail to sustain these lofty principles in reality. Women have rights but not when these rights conflict with strategic political interest. There is a sinister sub-text to the ongoing crises that concerns the rights of women and their safety and security. Young women participating in the opposition protests have been detained by presidential supporters then tortured and beaten up. Their pictures are plentiful for anyone who cares to look. Supporters of the president who held a mass rally in Giza on November 24 dedicated much of their hate speech towards women protestors who they consider to be amoral and sexually promiscuous because they oppose the president.
The draft constitution that is at the heart of this political crisis should be recognized as a scandal in terms of its position on equality. True, compared to the 200 year old US constitution it sounds okay since that constitution also did not recognize gender equality - and even had an article about slavery which was later abolished. And true it is open to amendment in a decade, but also true is its shameful abandonment of all principles of equality when compared with more recent constitutions. This draft describes gender, religious and other equalities as a desirable state but places NO obligations on the state to remove obstacles to equality or to provide the means and resources to arrive at equality or social justice. The article now says all citizens are equal in the eyes of the law without mentioning that inequality on the basis of race, sex or religion is illegal.
The constitution does not define childhood and so leaves the door open for underage marriage and child labour and fudging the issue of a legal age of consent. In fact it recognizes child labour ‘in appropriate professions. And just to complete the picture the constitution does not protect children from abuse within the family. It explicitly states that the state will protect children from abuse “outside the family” only!
These are facets of rights that impinge on the safety and welfare of women and their families. So does the neglect of women’s rights to political representation which is evident in the removal of women’s quotas or of a clause that commits the state to equal political representation for women.
So it would seem that all the money that donors spend on gender equity and all the speeches that foreign ministers and presidents give on women’s rights are squandered and hollow.
A third failure concerns the rhetoric of human rights. There are conventions on human rights that seem to have been made to be violated. What is the commitment to human rights and who makes that commitment to whom? In the past few weeks we have seen armed militias roam the streets unchallenged. We have heard from Mr. Khayrate el-Shatir of the Muslim Brotherhood that he has access to taped private conversations that prove a conspiracy against the president! Egyptians are wondering why Mr. Shatir can record private conversations. We have seen civilians torture other civilians and we have watched as presidential supporters tied protestors to the palace gates, interrogated them and then proposed using their ‘confessions’ to prove their guilt.
The fact of opposing the president has also been used as proof of conspiracy and the state prosecutor’s office is preparing to charge legitimate politicians with crimes based on their opinions. Moreover all the violations that have been perpetrated in the past weeks have been in the name of suspicions that someone was planning a coup somewhere. This mangling of all the basics of human rights has been implicitly condoned by the international community through its evasiveness.
Egypt is challenging these silences and contradictions. Why does the international community bother to spend time, effort and resources to defend democracy, promote women and insist on human rights when in fact narrow strategic interests always take precedence? Are these just income generation opportunities for international bureaucrats and diplomats?