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As New Protest Law Looms, Egypt Faces Harsher Authoritarian Order Than the Revolution Overthrew

StoryNovember 13, 2013
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Egypt has announced the lifting of a three-month state of emergency and nighttime curfew, which allowed authorities to make arrests without warrants and search people’s homes. But Egyptian human rights activists have expressed fear that the country’s interim government is on the verge of approving a draconian protest law that will severely restrict the right to organize demonstrations. The emergency law and curfew were imposed during a crackdown on protesters supporting former President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president. Overthrown by the military in July following widespread demonstrations against his rule, Morsi is now on trial for allegedly inciting the killing of protesters outside the presidential palace in 2012. But no charges have been brought over the killings of hundreds of Morsi supporters since his ouster. “The Egyptian military and the Muslim Brotherhood have acted as two juggernauts in the Egyptian body politic,” says Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Cairo-based independent journalist and Democracy Now! correspondent. “They’re both characterized by patriarchy, secrecy and mendacity, and they’ve both ripped apart Egypt’s social fabric as they struggle for power.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Egypt, where the government said on Tuesday it’s lifting the country’s three-month state of emergency and nighttime curfew. The state of emergency and the curfew allowed the authorities to make arrests without warrants and search people’s homes. Both measures were imposed during a crackdown on protesters supporting former President Mohamed Morsi and were due to expire on Thursday.

Morsi was Egypt’s first democratically elected president and was ousted by the military in July following widespread demonstrations against his rule. He is currently on trial for allegedly inciting the killing of protesters outside the presidential palace in 2012.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, Egyptian human rights activists have expressed fear the country’s interim government is on the verge of approving a draconian protest law that will severely restrict the right to organize demonstrations.

To talk more about the situation in Egypt, we’re joined by Sharif Abdel Kouddous, independent journalist, Democracy Now! correspondent based in Cairo, fellow at The Nation Institute.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you in studio, Sharif. A lot is happening now. Morsi appears in court. He is going to be charged for the killing of protesters, yet the vast majority of the killings, the massacres, have taken place under the current government.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right, Morsi appeared for the first time in public last week when—in the first hearing of his trial, where he’s being charged in the incitement of killing of 10 protesters at the presidential palace last year. I think many human rights advocates and human rights groups think that Morsi should be put on trial for crimes committed under his rule. These are not political violations; these are criminal offenses for the incitement or the allowing of police and his supporters to kill protesters. The problem is, is that this is a completely selective prosecution. The killing of close to 800 people, by far the bloodiest day in Egypt’s modern history, was committed on August 14th, and prosecutors are not even investigating the case. The military and the police are the ones responsible for those killings. So, you know, there’s different leaders who are responsible for different crimes, but it’s a very selective prosecution that we’re seeing at the moment.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And why has Morsi’s trial been adjourned ’til January?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, I mean, this has frequently happened in the Egyptian court system. Trials are adjourned. He was moved—he was held incommunicado since his ouster on July 3rd. He was moved to a prison, a notorious prison outside Alexandria. A team of lawyers and his son met with him for the first time. And apparently he’s going to take on a legal team. Before, he had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the court. They said his son is going to put out a statement at some point soon.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And he could face the death penalty if he’s convicted, is that correct?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yes, life imprisonment and the death penalty is what he’s facing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what is happening in the aftermath of these massacres that have taken place under el-Sisi’s reign?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, we’ve seen—as you mentioned, we’ve been under a state of emergency for the past three months, a curfew which has severely limited movement and hurts the livelihoods of millions of Egyptians. We’ve also—appear to be heading to a more aggressive authoritarian order than the one we rose up against in 2011. So, some very draconian laws are being put forward, as you mentioned. There’s a protest law that was submitted to the president, the interim president, Adly Mansour, that’s very draconian, that would give the police basically carte blanche to ban all protest, that does not allow protesters to come within—near any government buildings, that requires protest organizers to submit their plans to the police before protesting. And this is being put forward by a government that came to power largely on the back of political protest. So I think it’s very important to remember, in Egypt, there’s very little ways to petition the government right now. Freedom of speech is being cut off in a very real way. There’s no active discussion on any aspect of state policy with stakeholders or civil society. And so, that’s why protest is such an important aspect of Egyptian political culture, and they’re trying to cut it off.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: But is this protest law supposed to stand in, in a sense, for the state of emergency? I mean, is there—is that why it’s occurring now at the same moment as the emergency is—

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: There are arguments, yeah, that it was submitted on the same day. We have to remember, Egypt’s been under a state of emergency since October 6, 1981. It was briefly lifted in February—in 2012 and put back in place. Morsi put a state of emergency in three canal cities. And for the brief period that we didn’t have a state of emergency, not much changed on the ground, you know. So, the police have long acted with impunity in Egypt. They used these wider powers to really, I think, crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood and mobilizing efforts following Morsi’s ouster.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn the comments made by President Morsi. In this amateur video released by Egypt’s Al-Watan newspaper, Morsi is seen speaking to unidentified individuals during his incarceration, criticizing the country’s judiciary.

MOHAMED MORSI: [translated] How is it possible that I appoint the head of the constitutional court, and he then freezes the constitution? This is something that no law or logic can understand. The reason for him being in his position as head of court is the constitution itself. So when he accepts to freeze it, how can his position as head of court still be applicable? I was the one to appoint the head of the constitutional court. How can a minister of mine and the defense minister, who are both under my responsibility, appoint a head of state? And they say there is law. Impossible. The head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, Adly Mansour, with all my respect to him, put himself in a position that is very offensive to the judiciary.

AMY GOODMAN: Those comments made by ousted President Mohamed Morsi, an amateur video released by Al-Watan newspaper, speaking to someone unidentified. Sharif, can you talk about his comments and the constitution that’s being rewritten?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, it’s interesting that he’s pointing out issues of the judiciary and legal proceeding. I mean, Morsi, himself, last year in November, almost exactly a year ago, issued a constitutional declaration that placed all of the president’s decisions outside of the reach of the courts. And this was a move that was seen as, you know, compromising the legitimacy of his rule, sparked the first major uprisings against his—against his presidency. So, for him to talk now about the judiciary and the importance of the rule of law is circumspect at best. However, I mean, I think we have to remember that Egypt does have a very politicized judiciary. They dissolved the democratically elected Parliament last year. So, you know, it’s a complicated issue.

With the constitution right now, there’s a 50-member committee that is redrafting or, in fact, rewriting a new constitution. This is a committee that is made up of 50 members that includes no members of the Muslim Brotherhood and just one member who can be identified as representative of political Islamist forces, a member from the ultraconservative Salafi Nour party. There’s been a lot of public discussion about the rights and prerogatives of the judiciary and the military in this constitution. The military, again, is trying to enshrine its supremacy in the national charter, including allowing it to put civilians on military trial, and for the first time discussions about complete immunity for the defense minister. So, the president can appoint the defense minister only after the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and cannot fire him unless with the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, also getting a larger say in national security decisions and so forth.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you say something about the way in which the military is now perceived in Egypt, the way it’s depicted in the media? And then talk about the relationship between the U.S. and the Egyptian military, and generals, in particular, Egyptian generals.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, the military is enjoying widespread popularity in Egypt. I think it very successfully co-opted a genuine, authentic mobilization and movement against Mohamed Morsi, against Muslim Brotherhood. And this is the real danger, is that it learned how to co-opt a popular movement. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the head of the army, is now enjoying a cult-like status in Egypt. You see his picture on billboards everywhere. He’s even on pieces of soap and cupcakes and things like that. There’s very nationalistic, chauvinistic flag waving that is going on. And it is—it’s a problem because a lot of the same grievances that can give rise to revolution can also give rise to this kind of nationalism and almost fascism. And the same—it’s a very fine line between the two. And we’re seeing a shift towards that direction. But there are still activists and people on the ground who have consistently rejected the authoritarian nature of the state, whether it be Mubarak, Morsi, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and they are still hopeful.

AMY GOODMAN: Might he run for president, el-Sisi?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: This is the big question, whether el-Sisi will run for president. There’s a big movement or a growing movement for people calling for him to run. All of the so-called liberal politicians—Amr Moussa, Hamdeen Sabahi—have all publicly supported the idea of him running. If he was president, I think it would even, you know, eradicate even the slightest pretense of civilian democratic rule in Egypt. However, you know, the argument against him running is that why govern, when he can just rule? And the president will take responsibility for the deep economic and social problems that Egypt is facing right now, and he might not want to take that on board.

AMY GOODMAN: But the millions of people who protested in Tahrir against Mubarak were certainly not just the Muslim Brotherhood, and they were protesting autocracy, authoritarianism, brutality. So where are those people now when these massacres have taken place?

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Egypt—you know, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood have acted as two juggernauts in the Egyptian body politic. They’re both characterized by patriarchy and secrecy and mendacity, and they’ve both, you know, ripped apart Egypt’s social fabric as they struggle for power. And I think a lot of groups felt pushed out of this discourse when these two big juggernauts came to a clash, to a head. Morsi and the Brotherhood governed in a very majoritarian style. They alienated people across the political spectrum. They encouraged and wanted a brutal security sector. They encouraged the killing of protesters. And so, when the parts of the deep state, the police and the army, that they tried to placate—they really did try to bring them on their side and be a part of a new elite and harness the state instead of reform it—when those elements turned on them, there was no one standing by them. And so, people have been watching this killing. Of course, they condemn this level of violence, but it’s a very complicated and difficult situation right now in Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I want to thank you for being with us, and we look forward to talking to you when you go back to Cairo. Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, fellow at The Nation Institute. This is Democracy Now!,

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: I just want to say a very quick congratulations to Sharif and Priya on their in engagement in Egypt.

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