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A constitution not worth its ink - Daily News Egypt

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A constitution not worth its ink

Since the new constitution passed, I have been flooded with emails and meetings from foreign journalists, lawyers, rights advocates and what have you, asking the same question: Isn’t the newly passed constitution better in preserving human rights and freedoms, compared to the previous one(s)? And shouldn’t this be enough for Egyptians? I have faced the …

Managing editor Rana Allam
Rana Allam

Since the new constitution passed, I have been flooded with emails and meetings from foreign journalists, lawyers, rights advocates and what have you, asking the same question: Isn’t the newly passed constitution better in preserving human rights and freedoms, compared to the previous one(s)? And shouldn’t this be enough for Egyptians?

I have faced the same questions from a segment of Egyptians who support military rule and a “firmer fist facing terrorism”. Those Egyptians who either deny the existence of oppression, or accept it as a means to combat what they perceive as “terrorism” or “chaos”, seem to not comprehend the magnitude of the violations to the constitution they so strongly backed.

The “chaos” that is overwhelming is a direct result of the absence of the rule of law in Egypt. The selective justice, the oppression, and the impunity of those responsible for upholding the law will be the reason for even more instability.

Violence breeds violence, and injustice was the main flame that sparked the 25 January 2011 revolution.  A good first step to combating violence and injustice would be to implement the widely approved constitutional articles. After all the publicity for a Yes vote under the pretext that this constitution would be the cornerstone of a democratic, free and progressive country, I suppose its implementation should have begun two months ago, but no one seems to mind that their wait in those long voting queues was indeed to no avail.

I thought I should explain this in a bit of detail just to avoid the confusion when it comes to the real value of “laws” and “constitution articles” on the ground in Egypt.

Here is a list of some rights that Egyptians have… but really don’t enjoy:

  1. Freedom of religion:

Article 64: Freedom of belief
“Freedom of belief is absolute.  The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing places of worship for the followers of revealed religions is a right organised by law.”

Of course, the article itself is contradictory as it stands, for how can one guarantee “freedom” when it is limited to the three Abrahamic religions, ignoring the 1,100 million followers of Hinduism or the 488 million Buddhists, to name just two. It also ignores that not following a religion should also be counted as a freedom… one cannot be an atheist in Egypt. One of the strangest things we have here is having our religion documented in our national ID cards (bizarre!) and one cannot get married (for example) without being a follower of one of the three Abrahamic religions. There is no civil marriage in Egypt.

On top of this, even within the three Abrahamic “revealed” religions, Egypt discriminates against Shi’as. Talk of how devious the Shi’as are is all over the TV and newspapers, how Egypt needs to “stop the expansion of the Shi’a beliefs”. In a striking move, Egypt refused Shi’a pilgrims from entering the country several times, even after passing the “progressive” constitution.

  1. Freedom of the press

Article 71: Freedom of publication
“It is prohibited to censor, confiscate, suspend or shut down Egyptian newspapers and media outlets in any way. Exception may be made for limited censorship in time of war or general mobilisation. No custodial sanction shall be imposed for crimes committed by way of publication or the public nature thereof. Punishments for crimes connected with incitement to violence or discrimination amongst citizens, or impugning the honour of individuals are specified by law.”

Article 72: Independence of press institutions
“The state shall ensure the independence of all press institutions and owned media outlets, in a way that ensures their neutrality and expressing all opinions, political and intellectual trends and social interests; and guarantees equality and equal opportunity in addressing public opinion.”

Now, volumes have been written on this particular topic. Freedom of the press is a myth in Egypt, especially with Arabic publications which are under scrutiny because they reach tens of millions of Egyptians and form effective public opinion. A read through Sara Abou Bakr’s piece: Journalism in Egypt, a risky business, would shed light on the status of journalism. But then, I am sure everyone knows exactly what is going on, from the targeting, detention and killing of journalists, and the closure of publications and TV channels – even comedic satire shows get banned.

Suffice to say that the annual report, released by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, ranked Egypt as 159th out of 180 listed countries in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index. Also, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked the country as the third deadliest country for journalists in 2013. Let it be known that nothing has changed, except maybe for the worse, since the constitution passed.

  1. Freedom of thought/speech

Article 65: Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. 
“All individuals have the right to express their opinion through speech, writing, imagery, or any other means of expression and publication”.

Detentions of everyone caught with a Morsi poster, a Rabaa sign (whether as a car sticker or holding up the four fingers), children carrying school equipment with the “devilish” sign on it, are all common news.
Indeed, Brotherhood supporters are not the only victims of this. Protesters who chant against military rule, or people who are caught in possession of banners with “No to Military Trials for Civilians” written on them, or even leaflets opposing the current oppressive regime, are all taken for questioning, sometimes to be detained indefinitely.
Naturally, worth mentioning here are the dozens of activists detained and some sentenced to prison for merely speaking out or “distributing flyers”.

  1. Right to respectful detention

Article 58: Inviolability of homes
“Homes are inviolable… Upon entering or searching homes, those inside shall be notified and informed of the warrant issued in this regard.”

“Dawn Visitors” is a term known to everyone who works in politics in Egypt; it refers to state security officers who come to people’s houses at dawn to arrest them. The scenario is usually the same; they barge into the house, turn it upside down in search of “evidence” (which can mean a piece of paper, a leaflet, a banner, etc.), drag the man from his bed, assault the woman in the house, and leave with their suspect. No one dares ask for a search or an arrest warrant, since they would probably face even worse treatment.

Article 55: Due Process
“All those who are apprehended, detained or have their freedom restricted shall be treated in a way that preserves their dignity. They may not be tortured, terrorised, or coerced. They may not be physically or mentally harmed, or arrested and confined in designated locations that are appropriate according to humanitarian and health standards. The state shall provide means of access for those with disabilities. Any violation of the above is a crime and the perpetrator shall be punished under the law.”

Reports of torture in detention facilities and prisons in Egypt have flooded the news pages and social networks. Every human rights organisation, national and international, had voiced condemnation of the “savage” torture detainees have been subject to.

In Tuesday’s issue of Daily News Egypt, coverage of torture victims speaking out is heart-wrenching.
Oh, and the MOI, as usual, denies.

When the state handcuffs a young woman who is just out of a c-section surgery “for fear that she might accuse the officer of harassing her, or of jumping from the window” as per the MOI, then every law in this country is violated. Rights of motherhood, children and right to respectful detention, are completely violated.

As a common practice, detainees are denied medical treatment, even from chronic health conditions. Several die because of this.
When a man dies of electrocution in a detention cell, then something is seriously wrong with this country.

  1. Children’s rights

Article 80: The rights of the child
“…The state shall care for children and protect them from all forms of violence, abuse, mistreatment and commercial and sexual exploitation.
 Every child is entitled to early education in a childhood center until the age of six. It is prohibited to employ children before they reach the age of having completed their primary education, and it is prohibited to employ them in jobs that expose them to risk.
 The state shall establish a judicial system for child victims and witnesses. No child may be held criminally responsible or detailed except in accordance with the law and the time frame specified therein. Legal aid shall be provided to children, and they shall be detained in appropriate locations separate from adult detention centers.
 The state shall work to achieve children’s best interest in all measures taken with regards to them.”

A very long article in the constitution is written on children’s rights; I have only quoted some of it. Describing the suffering of children in Egypt can be an endless task. First are street children who are not provided with shelter, health care, education, or any means of survival by the state, living in miserable conditions. The latest estimate of such children, which was in 2011, was three million, and this is the government’s figure. National and international NGOs are not able to confirm the number of street children, so nobody knows exactly how many street children there are.

On top of this, the state actually detains children. As per Amnesty International, over 300 children have been thrown into prison in the past seven months.
Their treatment, says Amnesty, reveals a “consistent picture of physical and emotional abuse, as well as myriad breaches in the rights of the detainees”. These are the children that are supposed to be protected by the state as per the constitution. The reasons for their detentions are just as ludicrous as everything in Egypt, and include one boy arrested for possession of a ruler that has a Rabaa sign, or another who was present in a protest! Of course, the state is doing its best to “investigate the matter” and the National Council for Human Rights had intended to form (yet another) committee. What’s happened since then? Nothing, as usual!

But there are other more political problems with children. They are being used by every political power in this country, be they at Muslim Brotherhood protests  or at demonstrations hailing Al Sisi. The MB risks, and seemingly does not care, that those kids will probably be arrested – or worse – injured in the constant clashes that with security forces. The Al Sisi supporters subject kids to humiliation. An AFP photo featured a supporter of Al-Sisi standing with her children as they hold army boots over their heads in a sign of support for military rule, while dressed in Egyptian flags. In another incident, during the referendum on that same constitution, children’s rights groups monitored dozens of violations over the two days of voting. The incidents, as per the Egyptian Centre for Children’s Rights, varied between “using children to chant and to carry signs” and exploitation by groups campaigning for a Yes vote for the constitutional referendum. ECCR also witnessed a group of school children distributing money to voters urging them to vote No.

  1. Private life

Article 57: Private life
“Private life is inviolable, safeguarded and may not be infringed upon.
 Telegraph, postal, and electronic correspondence, telephone calls, and other forms of communication are inviolable, their confidentiality is guaranteed and they may only be confiscated, examined or monitored by causal judicial order, for a limited period of time, and in cases specified by the law.”

Where most Egyptians are concerned, the basic meaning of privacy is lost. This is probably why this particular article in the constitution should be enforced. Egyptian media and TV have no idea what this means, and being pro-state as far as that can reach, they are left to exercise the maximum amount of violation of this right to privacy.

On TV, private phone calls of activists and writers are aired. The minutes of arresting people, be they Muslim Brotherhood figures, or activists or even journalists, are also aired on TV. No one asked where they got the recordings, no one investigated how this was aired, and no one was reprimanded, neither by the Public Prosecution, nor by the Press Syndicate or Ministry of Information. It’s all just fine; all in a day’s work!

I will not speak of the right to strike or protest; it’s enough to know that there is a completely contradictory Protest Law in effect. Nor will I speak of the rights to housing, education, health care, and gender equality. These are all far-fetched dreams in times like these.
After all the reports and the news we read every day, when one realises that there is indeed an article in the constitution solely about “Human Dignity”, it is difficult to resist mocking the whole document and the regime behind it!
I have only gone through five topics, however one can write a full book citing almost every article in that constitution and how it contradicts the reality on the ground.
What good is the constitution if none of its articles is enforced? That is the question we need to ask ourselves and our leaders. As far as I am concerned, it is not worth the ink it is written with!

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