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Egypt’s rule of law: Strong on paper, shakier on the ground

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Basil El-Dabh

Basil El-Dabh

Earlier this month, Egypt’s cabinet passed a law confronting one of the country’s worst epidemics. The new sexual harassment law both increases fines against offenders and expands actions which are defined as harassment by law.

In a country where it has been estimated that 99.3% of women are sexually harassed, the amendments to the Penal Code seem long overdue and necessary. However, the new measures were not welcomed with the zeal that one would expect when facing a plague that hangs over half of our society. It’s for the same reason why people sceptically regard articles in the constitution that ban torture, guarantee equality regardless of gender, religion, or social class and promise personal freedom.

Many of the promises made in Egypt’s constitution and many aspects of its penal code (as flawed as it may be as a whole) look good on paper. However, paper can’t and won’t fix problems facing this country, and a government that regularly practices selective enforcement knows this.

On 3 July, the day former president Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power, Islamist satellite channels supporting him were promptly shut down. We were told they were shut down for inciting to violence and hatred. As someone who would frequently watch these channels, I had to agree with the accusations. Conservative satellite channel Al-Hafez was unapologetic and inflammatory following the lynching of four Shi’as in Giza last summer.  The Muslim Brotherhood’s Misr25 frequently referred to a “Christian plot” that was seeking to destabilise the Morsi government with the intention to divide the country.

The problem was the enforcement was selective. Other private channels, which have spread hatred against Arab refugees, foreigners, and other Egyptians, have been permitted to operate. This proved that the shutting down of Islamist channels was politically motivated, rather than driven by violations of a media code of conduct.

The protest law represents selective application on two levels. Firstly, its approval by the cabinet contradicts the right to peaceful assembly in the newly ratified constitution. Secondly, the use of the law itself has been selectively applied. A number of activists including Ahmed Douma, Ahmed Maher, and Mahinour Al-Masry have been handed heavy jail sentences for violating the law, while the police seemingly disregard the measures for other specific demonstrations. The protest law, for example, has not been implemented for the spontaneous demonstrations we have seen for likely future president and former minister of defence Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

The constitution also promises that the freedom of belief and freedom of thought and opinion are absolute. However such a statement is not compatible with a country in which Shi’as are regularly faced with discrimination and faiths including Jehovah’s Witness and Baha’i are banned by law.

Freedom of the press, we are told, is also protected by the constitution. The reality on the ground is that defendants, who are members of the press, are standing trial on terror-related charges, and are victims of a political battle between the Egyptian government and Qatari-owned Al-Jazeera. Government officials defending the court case frequently pointed out that the journalists did not have the proper permits to operate in Egypt. This represents the selective applications of measures that many other disregard without the same risks involved. And while the constitution says that people cannot be detained on publishing-related charges, vague and unsubstantiated charges lodged against Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed, and Peter Greste circumvent these guidelines. Another Al-Jazeera journalist, Abdullah Elshamy, has spent more than nine months in detention and is yet to face any actual charges.

Equal application of government commitments is vital for the “rule of law” that both presidential candidates have vowed to uphold. Unfortunately freedoms are cast aside when such a disregard serves the powers that be and legislation is molded in a way that allows authorities to fight political battles.

The spirit of equal application of the law is central to any democracy. It is the way in which government institutions avoid becoming entrenched in political battles in which they should not be involved.

Equal protection under the law and constitution also prevents the state from passing laws and implementing measures that it knows will only affect certain groups of people, whether they be political dissidents, minorities, or women.

Unfortunately “rule of law” in Egypt over the last three years and beyond has meant giving the government the right to cite those laws when convenient, rather than applying those laws to everyone. This in turn has created an environment in which the government can routinely violate its contract in the constitution in turn for legislation only intended to target specific people and groups.


Basil El-Dabh is The Daily News Egypt’s politics editor. [email protected]

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