Is Egypt Plunging into Military Rule Again?

The Egyptian revolution of January 25, 2011 brought an end to more than thirty years of President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule and opened doors for free parliamentary and presidential elections. Protestors risked their lives in order to reach a just society in which the state institutions are responsive to the people’s needs. Today, three years later, Egypt is yet again ruled by the military establishment which does not stop short of incarcerating activists, dissolving NGOs and defying its people the right to protest. After the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi from power in July 2013 and under the instructions of the army, the Egyptian administration issued a law targeting public meetings and demonstrations. In addition, despite heavy public opposition and outcry, the trial of civilians by military tribunals was enacted.

The new protest law enacted by President Adly Mansour stipulates that public meetings of more than ten persons be announced three days prior to the Ministry of Interior. Failing to comply may lead to a prison sentence of up to seven years and a fine of up to 300,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately 43,540 USD). This new law constitutes a huge impediment to the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. It has been condemned by a number of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as Egyptian civil society itself.

Several prominent activists have already been sentenced under this law for organizing protests against it. In November 2013, the Forum 2000 Foundation issued an open statement against the arrest order for Ahmed Maher, who is currently imprisoned along with Alaa Abd El Fattah, a fellow leader of the April 6 Youth Movement, who led protests to remove long-time President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Among the imprisoned is also the activist and blogger Ahmed Douma. In December 2013, the three men faced a military trial and were subsequently sentenced to three years in jail with a fine of 7,000 USD each.

In addition to the law limiting the freedom of assembly, a new law was enacted, enabling military trials for civilians. Article 172 of the newly amended constitution states that “civilians cannot stand trial before military courts except for crimes that represent a direct assault against the armed forces,”which are acts such as attacks on military buildings, areas or factories, direct assault on military personnel during active duty and crimes related to obligatory conscription. Institutionalizing trials of civilians by military courts, one of the key aspects of the military rule against which the January 25 Revolution ignited can therefore effectively be seen as a betrayal of its ultimate goal and thereby considered as yet another attempt to weaken justice and freedom in Egypt.

In addition to these developments, the Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest opposition force in the country, was declared a terrorist organization by the Egyptian military government. Thousands of its supporters were arrested, its financial assets frozen and activities curbed. Under Article 86 of the Penal Code, membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is punishable with a jail sentence of a maximum of five years while financing its activities or holding leadership positions can amount to life imprisonment or even the death penalty. Such provisions will yet again drive many Muslim Brotherhood supporters underground and will fuel further tension within the Egyptian society.

On January 18, 2014, the Egyptians approved the military-backed amended constitution in a referendum. It was the third time in the last three years that Egyptians were asked to vote on the constitution. In 2011, the old constitution was amended by the committee appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. In 2012, a new constitution was prepared by the Muslim Brotherhood. And this year, the Egyptian people were asked to vote yet again on amendments drafted under the auspices of the army.

For the military, the referendum served as a legitimization of its leadership and politics after the ousting of President Morsi. The 38.6 per cent turnout was slightly disappointing for the army. Yet it reflects the fact that those against the current developments abstained from voting. The government suppressed any opposition to the amended constitution. Therefore, not surprisingly, the new text was approved by 98.1 per cent of the people who went to the polls.

Under the amended constitution the military, the police and the judiciary gain more power. For the next eight years, the military has the right to appoint the Minister of Defense. Islam is declared the state religion and Sharia, Islamic law, the main source of legislation. At the same time, absolute freedom of belief is granted which should provide some protection to minorities. The majority of Copts, the largest Christian minority in Egypt, expressed a cautious optimism over the new constitution. There is a hope that both the discrimination against religious minorities, which was on a rise during the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, will stop as well as violence against individuals and churches.

The state now also guarantees equality between men and women. Political parties may not be formed on the basis of religion, race, gender or geography. This is a clear message to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic parties that Egyptian politics should remain civic in nature. The president can serve for only two four-year terms and can be impeached by the parliament.

The amended constitution attempts to be more tolerant towards other religions and removes the provisions about the Islamic direction of the state. Yet it broadens the power and privileges of the military establishment. Making the constitution less religious does not necessarily guarantee civic and political rights. Therefore, Egypt is at crossroads between heading for a repressive state led by a military disregarding fundamental civil rights, rule of law, freedom and justice, or striving for inclusiveness, tolerance and freedom.

Regrettably, under the current leadership, arguments of power have repeatedly won over the power of arguments. Consolidation of power in the hands of the military should contribute to the stabilization of the turbulent political and economic situation in Egypt. However long the road that lies ahead, hopefully, the “old-new,” re-established leadership will bear in mind the aspirations of those behind the Egyptian Spring and lead Egypt to a necessary transition into a just society.