Worse than the dictators: Egypt’s leaders bring pillars of freedom crashing down
Adly Mansour and now Abdel Fatah al-Sisi are ruling by decrees, banning protest and severely curbing freedom of speech
A Cairo university student holds a flare during a protest against the acquittal of former president Hosni Mubarak over hundreds of deaths during the 2011 uprising. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images.
Egypt is enacting authoritarian laws at a rate unmatched by any regime for 60 years, legal specialists from four institutions have told the Guardian.
Since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Morsi’s successors in the presidency, Adly Mansour and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, have used the absence of an elected parliament to almost unilaterally issue a series of draconian decrees that severely restrict freedom of expression, association and assembly.
The speed at which the decrees have been issued outpaces legislative frenzies under the dictators Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, and is matched only by the period that followed the toppling of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, according to Amr Shalakany, associate law professor at the American University in Cairo; Amr Abdulrahman, director of civil liberties at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights; Mohamed Elhelw, head of legal research at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms; and Ahmed Ezzat, a human rights lawyer, and previously a legal researcher at another prominent rights group.
“This is not normal,” said Shalakany. “Historically, it’s completely out of pattern with any normal legislation that we’ve had experience of in this country.” The only precedent, Shalakany said, was set by the Revolutionary Command Council of the early 1950s. “The rate is faster than even the last year of Sadat’s [tenure, 1981]; the scope is also wider.”
President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi reviews a guard of honour after being sworn in as president of Egypt in June. Photograph: Reuters
Legislation enacted by Mansour, an interim president installed by Sisi after Morsi’s removal, and Sisi himself, a former army chief elected to succeed Mansour, include laws that ban protest, expand the jurisdiction of military courts, remove several limits on pre-trial detention, and restrict media coverage of the armed forces without prior approval.
Most troublingly, the moves have been made without the involvement of parliament, and with only the nominal oversight of a cabinet and a committee over which Sisi has overbearing influence.
“Sadat and Mubarak did not use their capacity to issue controversial legislation in the absence of parliament to nearly the same extent as Sisi is doing now,” said Abdulrahman. “These are crucial decrees that relate to different spheres of economic and social life that passed without any kind of national dialogue.”
According to a roadmap drawn up after the overthrow of Morsi, who was himself accused of draconian measures, a parliament should have been elected by the end of 2013. Revisions to the roadmap then pushed back elections until July 2014. But despite the speed at which other laws have been passed, a second law needed to set elections in motion still has not been finalised, meaning Egypt may not have an elected legislature until summer 2015.
Sisi and Mansour have filled the vacuum with controversial decisions well beyond their constitutional remit. “The constitution gives the president the right to issue decrees in exceptional situations, out of necessity,” said Elhelw. “But the laws they have issued are not absolutely necessary. If they weren’t issued, the state would not stop.”
The surge of authoritarian legislation includes, in chronological order:
Supporters of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi clash with security forces near Cairo University earlier this year. Photograph: APA Images/Rex
Tender law, September 2013
A Mansour decree let government ministers award contracts to companies without a public tender process. In the months after the decree, the army was awarded building contracts worth about $1bn.
Extension of pre-trial detention, September 2013
The pre-trial detention limit for those accused of crimes punishable by life sentences was removed, technically allowing for certain unconvicted political dissidents to remain on remand in perpetuity.
Protest ban November 2013
The protest ban has become one of the state’s main new tools of oppression, used to arrest thousands of people.
Investment law, April 2014
This bans third parties from appealing against the awarding of government contracts. “It’s very dangerous,” said Ahmed Ezzat. “If you as a citizen see the contract contains corruption, you can’t appeal. And that is itself the definition of corruption.”
Elections law, June 2014
Experts warn a new voting system will privilege the old elites, and inhibit liberal parties that emerged after the revolution. “The electoral law is tailored to ensure the new parliament is exclusively for wealthy, Muslim men,” said Abdulrahman.
University law, June 2014
Sisi gave himself the power to hire and fire university heads, allowing him Mubarak-style control of campuses, the fulcrum of dissent since Morsi’s overthrow.
Clampdown on foreign funding, September 2014
Requesting or receiving foreign funds for the purposes of “harming the national interest” is punishable by life in prison. The government says this is aimed at terrorists. Rights groups, whose funding is mostly sourced overseas, say the vagueness of the wording can be used against them, and have scaled back requests for help from abroad.
Expansion of military jurisdiction, October 2014
The army was given jurisdiction over large parts of public space, including roads, bridges and universities. The move was nominally aimed at terrorists but also makes it easier for the government to try members of the political opposition in the country’s opaque military courts.
Ultimatum to rights groups, November 2014
Rights groups were given an deadline to sign up to restrictive Mubarak-era legislation, or face being shut down. The backlash has yet to begin – but several groups were frightened enough to scale back their activity, or freeze it altogether.
Terrorism law, drafted December 2014
If rubber-stamped by Sisi, this law would expand the definition of terrorism to anything that “harms national unity”– loose phrasing that could be applied to the opposition. “It’s the most horrible new law in my opinion,” said Abdulrahman. “It’s very vague, and relates to almost anything. It’s almost unprecedented.”