Today a global protest will take place across 13 cities,from London to New York Paris to Manila, in solidarity with detained Egyptian activist Alaa Abd El Fattah. Alaa was imprisoned by the Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) 14 days ago for supposedly ‘stealing military weaponry’ and ‘inciting violence’. His mother Laila Souief, a well-known activist, is on her seventh day of hunger strike. Six more protesters joined her on Wednesday.
However the Free Alaa movement is about more than just the release of one man. With three weeks to go before Egypt’s first ‘free’ parliamentary elections, the continued imprisonment of political prisoners by an increasingly active military junta is extremely worrying.
The SCAF, it could be argued, did not intend to imprison Alaa. In the past they Free Alaa Solidarity Protest in London have called prominent protesters, like journalist Hossam El-Hamalwy and talk show host Reem Maged, for questioning and released them. The accusations against Alaa were ludicrous: reportedly the army had already identified the weaponry thief and published his photo prior to blaming Alaa.
The difference was that instead of denying the charges brought against him, Alaa refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of his prosecutors.
Alaa took a bold, deliberate and calculated risk. As an Egyptian journalist wrote recently, making reference to the Khaled Said Facebook page, “We are all not Alaa Abd Al Fattah”. Only the detention of someone as high profile as Alaa could have mobilised this many people and put pressure on the SCAF.
But military trials are not the only way that the SCAF is attempting to control the Egyptian people.
On Monday, online political journal Jadaliyya.com and Egyptian national newspaper Al Ahram onlinewill publish the only in depth analysis into the laws and regulations of the up-coming elections and the military constitutional declaration.
The results are extremely worrying: the elections, supposedly Egypt’s first foray into democracy, will produce a puppet parliament ultimately controlled by the military.
Egypt as it stands, does not have a constitution. Instead, after nullifying the 1971 Constitution, the SCAF issued a Constitutional Declaration. This was to guide the country until parliament was elected, the constitutional assembly created and the new constitution written. The 63 articles that make up the declaration are pretty vague.
“The constitution put down more or less all the job responsibilities of every entity that made up the Egyptian state”, says Mohamed Waked co-editor of Judalayaia.com and one of the writers of the report, without distinct institutional guidelines, the country has a problem.
It is unclear exactly what powers the parliament will have. Nothing in the Constitutional Declaration states that parliament can write laws it will merely ‘oversee’ legislation. This is a change from the original constitution that, Mohamed explains, allowed specialised parliamentary committees this privilege.
Instead the SCAF-appointed cabinet will be able to draft new legislation. The SCAF, as acting president, approves all laws and can also draft laws itself bypassing both the cabinet and the parliament.
In other words legislation can only come from the military-appointed cabinet or the SCAF itself. Parliament can amend, reject or affirm legislation but ultimately any decision they make has to be signed off by the army. Until a president is elected (which won’t happen before the end of 2013) the SCAF has the final word.
This means political parties are promising reforms they cannot enact. “The Revolution Continues Alliance say they are going introduce a minimum and a maximum wage”, explains Mohamed, “that requires issuing a new law”. Even if they have majority in the parliament they cannot issue this law.
“Part of the responsibilities of the old parliament was to monitor the performance of the government”, Mohamed adds. Technically it had the right to withdraw confidence in a rogue cabinet. “this is not written into the declaration.”
Parliament’s second responsibility is managing the state budget. Even this is problematic as the budget is just a pledge, parliament has no control over the ‘final accounts’.
The biggest challenge the fledgling parliament will face is the system of military privileges. To date, the army is governed by a separate military law written by itself. Its budget is delivered as a lump sum and spent secretly.
The SCAF clearly want these privileges enshrined in the new constitution, as well as a hand in the drafting of the document. Last week Deputy Prime Minister Ali El-Selmy released a supra-constitutional statement to the media, based on proposals submitted by the SCAF in August.
80 out of 100 members of the constituent assembly, responsible for writing the constitution, the statements says, must be chosen by the SCAF.
Article 9 is particularly controversial and caused uproar across the political spectrum. It states that only the armed forces has the right to discuss matters related to the armed forces or to discuss its budget. What constitutes military ‘matters’ is not clarified.
Also written is that the military can revise any articles that contradict their Constitutional Declaration and have the power to dissolve and appoint a new assembly, if they take longer than six months to write the Constitution.
One of the more sinister and ambiguous articles in the document is that the SCAF “protects the constitutional legitimacy of the nation”.
The SCAF could make the case that one party is monopolising power and so, as Mohamed explains, “dissolve a parliament, if they don’t like and hold a new election, or new presidential elections, if they don’t like the president… They are trying to copy Turkey in the 90s, when the army actually used to dissolved parliaments at will.”
As controversial as this supra-constitutional document is (and it has not been confirmed yet) there is a very real fear among the general population of an Islamic takeover. They would rather have a civil state managed by the army, than a civil state ‘managed by the Mullahs’.
There is also is the problem of policing. The SCAF is still trying to regain the power of the police that was lost during the revolution. The paramilitary, who were responsible for a lot of the violence against the protesters during the 18 days, hid after Mubarak stepped down.
‘Mubarak used to need a paramilitary police force of about 1.2 million soldiers – all he had to face was the Muslim Brotherhood and a dormant Salafi movement, with a few small secular parties’. Now, Mohamed explains, the SCAF will need at least three or four times that much in light of ‘a massive sea of discontent’. Even if they were able to rebuild the police force as it was, it wouldn’t be able to manage the situation given the expansion of the political arena.
Election rigging is another problem that may hinder a smooth transition into democracy. Although it is unlikely that SCAF will rig the elections (they don’t need to) it may still happen on a grassroots level because of the way in which the rural communities are run and complexity of the new election system (a mash-up of proportional representation and first-past-the-post held over a month, in three sections… ergh).
Corruption is still endemic in Egypt and rural constituencies are often run by chiefs of local tribes or key wealthy families, who have their own agendas. Essentially there isn’t the manpower to monitor all the ballots, particularly as those set to oversee proceedings are district attorneys who are notoriously corrupt themselves.
At the moment Egypt is living a military dictatorship that is unwilling to risk its embedded power that shaped the economic and political state of the country. The revolutionaries face a tough fight that warrants actions as drastic as a hunger strike… or a global solidarity movement. They need these big gestures. Those attending today’s protest should know this.