POMED Notes: Rule of Law: Rhetoric vs. Reality in Egypt’s Transition to Democracy
On Wednesday, Georgetown University’s Law School hosted a panel discussion titled “Rule of Law: Rhetoric vs. Reality in Egypt’s Transition to Democracy.” The panel included Michele Dunne, Director of the Atlantic Councils’ Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, Brian Wolfman, professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and Sahar Aziz, professor at Texas Wesleyan Law and president of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.
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Michele Dunne opened the panel evaluating Egypt President Mohamed Morsi’s performance in office. She said Morsi has taken steps to restore Egypt’s regional role by visiting many countries and skillfully handling Syria, the Gulf, and Iran. Further, Morsi’s biggest problem remains the situation in the Sinai and how it affects Egypt’s relationship with Israel. In the economic realm, she thought Morsi and the administration have performed adequately by reaching out to foreign donors and continuing to develop a plan for implementation of an IMF program. Domestically, Morsi strategically handled the Sinai attack to break the stalemate between the military and Islamists. Although this left Morsi with excessive power, she suggested Islamist domination is better than continued struggle between the two sides. Dunne asked if the administration would overreach by controlling the writing of the constitution, which is arguably happening, or employing the old state apparatus rather than reforming it? She ended by saying after the new parliamentary elections we will most likely see brand new dynamics between parliament and the president as legislatures try to hold him accountable.
Brian Wolfman shifted the discussion away from Egypt by explaining freedom of information acts (FIOA). FIOAs enable civil society and individual citizens to access information and take action against government abuses, or file lawsuits to demand such information. This strengthens democracy by enabling journalists, NGOs, and activists to apply political pressure on government officials. Importantly, the threat of such laws promotes transparent and accountable government by forcing government to act as if someone is watching. Strong FIOAs hold governments accountable and puts the burden on them to provide physical and electronic records at the lowest possible cost. Exceptions to FIOAs should be narrow and should expire after a certain length of time.
Sahar Aziz of Wolfman’s talk by emphasizing that many issues in Egypt are the result of a lack of transparency and accountability. Corruption and abuse by police and parliamentarians result from a state that operates without oversight. Furthermore, this leads to poor reporting and a complete distrust in government. Therefore, Aziz said the creation and implementation of a FIOA in Egypt is crucial, calling it “the bread and butter of any reform movement.” There have been several attempts to do this in Egypt; however, none have been successful. The first had large exceptions and was inaccessible, and the last and most compliant with international standards fell apart with the dissolution of parliament in June 2012. Morsi’s Nahda project is theoretically an improvement, but it is not clear whether or not they will take action. Aziz said that transparency is pivotal to instill potential investors with confidence, which is of the utmost importance for Egypt. She concluded by saying freedom of information reforms make structures more stable so the state is not at the beckoning of personalities.
During the Q&A, the panelists discussed the Egyptian state’s attempt to control foreign and domestic funding to NGOs. Aziz said the state first makes it hard to donate and is then able to control the agenda of various NGOs. In Egypt specifically, officials claim that foreign-funded NGOs are in the country to hurt the country rather than help it, or root out corruption. Wolfman added that in order to change this trajectory you need grassroots organizing and support. This is difficult for liberal groups who have to compete with the well-established Brotherhood and often suffer from elitism. On a different note, Aziz suggested that, as in the women’s movement, one might cloak these types of reforms in Islamist rhetoric to garner support.