3 Years after Democratic Revolution, Egypt Decides it Prefers North Korean Model

(By Juan Cole)

The title of this piece is provocative and a little tongue in cheek. Were I in Egypt as I publish it, I’m not sure, though, that the authorities would get the joke. The 2011 revolution, which was in part about dignity and personal autonomy and censorship and police torture, apparently went too far for Egypt’s ruling classes (the army, big business, big government).

The resulting constitution is not actually as bad as many of its detractors paint it, and has some good points that if they are implemented could allow positive change. But the referendum process itself is highly objectionable.

I’m referring to the Tuesday and Wednesday referendum on the constitution crafted by a body appointed by a government that was appointed by the officer corps. The resulting constitution is not actually as bad as many of its detractors paint it, and has some good points that if they are implemented could allow positive change. But the referendum process itself is highly objectionable. The Carter Center is sending observers only of the larger political context but not doing actual election observation. The Carter Center did not observe the December 2012 referendum on the Muslim Brotherhood constitution at all. Neither referendum was held in such a way as to meet international certification for an impartial electoral process. Some election observers were allegedly mistreated at polls on Tuesday.

But on Monday the government arrested members of the Strong Egypt party for hanging banners urging a no vote. That’s not acceptable. Likewise it arrested three Aljazeer journalists on the grounds that Aljazeera is based in Qatar and Qatar has been supportive of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The Egyptian airwaves have been full of propaganda insisting that a yes vote on the constitution is a patriotic duty. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi comes on tv, sometimes sitting down among troops, saying folksy nationalist things.

The 2012 constitution was a bad constitution produced by a bad process. The constituent assembly was chosen by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated parliament elected in 2011, which was subsequently struck down for electoral fraud. At that point the committee should have been reformulated, but it wasn’t. The fundamentalist majority rammed through a text that President Morsi then quickly put to a referendum. The judges refused to oversee it, which they usually, and there could have been fraud. The turnout was only 33% and it won by 65% or so. But that means only about 20% of the eligible voters voted for it. Not much of a mandate there.

Egypt has reached this scary place by design, the design of its elites. After the last big populist moment of protest, in June of 2013, the military made a coup and overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Muhammad Morsi.

Admittedly, the last three years have been seen economic troubles for a lot of ordinary Egyptians, and the revolution was also about bread and social justice. Having not delivered the bread, it appears to have disappointed the populace so much that they are willing to put up with the return of a propaganda state.

Last fall, the military-appointed interim government abruptly announced a law forbidding public protest unless permission was gained from the Interior Ministry three days before. Prominent Egyptian heroes like Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmad Maher were arrested for protesting the protest law. Abdel Fattah was given a three year suspended sentence, which of course functions as a standing threat to toss him back in a cell if he doesn’t kowtow. He was beaten bloody when arrested and mistreated in jail. Maher and others were given an actual three year sentence of hard labor. Egyptian prisons are bad enough as a punishment all by themselves, even without the hard labor part. These are not nobodies. They were heroes in 2011, lionized by the public and consulted by the interim government. It is said that a revolution devours its own children. But in this revolution, the overthrown fathers came back and ate the children that made the revolution.

Then there has been the massive crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, with some 21,000 imprisoned since July 3. About 2000 of those are leaders. In addition, over 1,000 of them were killed in the clearing of their sit-ins; in some instances they did appear to deploy violence, but most of those deaths were unjustified. In December the interim government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and instituted harsh penalties even for orally defending it.

These sad statistics and these sad facts are the reason for bringing up North Korea. It is a vast exaggeration. But certainly human rights are being drastically curtailed in today’s Egypt.

The constitution itself forbids torture and allows citizens to sue the police. If the provision is actually implementing, it seems to me Egyptians would have more rights in these regards than Americans. It gets rid of the clause that makes the al-Azhar Seminary the arbiter of Islamic law incorporated into state practices, which had been a step toward an Iran-style theocracy. It guarantees freedom of belief (the Coptic church is backing it). It is good on the rights of children. While it gives the army 8 years in which the civilian government can’t interfere much with it, that provision was in the Morsi constitution, too.

But constitutions are only as good as their implementation. Some Egyptians have argued that the interim government has overstepped its authority with its anti-protest law and ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, and that the anti-protest law, at least, is unconstitutional by the text of the new constitution.

About that, we’ll see.

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Reuters reports

14 Responses

  1. North Korea’s Constitution guarantees, among other things, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to free health care, the right to a 40 hour workday, the right to guaranteed employment and the right to democratically elect leaders. That’s a lot more than the US constitution grants. Guess which country I’d rather live in. What the document says means nothing, what matters is how they act. Right now on a comparative basis I’d say Mubarak was better, let alone Morsi.

  2. Sherifa Zuhur

    I wish you had not published this on this particular day. Too bad those who supposedly support freedom and democracy do not support the new Constiution in Egypt which gives women and minorities equality, criminalizes discrimination, omits al-Azhar’s supervision over civil law (as much as it relates to shari’ah) and much more. Egypt does NOT prefer a North Korean model, but it does not prefer an Iranian, Hizbullah nor a Taliban model at this time.

    • Well, according to the new Dear Leader women now have equal opportunity to be executed for leading protests. That’s progress, I guess.

    • It’s time for individual Egyptians to SEE if they can in fact live their lives free of oppression and turmoil. It is obvious there is a legitimate opportunity for them here. We should be helping them grasp it.

  3. And for grand geopolitical reasons, or bureaucratic momentum, or to keep feeding a few nominally US corporations with “contracts,” US dollars in the billions continue to go to the military/business elite of Egypt. Oh well…

    • Our aid to Egypt is a pretty tidy sum, something like a thousand million paid out each year without fail as if it were a permanent entitlement, sort of like an annuity.

      You might feel more comfortable if you thought of it as protection money for the benefit of our greatest ally, Israel, which we pay on her behalf to neutralize her vicious, terrorist enemies, the Egyptians.

      So long as that’s what we’re paying for how may we cavil about who gets it once it’s in Egypt? Is it even our business?

      By the way, can you remember ever seeing a financial transaction wherein the money or other value flowed from Israel to the United States?

  4. The meaning conveyed by the title is reasonably fitting. If Egyptian authorities were actually serious about freedom or cared the slightest bit about liberty, they would not be arresting, torturing, and murdering dissidents at an astounding pace.

    The Sisi personality cult worships violence and is a quite anti-democratic creed used by the deep state authoritarians to cloak their true agenda.

    There is not the slightest probability that the interior ministry plans to stop torturing democratic revolutionaries, or to cease engaging in vast, unlawful, wiretapping and surveillance.

    Strangely, Iran has a more developed economy than Egypt, despite sanctions being at odds with certain world powers over various issues. Perhaps this is because stone age military cultists simply exploit and sap the life out of any country as easily as any clerical establishment can?

    The April 6 movement and the Road of the Revolution Front have the right idea.

  5. One might also point out the failure that is Myanmar’s military junta. Absolutely nowhere in the world is it a good idea to lead military institutions dominate political systems.

  6. And the country’s elite, a good number of whom also seem to be military cultists, parrot the same al Sisi can do no wrong line, just like their North Koean soul brothers. Just watched Amr Moussa doing it. I wonder if he will be the “uncle” who will get the chop.

    Egypt’s military budget is deemed a secret in the new constitution, so the army and their claque can continue to run Egypt’s economy into the ground.

  7. Dunno about Amr Moussa but I’m hearing Amr Hamzawy has been banned from traveling and may be arrested soon. Of course rumors are not always true, so we’ll see. Wouldn’t shock anyone though.

  8. The Egyptian Constitution doesn’t have to be perfect at the get-go so long as the barriers against amendment don’t make it too difficult or impossible. Adjusting a constitutional structure is healthy over time for depressurizing a society.

    On the Turkish model I’m also not so sure that a Constitutional caretaker role for a secular Army is such a bad thing either. It would be called-upon in a crisis in any event. Aren’t the people of Egypt going to have to build democratic institutions, a democratic temperament and the appropriate expectations over time?

    Are the Rights of Egyptians to be the same as the rights of Englishmen when the latter don’t even have a Constitution and get along just fine?

  9. If you want to make comparisons, the Pinochet government in Chile comes to mind. A light version, that is, since that Chilean government tortured and executed around 10,000 people extra judicially. the Egyptians aren’t there yet.

    • Okay Gary. Fair enough. I suppose I’m just tired of the turmoil I’ve been watching in that region for decades, almost as if it is a new normal, and would like the people of the Middle-East to live their own lives instead of someone else’s. Constitutions are inert pieces of paper until they are reflected by institutions and expectations. That’s gradual and the Egyptians aren’t there yet. In the mean time they have a chance for peace.

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