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Freedom, the rule of law and development

As Egypt goes through a process of political transition, three basic principles should point the way forward

Abdel Moneim Said , Wednesday 16 Feb 2011
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It seems ages ago since we — the editors-in-chief and board chairmen of Egypt’s national and private-sector newspapers — were invited to meet with vice president Omar Suleiman on the morning of Tuesday, 8 February in the presidential palace in Heliopolis.

The way there had not been easy, and the revolution had set its own rules for both the government and the opposition. The time and the place were in the grip of extraordinary circumstances, and one could hear the pulse of history beating faster than the pounding of a heart, all in anticipation of a world that was being turned upside down.

Eventually, we arrived at our destination and, as we had done on many other occasions, we exchanged news before taking our seats around the meeting table. The vice president laid out the challenges he faced and then asked us not to discuss what had already happened but rather to present him with our ideas about how to overcome the crisis (the term “revolution” had not yet taken hold) and, more importantly, on the shape of Egypt’s future.

As is the custom of Egyptian journalists, most of my colleagues did not respond to the request as stated. Instead, each voiced his opinions on developments up to that point, with a few venturing some vague ideas on how to solve Egypt’s problems. When my turn came — I was the last to speak — I felt it was my duty to respond directly to the vice president’s request. Therefore, I gave my views on Egypt’s direction during the coming phase.

These views rest on three concepts: freedom, the rule of law and development. This article presents the views I expressed that day, supplemented by considerations based on the developments that have taken place since then.

 

FREEDOM: It is the most important achievement of the 25 January Revolution. Dictatorship and tyranny in any form are now out of the question, whether the source is the political authorities, Tahrir Square, or any individual or majority.

From this point forward, no individual or body can be allowed to abuse or deny the inalienable human rights of the Egyptian people for any reason. At a delicate juncture in the history of Egypt, the people regained the reins of sovereignty following the collapse of the authority of the state and then agreed to the transfer of power from president Mubarak to the Higher Council of the Armed Forces, the only national institution to retain its cohesion and ability to deal honourably with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people and their revolution.

The main reason that the revolutionaries are celebrating today is that the country has been freed from a regime that had imposed many restrictions on public freedoms and had managed to translate these restrictions into laws and constitutional provisions.

In the meeting with the vice president, I made two interrelated suggestions. The first was that the time had come to let the Egyptian people exercise their right to choose the political system they deemed best. Over the past few weeks, we have all become familiar with the application of the law and the constitution and constitutional amendments. All this needs to be brought together into a comprehensive reform programme commensurate to the age in which we live and one that can be put to the public in a referendum the integrity of which will be guaranteed by judicial supervision and international monitoring.

Egypt is not without experience of comprehensive political reform. Perhaps part of this experience is to be found in the special “powers-of-attorney”, or tutelary powers, that were given to the leaders of the 1919 Revolution. Another part can be found in the 30 March 1968 programme for liberation and development proposed by president Gamal Abdel-Nasser following defeat in the 1967 war and the second occupation of Sinai.

This time round, however, we want neither powers-of-attorney nor a reform programme that is not strictly guaranteed by a fair referendum. We want a clear reform programme that is put to the people under proper legal and procedural conditions, in order to ensure that it obtains the necessary legitimacy from the Egyptian people.

My second suggestion was that a new constitution should be drafted for Egypt. As I have reiterated in numerous articles in Al-Ahram and other newspapers before and after the constitutional amendments of 2005 and 2007, Egypt needs a modern civil constitution, similar to those in developed nations, in which the people are the source of authority and legislation and in which neither women, workers or peasants, nor any other group or segment of the population will be accorded special privileges.

I have long believed that a democratic republican system is the most appropriate form of government for our country for reasons that I will explain when the time comes for further public debate.

 

THE RULE OF LAW: This is the main pillar of freedom. There can be no freedom without equality before the law in accordance with the principles laid down by legislators, jurists and human heritage, all of which have established that an accused person must be considered innocent until proven guilty.

Therefore, any investigations into and prosecutions for corruption and the like must be based not upon rumour and hearsay, but on tangible proof and evidence, and they must proceed in accordance with established legal rules and procedures. Naturally, the perpetrators of corruption must be pursued at home and abroad. However, this does not mean reverting to the dark ages of inquisitions, witch-hunts and accusations derived from visions or magic, or to the guillotine, pillory, death by burning and the lynch mob.

Our newspapers, television stations, satellite channels and other media must assume their historic responsibility of adhering strictly to the principles of justice that hold that the accused is innocent until proven otherwise, and that the defendant must have a fair opportunity to defend himself.

In addition to bringing those accused of corruption to trial, we must set in motion a national commission to investigate crimes that occurred during the uprising. The chief principle of the January 25 Revolution, and the one that most stirred the admiration of the world, was that it was committed to peaceful protest. It rejected violence and even the threat of violence. Nevertheless, the revolution did experience some violence, some of it caused by the state security agencies which used force against the protesters in blatant contradiction to the government's explicitly stated declaration that the people had the right to demonstrate peacefully.

Other acts of violence were caused by unidentified groups that set fire to police stations and shot or massacred the people inside, or set fire to public buildings and property belonging to the judiciary or the National Democratic Party (NDP). A third outbreak of violence came in the form of the brutal armed assault on the demonstrators on Wednesday, 3 February, with all its tragic consequences.

The investigations of this national commission, which must be headed by individuals reputed for their political neutrality and objectivity, must be comprehensive, thoroughly transparent and conducted according to the letter of the law.

 

DEVELOPMENT: It is the pillar upon which Egypt’s capacities to address its current and future problems will rest. In this regard, Egyptians will need to engage in a nationwide dialogue and to reach a consensus over the following question: should we revert to the old socialist system, meaning state control over the means of production and over who can or cannot enter the market place, or should we set our sights on catching up with nations that have long outpaced us in the march to progress, such as Brazil, Turkey, South Korea, Singapore, China and India?

If we opt for the latter solution, we will need to strengthen the market economy and generate an investment climate conducive to increased domestic and foreign investment. It is to be hoped that we do not opt for some kind of mixture between the two systems, only to reap the ills of both. However, perhaps our most immediate task, even before we seek an answer to the foregoing question, is to seek ways to offset the huge losses we have incurred over the past few weeks.

By way of illustration, the Investment Authority lost something in the neighbourhood of LE400 million in potential investments for the creation of new companies during what has now become known as the “Week of Anger” (29 January to 6 February), when the authority had to close, bringing to a halt its assistance in the establishment of companies, general assembly meetings, and issuing and renewing of operating licences.

The Ministry of Industry and Trade has announced that Egyptian exports fell by six per cent in January. In the tourist sector, losses are estimated in the billions due to the departure of a million tourists. According to the Ministry of Tourism, 211,000 employees were laid off from their jobs in a single week in hotels and other tourist facilities in the governorates of Luxor, Aswan, North and South Sinai and the Red Sea. It is to be feared that the wave of lay-offs in this sector will continue, perhaps reaching half a million.

Meanwhile, revenue from tourism declined by some 80 per cent, tourist spending plummeted by 80 per cent, hotel occupancy rates plunged to 10 to 15 per cent overall and to 40 per cent in Sharm El-Sheikh and Hurghada, and the arrival of tourists from abroad dropped by 97 percent. In addition, European tourist companies cancelled trips to Cairo. In 2009, tourist revenues totalled $10.8 billion, and around 12.5 million tourists visited Egypt that year.

A third gauge of the severity of the economic setback is that the Egyptian stock exchange also suffered catastrophic losses, causing the value of the Egyptian pound to sink to its lowest level in six years. On top of this, we should take into account the economic repercussions of the thefts of some ATM machines and the destruction of branches of international banks operating in Egypt. To my knowledge, there are no estimates yet on the material losses incurred by the banks or of their financial losses as the result of the halt in banking transactions.

These were my thoughts on the current situation and the way forward on the Saturday morning following the victory of the revolution. To a considerable extent, they were an amplification of the ideas I had previously aired during that Tuesday meeting with the vice president.

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