Egyptians to vote on new constitution amidst boycotts and apathy

An alleged supporter of ousted President Mohamed Morsi clashes with Egyptian security forces in front of Cairo University, Egypt 12th January 2014 (Image: Nameer Galal/Demotix)

An alleged supporter of ousted President Mohamed Morsi clashes with Egyptian security forces in front of Cairo University, Egypt 12th January 2014 (Image: Nameer Galal/Demotix)

Egyptians head to polling stations on Tuesday to vote on a revised constitution heralded by Egypt’s military-backed government as a” first step in the country’s democratic transition” and billed as a blueprint for the “new Egypt.”

The amended document has also been hailed by analysts as one that “enshrines personal and political rights in stronger language than in previous constitutions.” Rights advocates however, have expressed fears that the enormous powers and privileges the ‘new’ charter grants the military could undermine those rights, rendering them meaningless .

The public is being reassured that the revised charter is “a vast improvement to the 2012 Muslim Brotherhood constitution” that was scrapped when the Islamist former President Mohamed Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests in July. In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times last week, Amr Moussa, a former Foreign Minister under deposed President Hosni Mubarak and the Head of the 50-member committee that amended the 2012 Constitution, said that the document –in its new form– “meets the needs and aspirations of all Egyptians” unlike the previous charter which he said, “had been rushed through by a single dominating political faction and answered only to its priorities”.

Ads in the local media and on billboards across the country promote a ‘yes’ vote on the charter, portraying its ratification as a ‘patriotic’ act. Public service messages broadcast on radio and TV stations tell Egyptians that even if they disagree with some of its provisions, the charter is “not permanent—Egypt is.” A ‘yes” vote will “complete the unfinished revolution Egyptians began on June 30,” intones the broadcaster in reference to the day millions took to the streets demanding the downfall of the Islamist regime.

The new charter grants Egyptians greater freedom of expression and belief and ensures equality between men and women. The provision on women’s rights says the state must take necessary measures to guarantee women have proper representation in legislative councils, hold senior public and administrative posts, and are appointed to judicial institutions. It obligates the state to provide protection to women against any form of violence. Meanwhile, articles that gave the previous constitution an “Islamist flair” have either been removed or replaced by others that limit the scope of Islamic law or Shariah. The charter also reaffirms the country’s commitment to its obligations under all previously signed international treaties and agreements including human rights covenants. It also empowers lawmakers to remove the president with a two-thirds majority, obliges the president to declare his financial assets and bans political parties founded on religion, sect or region. All of the above signal victory for Egypt’s liberals and rights advocates who had been vocal in their concerns about flaws in the previous constitution including provisions on religious freedoms and other liberties and rights of women and minorities.

But skeptics caution it may be too early to rejoice.

While some analysts hail a provision banning the prosecution of journalists for ‘publication offences’ as one that will “reinforce press freedom,” a widening government crackdown on critical voices in recent weeks has dashed hopes for greater freedom of expression. Secular revolutionary activists, bloggers and journalists have been targeted along with thousands of Brotherhood supporters and sympathizers, the majority of whom have been imprisoned on trumped up political charges. Four prominent activists (including iconic symbols of the 2011 Revolution Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher) languish behind bars for “taking part in unauthorized protests.” Meanwhile, three journalists working for the Al Jazeera English service remain in custody pending investigations on charges of ‘spreading lies and belonging to a terrorist cell.”

Another provision banning the closure of media outlets for what they broadcast or publish would have been plausible had it come before all channels linked to the Muslim Brotherhood were shut down in the wake of the military takeover of the country in July.

Critics meanwhile, cynically dismiss the provision giving citizens the right to freedom of assembly and demonstrations. They argue that a controversial new law criminalizing protests without prior permission from the authorities nullifies the provision.

And while the revised charter says freedom of belief is “absolute’–whereas the previous charter said it was “protected’– the freedom to practice religion and to establish places of worship is restricted to believers in the three “divine faiths’: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This leaves the country’s Baha’is –who have long suffered discrimination –without protection or rights and may subject them to further persecution. Shia Muslims too face harassment in Egypt, according to the US State Department’s religious freedom 2012 report. Persistent hate speech culminated in the lynching of four Shias by a mob of ultraconservative Salafis in the village of Abu Musallim in Greater Cairo in June Earlier this month, a group of Canadian Shia pilgrims were barred entry into the country and were turned back by security officials.

But the biggest disappointment for secular activists and pro-democracy groups has been the retention of disputed provisions giving the military special privileges and allowing the continuation of military trials for civilians. Article 204 says that “civilians can be tried by military judges for attacks on armed forces, military installations, and military personnel.” Critics fear the provision could be applied to protesters, journalists and dissidents. For the next two presidential terms, the armed forces will also have the right to name the defense minister — an arrangement that positions the military as the main power broker, giving it autonomy above any civilian oversight. Moreover, the charter fails to ensure transparency for the armed forces’ budget allowing it to remain beyond civilian scrutiny.

“Failure of the charter to curb the military’s privileges paves the way for a bigger role for the army in becoming the main power broker,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a journalist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists Movement which played a key role in the 2011 mass uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite its shortcomings, the charter is widely expected to be endorsed in the upcoming referendum. The majority of non-Islamists — a term often used to refer to Egypt’s leftists, liberals and Christians — are likely to approve the new charter simply because they yearn for a return to the stability and security they once enjoyed under authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. An economic recession and rising unemployment have taken their toll on weary Egyptians whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the work stoppages and ongoing street protests. The economy had been on the brink of collapse before Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states offered Egypt a multi-billion dollar rescue package to shore it up.

Analysts say the “yes” vote will not be an endorsement of the charter per se but rather, a nod of approval for the return of the military to power. They say the constitution will pass as an endorsement of Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah El Sissi, the country’s de facto ruler, who on Saturday confirmed he would run in the country’s next presidential elections “if the army gives me a mandate and if the people of Egypt ask me to do so”. General Sissi is idolized by millions of Egyptians who see him as the “saviour of the Revolution” despite the repressive measures used by the military to silence dissent since Morsi’s ouster.

Meanwhile, supporters of the ousted Islamist president have vowed to boycott what they call the “military” vote and are urging others to do likewise. Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, a prominent Qatari-based Muslim Brotherhood cleric — who faces trial in absentia after the interim government branded him a ‘terrorist’ — has issued a religious edict or “fatwa” prohibiting Egyptians from voting in the referendum.

Some political groups have also declared their intention to boycott the vote while others have announced their outright rejection of the charter. The Strong Egypt Party, established in 2012 by former Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fottouh has said it opposes the constitution on grounds that “it fails to promote social justice and gives too much power to the President.” Four of the party’s members were arrested last week in Cairo for hanging up posters promoting a “no” vote. The April Six Movement — one of two main groups that organized and planned the mass protests that led to Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow — has also announced it would stay away from the ballot box, citing “the violent crackdown on Islamist protesters” as a reason. Other revolutionary groups like the Third Square — a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and moderate Islamists opposing both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood — have also said they would refrain from voting.

The enthusiasm and vigour that characterized the polls held after Mubarak’s overthrow have been replaced by disengagement and the mood of apathy that prevailed during the autocratic era of Hosni Mubarak. When asked if they will vote in the referendum, many ordinary Egyptians will answer, “What constitution? We want food for our children.” Many of them say they will not stand in line and wait for hours as they did in previous polls held during the last three years.

“I voted for Morsi in the last presidential election,” Mohamed Abdalla, a bearded taxi driver said. “What good did that do? Where is my vote now?”

This article was posted on 13 Jan 2014 at

The EU and freedom of expression in the world


This article is part of a series based on our report, Time to Step Up: The EU and freedom of expression

Collectively, the European Union of 28 member states has an important role to play in the promotion of freedom of expression in the world. Firstly, as the world’s largest economic trading block with 500 million people that accounts for about a quarter of total global economic output, it still has significant economic power. Secondly, it is one of the world’s largest “values block” with a collective commitment to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and perhaps more significantly, the European Convention on Human Rights. The Convention is still one of the leading supranational human rights treaties, with the possibility of enforcement and redress. Finally, Europe accounts for two of the five seats on the UN Security Council (Britain and France), so has a crucial place in the global security framework. The EU itself has limited foreign policy and security powers (although these powers have been enhanced in recent years), leaving significant importance to the foreign policies of the member states. Where the EU acts with a common approach it has leverage to help promote and defend freedom of expression globally.

How the European Union supports freedom of expression abroad

The European Union has a number of instruments and institutions at its disposal to promote freedom of expression in the wider world, including its place as an observer at international fora, its bilateral and regional agreements, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and geographic policies and instruments including the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the European Neighbouring and Partnership Instrument (ENPI). The EU places human rights in its trade and aid agreements with third party countries and has over 30 stand-alone human rights dialogues. The EU also provides financial support for freedom of expression through the European Development Fund (EDF), the Development Co-operation Instrument (DCI), the European Instrument for democracy and human rights (EIDHR) and the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). The EU now also has a Special Representative for Human Rights. Since 1999, the EU has published an annual report on human rights and democracy in the world. The latest report, adopted in June 2012, contains a special section on freedom of expression, including freedom of expression and “new media”. It recalls the EU’s commitment to “fight for the respect of freedom of expression and to guarantee that pluralism of the media is respected” and emphasises the EU’s support to free expression on the internet.

The European Union has two mechanisms to financially support freedom of expression globally: the European Instrument for democracy and human rights (EIDHR) and the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). The latter was specially created after the Arab Spring in order to resolve specific criticism of the EIDHR: that it didn’t support political parties, non-registered NGOs and trade unions and could not react quickly to events on the ground. The EED is funded by, but is autonomous from, the European Commission, with support from member states and Switzerland. The aims of the EED, to provide rapid and flexible funding for pro-democratic activists in authoritarian states and democratic transitions, is potentially a “paradigm shift” according to experts that will have to overcome a number of challenges, in particular a hesitation towards funding political parties and the most active and confrontational of human rights activists. The EU also engages with the UN on human rights issues at the Human Rights Council (HRC) and in the 3rd Committee of the General Assembly. The EU, as an observer along with its member states, is one of the more active defenders of freedom of expression in the HRC. Promoting and protecting freedom of expression was one of the EU’s priorities for the 67th Session of the UN General Assembly (September 2012-2013). The European Union was also instrumental in the adoption of a resolution on the “Safety of Journalists” (drafted by Austria) in September 2012. The European Union is most effective at the HRC where there is a clear consensus among member states within the Union . Where there is not, for instance on the issue of blasphemy laws, the Union has been less effective at promoting freedom of expression.

The EU and its neighbourhood

The EU has had mixed success in promoting freedom of expression in its near neighbourhood. Enlargement has clearly been one of the European Union’s most effective foreign policy tools. Enlargement has had a substantial impact both on the candidate countries’ transition to democracy and respect for human rights. With enlargement slowing, the leverage the EU has on its neighbourhood is under pressure. Alongside enlargement, the EU engages with a number of foreign policy strategies in its neighbourhood, including the Eastern Partnership and the partnership for democracy and shared prosperity with the southern Mediterranean. This section will look at the effectiveness of these policies and where the EU can have influence.

The EU and freedom of expression in its eastern neighbourhood

Europe’s eastern neighbourhood is home to some of the least free places for freedom of expression. The collapse of the former Soviet Union and the enlargement of the European Union has significantly improved human rights in eastern Europe. There is a marked difference between the leverage the European Union has on countries where enlargement is a real prospect and the wider eastern neighbourhood, where it is not, in particular for Russia and Central Asia. In these countries, the EU’s influence is more marginal. Enlargement has clearly had a substantial impact both on the candidate countries’ transition to democracy and their respect for human rights because since the Treaty of Amsterdam, respect for human rights has been a condition of accession to the EU. In 1997, the Copenhagen criteria were outlined in priorities that became “accession partnerships” adopted by the EU and which mapped out the criteria for admission to the EU. They related in particular, to freedom of expression issues that needed to be rectified. With the enlargement process slowing since the “big bang” in 2004, and countries such as Ukraine and Moldova having no realistic prospect of membership regardless of their human rights record, the influence of the EU is waning in the wider eastern neighbourhood.

After enlargement, the Eastern Partnership is the primary foreign policy tool of the European Union in this region. Launched in 2009, the initiative derives from the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which is specific about the importance of democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights. In this region, the partnership covers Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Freedom of expression has been raised consistently during human rights dialogues with these six states and in the accompanying Civil Society Forum. The Civil Society Forum has also been useful in helping to coordinate the EU’s efforts in supporting civil society in this region. Although it has never been the main aim of the Eastern Partnership to promote freedom of expression, it has had variable success in promoting this right with concrete but limited achievements in Belarus, the Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova; with a more ineffectual role being seen in Azerbaijan.

In recent years, since the increased input of the EEAS in the ENP, the policy has become more markedly political, with a greater emphasis on democratisation and human rights including freedom of expression after a slow start. In particular, freedom of expression was raised as a focus for the ENP after its review in 2010-2011. This is a welcome development, in marked contrast to the technical reports of previous years. This also echoes the increased political pressure from member states that have been more public in their condemnation of human rights violations, in particular regarding  Belarus. Belarus is one Eastern Partnership country where the EU has exerted a limited amount of influence. The EU enhanced its pressure on the country after the post-presidential election clampdown beginning in December 2010, employing targeted sanctions and increasing support to civil society. This has arguably helped secure the release of some of the political prisoners the regime detained. Yet the lack of a strong sense of strategy and unity within the Union has hampered this new pressure to deliver more concrete results. Likewise, the EU’s position on Ukraine has been set back by internal divisions, even though the EU’s negotiations on the Association Agreement included specific reference to freedom of expression.

In Azerbaijan, the EU’s strategic oil and gas interests have blunted criticism of the country’s poor freedom of expression record. Azerbaijan holds over 89 political prisoners, significantly more than in Belarus, yet the EU’s institutions, individual member states and European politicians have failed to be vocal about these detentions, or other freedom of expression violations.  In the EU’s wider neighbourhood outside the Eastern Partnership, the EU has taken a less strategic approach and accordingly has been less successful in either raising freedom of expression violations or helping to prevent them.

The European Union’s relationship with Russia has not been coherent on freedom of expression violations. While the institutions of the EU have criticised specific freedom of expression violations, such as the Pussy Riot sentencing, they were slow to criticise more sustained attacks on free speech such as the clampdown on civil society and the inspections of NGOs using the new Foreign Agents Law. The progress report of EU-Russia Dialogue for Modernisation fails to mention any specific freedom of expression violations in Russia. The EU has also limited its financial involvement in supporting freedom of expression in Russia, unlike in other post-Soviet states. The EU is not united on this criticism: individual European Union member states such as Sweden and the UK are more sustained in their criticisms of Russia’s free speech violations, whereas other member states such as Germany tend to be less critical. It is argued that Russia’s powerful economic interests have facilitated a significant lobbying operation including former politicians that works to reduce criticism of Russia’s freedom of expression violations.

In this region, the European Union’s protection of freedom of expression is weakest in Central Asia. While the EU has human rights dialogues with Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, it has not acted strategically to protect freedom of expression in these countries. The EU dramatically reduced its leverage in Uzbekistan in 2009 by relaxing arms sanctions with little in return from the Uzbek authorities, who continue to fail to abide by international human rights standards. Arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture at the hands of the security services, as well as  unfair trials of the regime’s critics are all commonplace. The European Parliament’s special rapporteur report of November 2012, took a tough stance on human rights in Kazakhstan, making partnership conditional on respect for Article 10 rights. But, this was undermined by High Representative Baroness Ashton’s visit to the country in November 2012, where she failed to raise human rights violations at all.

This lack of willingness to broach freedom of expression issues continued during Baroness Ashton’s first official visit to four of the five Central Asian republics: Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. In Kyrgyzstan she additionally attended an EU-Central Asia ministerial meeting, where the Turkmen government (one of the top five most restrictive countries in the world for freedom of expression) was represented. Baroness Ashton’s lack of vocal support for human rights was condemned by local NGOs and international watchdogs.

Greeks protest public broadcast closure

Greeks protested their government's decision to shutter public broadcaster ERT. (Photo: MICHALIS MICHAILIDIS/Demotix)

Greeks protested their government’s decision to shutter public broadcaster ERT. (Photo: MICHALIS MICHAILIDIS/Demotix)

It happened so quickly, few people inside Greece, and fewer watching from outside could comprehend it. Antonis Samaras, prime minister and leader of the Greek coalition government, announced that the state TV channel ERT, the equivalent of the BBC, would be shut down from midnight on 11 June. Dawn Foster reports.

The caveats provided little relief — Samaras claimed ERT would reopen, with far slimmer staffing levels than the current 2,656 journalists it currently employs across the country.

The plug would be pulled at midnight, Samaras announced a few hours before. Citizen journalists reported seeing riot police marching to transmitters, and ERT offices in Athens, Thessaloniki and beyond were surrounded by riot police, stopped only by the huge crowds of protestors who quickly thronged the streets in fury at the shock decision.

Index on Censorship Chief Executive Kirsty Hughes commented today: “The sudden closure of Greek public broadcaster ERT by the government shows an attitude to media freedom that is extremely troubling. Throughout the Greek economic crisis the authorities have been eager to shoot the messengers, whether they be ERT employees or Kostas Vaxevanis, publisher of the ‘Lagarde list’. Narrowing the discussion through undermining free media will not solve Greece’s problems”

ERT journalists responded by occupying their buildings, and continuing to transmit wherever possible. After years of criticism for often acting as little more than an adjunct of government communications, ERT journalists became vociferous in their criticism of politicians, and government policy. The economist Yanis Varoufakis, admitted live on air that he had been banned from appearing on ERT by a PASOK spokesperson after stating that Greece needed to restructure its debt:

“…as you know, your government bosses had me blacklisted from this station ever since I refused to keep quiet about Greece’s bankruptcy. That act of totalitarianism was a prelude to the much grosser one that we are experiencing tonight. Clearly, I am not the person to say that ERT was a splendid organisation unblemished by censorship, political interference or corruption. But I think I am the person possessing the moral authority to stand here tonight in front of you and say that, despite all its ills, the totalitarian manner in which ERT was closed down was a crime against all civilised people the world over.”

The president of the European Broadcasting Union, Jean Paul Philipott, roundly condemned Antonis Samaras’s decision and urged the Greek government to reverse the shutdown with immiediate effect noting: “The existence of public service media and their independence from government lie at the heart of democratic societies, and therefore any far-reaching changes to the public media system should only be decided after an open and inclusive democratic debate in Parliament — and not through a simple agreement between two government ministers.”

Samaras and New Democracy have attempted to justify the censorship of state broadcasting by arguing that the shutdown was necessary to meet public sector redundancy targets set by the Troika, due to be re-examined at the end of July.

For many Greeks, the closure carries memories of the junta. The military dictatorship’s rule is still within living memory of many Greeks, and blank screens were often a precursos to another coup. Several ERT journalists, and opposition leader Alexis Tsipras of SYRIZA referred to the move as a “coup”, a particularly loaded term in Greece. Tsipras told protesters assembled outside an ERT station “This is completely illegal … The government has overstepped its authority. You can’t do this without parliamentary approval, it’s an issue of democracy.”

ERT journalists broke ranks in their anger at the sudden clampdown, speakig candidly on air, and outside ERT buildings of the pressure to bring government ministers on air and silence dissenting voices.

Samaras’s decision to shut down ERT with force, and without consultation with coalition partners PASOK and Democratic Left, has been widely described as inherently undemocratic. It remains to be seen whether the row will force a political crisis in the coalition, or if it heralds much wider, and more drastic sackings across the Greek public sector.

Dawn Foster works for the Guardian’s Comment is Free. She tweets at @DawnHFoster

The newspapers’ royal regulation gambit

Yesterday’s announcement by several newspaper groups that they had launched their own royal charter for press regulation was met with anger by Hacked Off campaigners and, to be frank, confusion by the public at large.

Index, for our part, welcomed the rejection of the government’s royal charter, while still being opposed to the papers’ royal charter.

Why? Well, there’s the issue that Index doesn’t really want there to be any royal charter, at all, no matter who’s dreamt it up. It still creates the prospect of external political approval of press regulation.

There’s also a problem that the papers’ version of the charter gives them a veto over appointments to the regulatory board, which risks the regulator being seen as a tool of the industry, just as the PCC was perceived to be.

Then there’s the issue that it doesn’t really address the problem of the threat of exemplary damages for those outside the regulator, one of Index’s key concerns.

And it leaves us none the wiser as to the whole “What’s a newspaper/journalist/website/blog?” question, which has been the cause of some confusion (as illustrated by Martin Belam‘s satirical take on the government’s explanatory flowchart below).

Still, the rejection is the interesting part. And the furore over the rejection has somewhat undermined the claims made by government and campaigners that they believed in a wholly voluntary system.

What happens next? By Leveson’s own admission, if a substantial part of the industry refuses to sign up, then the regulator has failed before it has even begun. That is where we seem to be now.

It was interesting to note that in his interview on BBC radio’s World At One yesterday, Peter Wright, who has been leading the discussion for Associated, Telegraph and News International publications, said that the other papers who are not part of that group saw the alternative royal charter proposal as a way to “get the ball rolling again” on negotiations over reform. That would suggest that even Wright sees this merely as the opening gambit in fresh negotiations.

So perhaps now we can start discussing the terms of a new, genuinely independent and voluntary regulator, without the mad rush that led to the government’s ultimately botched effort.