HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Human Rights Watch Backgrounder

Elections in Egypt
October 2000

Guarantees for a Fair Process

Restrictions on Freedom of Association

Harassment of Political Activists

Restrictions on the Activities of Human Rights and Election Monitoring Groups

Restrictions on Freedom Of Expression


Elections for Egypt´s 454-member People´s Assembly began on October 18, 2000. Fifteen political parties are contesting 444 parliamentary seats, the remaining ten seats to be filled by presidential appointment. These are the first parliamentary elections in the country´s history to be held under full judicial supervision.

According to the Ministry of Interior, 4,116 candidates whose nominations had been approved by the September 25 registration deadline are to contest the elections in 222 constituencies in the country´s twenty-six governorates. First-round are scheduled for October 18 to 24 in nine governorates, followed by a second round from October 29 to November 4 in nine other governorates and a final round from November 8 to 14 in the remaining eight governorates. The voting is being staggered over three weeks to allow for judicial supervision of all polling stations.

Egyptian human rights groups have raised concerns about the fairness of recent elections in Egypt. In 1995, for example, the Ibn Khaldun Center, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) and the Center for Human Rights Legal Aid (CHRLA) monitored that year´s People´s Assembly elections, in which the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) won ninety-seven percent of the seats. Their reports documented numerous irregularities prior to and during the elections, including the harassment, intimidation and often arrest of opposition candidates, the presence of security officials inside the polling stations, strong-arm tactics designed to influence voting, and vote rigging. They also condemned acts of violence during the elections, which resulted in the deaths of over sixty people and injuries to many others. Allegations of vote rigging were subsequently borne out when the Court of Cassation nullified election results for seats in some 200 constituencies as a result of suits brought by opposition candidates.

Egyptian human rights activists as well as Human Rights Watch have long urged the Egyptian government to end the state of emergency that has been in force almost continuously since 1967. The law, among other things, allows the authorities to restrict freedom of assembly, was renewed again in May for a further three years. The Egyptian human rights organizations contend that democratic elections under such conditions are not possible.

This backgrounder notes the important Supreme Constitutional Court ruling that led to legislation giving the judiciary responsibility for monitoring the elections. Human Rights Watch remains disturbed however by persistent and ongoing patterns of government harassment of political opponents and potential opposition candidates, and unwarranted restrictions on basic rights of free expression and free association. These restrictions and this harassment have created an environment quite at odds with what is necessary for free and fair elections.

Guarantees for a fair process

On July 8, in response to a lawsuit filed by an Egyptian lawyer contesting the constitutionality of the earlier 1990 parliamentary elections, Egypt´s Supreme Constitutional Court passed a landmark ruling. The ruling stated that current legislation governing the electoral process was unconstitutional because it failed to provide for full judicial supervision of the elections, contrary to the provisions of Article 88 of Egypt´s Constitution. In both the 1990 and 1995 parliamentary elections, only the principal polling stations were supervised by members of the judiciary, while civil servants supervised auxiliary stations.

Following the Constitutional Court ruling, two extraordinary sessions of the People´s Assembly and the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council, the upper house of the parliament) approved three decrees issued by President Husni Mubarak proposing a series of amendments. The principal amendment introduced was to Article 24 of the Law on the Exercise of Political Rights (Law 73 of 1956), which had provided for judicial supervision of principal polling stations only. Many of the allegations of electoral fraud in past elections related to irregularities taking place at the auxiliary rather than the principal polling stations. Five other articles of Law 73 (1956) were also amended, introducing changes to procedures regulating the identification of registered voters and responsibility for the vote-counting process, among other things.

Many Egyptians, including opposition political figures and members of the judiciary, welcomed the new legislation in line with the ruling of the Constitutional Court. However, several senior members of the judiciary and constitutional law experts in Egypt have continued to voice concern that the separation of powers between the judicial and executive authorities is not sufficiently explicit, giving rise to unwarranted interference by government officials in the judicial monitoring process and undermining its independence.

They have raised particular concern that final decisions concerning the selection of members of the judiciary involved in electoral supervision rests with the Minister of Justice. A number of judges have protested that such decisions should rest with the Supreme Judicial Council and not with a representative of the executive. The Council´s role is presently limited to nominating individuals to the Minister of Justice, who has the final say as to which judge is appointed to each polling station. Judiciary members, appointed to head both principal and auxiliary stations, are government employees attached to the ministries of Justice and Interior, among them staff of the Judicial Inspection Department and the Prosecutor General´s office. This has given rise to fears that such appointees may be unduly influenced or pressured by their ministries. These concerns were exacerbated by the decision to appoint Prosecutor General Maher Abd al-Wahed as head of the General Judicial Committee set up to supervise the elections.

Restrictions on freedom of association

The government of Egypt continues to restrict freedom of association, including the right of Egyptians to form political parties. Political parties cannot operate legally in Egypt without a license from the Political Parties Committee of the Shura Council. Since its establishment in 1977, this government-controlled body has approved the licensing of only one new political party, in March of this year. The committee has typically ruled that the programs of fledgling political groups are not sufficiently different from those of existing political parties.

One noteworthy aspect of the current elections is the overwhelming number of candidates running as independents. According to official government data, only 876 of the 4,116 registered candidates are official political party candidates. The remaining 3,240 are running on independent platforms, compared with 3,160 in 1995 and 1,800 in 1990. The vast majority of them are members of the ruling NDP, which many Egyptians believe is an indirect way of boosting the party´s dominance in the People´s Assembly. However, these candidates also include individuals who failed to be selected for the NDP official list.

The large number of candidates running as independents also reflects the restrictions placed on some opposition groups which have either been banned, or have had their activities frozen or were denied authorization to operate as a political party. In the first category is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been under ban since 1954. In the past, some of the party´s members participated in parliamentary elections after forging alliances with other political parties and running under their banner. In the current elections, ninety members are running as independent candidates. In addition to having to resort to these means in order to take part in the political process, the Muslim Brotherhood has faced increasing pressure and intimidation from the authorities in an apparent attempt to prevent them from running in the elections.

On May 20, the Political Parties Committee froze the activities of the Labour Party, an Islamist opposition group. The move, taken ostensibly because of a leadership dispute within the party, was widely construed as being part of a crackdown ahead of the elections. Despite several appeal rulings in favor of the party, the ban on its publications remains in force. The Political Parties Committee formally requested the dissolution of the Labour Party when, on July 24, it referred the case to the Political Parties Tribunal, an exceptional court authorized under the provisions of the Law on Political Parties (Law 70 of 1977). This followed a decision by prosecution authorities to charge nine Labour Party figures, including Secretary-General Adel Hussain, with having links with the Muslim Brotherhood, receiving unauthorized funding, and “working against national unity.” (See below)

Harassment of political activists

In a highly politicized case, the government brought twenty defendants, all of them civilians linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, before the Supreme Military Court for a trial beginning on December 25, 1999. They were charged under articles 30, 86 and 88 of the Penal Code with, inter alia, membership of an illegal organization, recruiting supporters, attempting to control the activities of professional associations, and inciting others to commit such acts. None of these charges involved the use or advocacy of violence. The defendants, mainly lawyers, professionals and university professors, had been arrested in October 1999 and held in preventive detention in Mazra´at Tora Prison. The announcement of the verdicts, due in July, was deferred first to October 3 and then to November 7. Many Egyptians saw their prosecution as an attempt by the authorities to prevent them from running as independent candidates in the current parliamentary elections as well as for the boards of their respective professional associations.

Most recently, on October 8, prosecutors ordered the arrest of 46 suspected Brotherhood members and renewed the preventive detention periods of 35 others. In Alexandria, on October 5, security officials arrested several members of the electoral campaigning team of Jihan al-Halafawi, the only female candidate linked to the Muslim Brotherhood running for the elections, albeit on an independent platform.

One Labour Party leader, al-Sha´ab Editor-in-Chief Magdi Hussain, is serving a two-year prison term after he and other colleagues were convicted in April for slandering Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture Yusuf Wali. They were convicted under a restrictive Press Law introduced in 1996, which provides a mandatory prison sentence in libel cases. The law has been used by the authorities to punish journalists critical of government officials, as evidenced by the marked increase in libel cases referred to the courts in recent years. Magdi Hussain had announced his intention to run as a candidate for the parliamentary elections if his appeal was successful. The Court of Cassation turned down his appeal and he remains in detention. The Labour Party, unable to contest the elections pending resolution of its status by the courts, has put forward fifteen candidates running as independents.

Restrictions on the activities of human rights and election monitoring groups

Egyptian human rights groups, whose activities in the past have included the monitoring of parliamentary elections, have themselves come under attack and activists preparing to monitor this month´s People´s Assembly elections have been targeted. On June 30, State Security Intelligence (SSI) officials arrested Sa´adeddin Ibrahim, sociology lecturer at the American University of Cairo and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies. Ibrahim was embarking on a project to monitor the fairness of the election in the greater Cairo area and to continue his voter education program. The SSI raided his home and the Ibn Khaldun Center and confiscated documents, computers and other belongings. The authorities also arrested the center´s chief accountant, Nadia ‘Abd al-Nur, and her assistant, Usama Hammad. All were held under preventive detention under Military Decree No. 4 of 1992, renewable every fifteen days. The prosecution initially accused Ibrahim of receiving foreign funding without the authorities´ permission, forgery of election documents, fraud and the dissemination of false information damaging to Egypt´s interests, but did not clarify the laws under which these or later accusations were made. At least fourteen others were also interrogated in connection with the case, several of whom were detained for weeks.

In early July the authorities detained and interrogated staff of the Women Voters´ Support Center, an NGO cooperating with the Ibn Khaldun Center on educational programs for voters, two of whom were held in preventive detention. On August 10 both Ibrahim and ‘Abd al-Nur were released on bail, as were their detained colleagues in the ensuing days. On September 24, in the wake of an announcement by Ibrahim that he intended to proceed with election monitoring despite his arrest, the prosecutor-general formally referred the case to the Supreme State Security Court, naming Ibrahim and twenty-seven other defendants. Both the Ibn Khaldun Center and the Women Voters´ Support Center remain closed. In a press conference held on October 2, Ibrahim announced his intention to freeze his public activities, including election monitoring, pending the outcome of the court case. The trial is set for November 18.

The controversial Law on Civil Associations and Institutions (Law 153 of 1999), enacted in May 1999, mandated excessive restrictions on the activities of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and allowed the government a high degree of interference in their internal affairs. It also criminalized any activities by NGOs deemed by the authorities as political. The law was overturned on June 3 by the Supreme Constitutional Court, which ruled it unconstitutional on procedural grounds since it had not been presented to the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council, the upper house of the parliament). Following the Constitutional Court ruling, the Ministry of Social Affairs announced that the highly restrictive Law 32 of 1964, which the new law was intended to replace, would remain in force. The government has said that it intends to refer Law 153 (1999) to the People´s Assembly again after the elections. Deputy Minister of Justice Fathi Naguib told Human Rights Watch on September 3 that the law would be amended in the light of the Constitutional Court decision, but that no further consultations with NGO representatives regarding its provisions would take place.

Restrictions on freedom of expression

The authorities continue to impose significant restrictions on freedom of expression, banning books and newspapers and instituting criminal charges against journalists. The 1996 Press Law punishes controversial but peaceful expression. It provides prison sentences of one or two years, often accompanied by fines, for insulting or defaming a public official. In February 1999, for example, prosecutors questioned editor Abbas al-Tarabili and journalist Muhammad Abdel Alim of the opposition daily al-Wafd on accusations of “publishing false reports and propaganda undermining public interest and threatening national security” for reporting about a strike at the Central Bank. They were subsequently released on bail but faced imprisonment if tried and convicted. In April this year, three staff members of the bi-weekly paper al Sha´ab, were convicted and sentenced for slandering Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture Yusuf Wali. (See above) Editor-in-chief Magdi Hussain and journalist Salah Badawi received two-year prison sentences, cartoonist Issam Hanafi received a one-year sentence, and a fourth, Adel Hussain, Secretary-general for the Labour Party, was fined.

In recent years, both writers and academics have been accused of writing material or expressing views deemed by official or self-appointed censors to be offensive to Islam. In a recent case, the authorities arrested an Egyptian author, Salahuddin Muhsin on March 10, charging him with insulting Islam in several novels. On July 8 the State Security Court for Misdemeanors in Giza handed down a six-month suspended sentence, which renders Muhsin liable to imprisonment for conviction on any similar offence in the future.