The Egyptian government’s continuing mass round-up of opposition activists and would-be candidates puts the legitimacy of upcoming local and municipal council elections in serious doubt, Human Rights Watch said today.
In recent weeks, security forces have arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge more than 800 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group, including at least 148 would-be candidates in the elections scheduled for April 8. Muslim Brotherhood leaders said its candidates would contest the elections from jail if necessary.
The roundups are yet another sign of the government’s campaign against the Brotherhood. On March 25, 2008, a military tribunal postponed until April 15 – a week after the elections – a verdict in the trial of 40 leading Muslim Brotherhood members charged with belonging to a banned group and possessing anti-government literature. In February 2007, President Hosni Mubarak had ordered the 40 tried before a military tribunal after an ordinary criminal court dismissed charges against 17 of them, including the group’s deputy supreme guide, Khairat al-Shatir.
“These ongoing mass arrests of opposition activists, on top of the military trial, are a shameless bid to fix the upcoming elections,” said Joe Stork, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “President Mubarak apparently believes that the outcome of the elections cannot be left up to voters.”
In a March 15 statement, the Muslim Brotherhood said it sought to register 5,754 candidates as independents in the nationwide contests. The group filed complaints after electoral committees accepted only 498 of these applications. Local administrative courts then ruled that nomination papers of 2,664 Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidates had been improperly rejected. Lawyers for the group say it is unclear whether the state will respect those rulings.
The government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood since 1954. Article 86(bis) of the Egyptian penal code criminalizes membership in any group the government deems as “impairing the national unity or social peace.” Such broadly worded definitions invite abuse and violate Egyptians’ right to freedom of association.
“The government has not charged any of the 800 detained Muslim Brotherhood members with actual crimes,” Stork said. “It should release them now and allow fair elections.”
Local councils are responsible for implementing legislation and monitoring daily local functions of the government. Amendments to article 76 of the Constitution, approved in a May 2005 referendum, increased the councils’ importance by requiring independent presidential candidates to obtain at least 140 signatures from members of local councils in at least 14 governorates. Local council elections were initially scheduled for April 2006, but the government postponed them following the strong showing of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidates in national legislative elections in late 2005.
“The ruling National Democratic Party heavily dominates the local councils, and President Mubarak seems determined to keep it that way, whatever the cost to his government’s legitimacy,” Stork said.
The 40 defendants in the military court case, aside from four being tried in absentia, have been detained for more than a year.