(Cairo) - Egypt has carried out mass arbitrary arrests, wholesale restrictions on public campaigning, and widespread intimidation of opposition candidates and activists in the weeks leading up to parliamentary elections on November 28, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today. In a report released today, Human Rights Watch argues that the repression makes free and fair elections unlikely.
The 24-page report, "Elections in Egypt, State of Permanent Emergency Incompatible with Free and Fair Vote," documents the vague and subjective criteria in Egypt's Political Parties Law that allow the government and ruling party to impede formation of new political parties. Egypt remains under an Emergency Law that since 1981 has given security officials free rein to prohibit or disperse election-related rallies, demonstrations, and public meetings, and to detain people indefinitely without charge.
For this election, unlike others over the last 10 years, the government has drastically limited independent judicial supervision, following 2007 constitutional amendments that further eroded political rights. The government has rejected calls for international observers, insisting that Egyptian civil society organizations will ensure transparency. As of November 23, however, the main coalitions of nongovernmental organizations have yet to receive any of the 2,200 permits they have requested to monitor voting and vote counting.
"The combination of restrictive laws, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests is making it extremely difficult for citizens to choose freely the people they want to represent them in parliament," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Repression by the government makes free and fair elections extremely unlikely this weekend."
Human Rights Watch is not monitoring the voting or counting process in the Egyptian elections. As it has elsewhere, it is focusing on documenting systematic violations of the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association - rights that are fundamental to free and fair elections.
Mass Arrests of Opposition Activists, Disruption of Campaigns
Since the Muslim Brotherhood announced on October 9 that its members would run for 30 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly as independents, security officers have rounded up hundreds of Brotherhood members, mostly supporters who were handing out flyers or putting up posters for the candidates. On November 24, Abdelmoneim Maqsud, the group's chief lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that security forces had so far arrested 1,306 Muslim Brotherhood members, including five candidates, brought 702 before prosecutors, releasing the rest and detained two under the emergency law. The government contends that the group's activities violate Egyptian laws prohibiting political activities with a religious reference point.
Human Rights Watch interviewed separately 14 Muslim Brotherhood supporters from one Alexandrian and three Cairo constituencies. They gave consistent accounts of having been arrested after taking part in traditional election campaign activities - participating in a campaign tour, distributing flyers in support of a candidate, or putting up campaign posters. Uniformed police, often accompanied by plainclothes State Security officers, have blocked or dispersed gatherings by Brotherhood candidates, sometimes using force to break up marches and rallies. The intimidation has been especially notable in Alexandria.
"Independent candidates have the same rights to campaign as those of the ruling party," Stork said. "The timing of these arrests and the blocking of campaign events make it clear that the purpose of these arrests is to prevent the political opposition from campaigning effectively."
Security forces have also targeted other political activists. In Munufiyya, security officers arrested Khaled Adham, Mohamed Ashraf, and Ahmed Gaber, three activists with the National Association for Change, as they were collecting signatures for a petition in support of a movement for political change led by Mohamed El Baradei, who has led a coalition of activists demanding an end to the state of emergency and legal reform. Authorities detained the three men for two-and-a-half hours, then released them without charge.
Under international law, freedom of expression and association can be limited only on narrowly defined grounds of public order, and the restriction must be proportionate to the need. A ban on an organization solely because of the political positions it holds, and the fact that it uses a religious framework or espouses religious principles, is not a legitimate reason to limit freedom of association and expression under international human rights law.
A government may legitimately ban a party that uses or promotes violence, but the government's allegations that such an action is needed must meet a high standard of factual proof. In addition, authorities may arrest and detain individuals responsible for specific criminal acts, but not for mere membership in, or support for, a political organization that the government has decided to outlaw.
Lack of Independent Supervision, Failure to Issue Monitoring Permits for Civil Society Groups
Constitutional amendments in 2007 drastically reduced judicial supervision of elections that the Constitution had previously required. A 2000 Supreme Constitutional Court ruling had provided for full judicial supervision of every polling place, but the 2007 amendment to article 88 reduced this to supervision by "general committees" in which judicial presence is limited.
Although Egyptian officials say that Egyptian civil society groups will monitor the parliamentary elections, a leaked report by the quasi-official National Council for Human Rights on the June 1, 2010 Shura Council elections cast doubt on that contention. The report criticized the High Elections Commission, which formally has responsibility for running the elections, for refusing to issue 3,413 of the 4,821 monitoring permits requested by Egyptian civil society organizations for the Shura Council elections.
The High Elections Commission (HEC) announced on November 22 that it would issue permits for the parliamentary elections, and some organizations received a small percentage of the permits they had requested. But as of November 24, one of the two main coalitions, which includes the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services, has not received a response to its request for 1,113 monitoring permits. Another coalition including the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, and Nazra has received no response to its request for 1,116 permits. The commission also stipulated that the monitors' access to polling sites would be subject to the permission of the person in charge of each polling place and that photography was prohibited.
"The Egyptian government has repeatedly rejected calls to allow international observers in as interference, insisting instead that Egyptian civil society will monitor," Stork said. "Yet four days before the elections, 123 organizations in two of the main monitoring coalitions have yet to receive a single one of the 2,229 permits they requested."
Failure to Carry out Court Orders to Reinstate Candidates
On November 16, an administrative court ordered the reinstatement of dozens of candidates whose candidacies had been rejected by the elections commission. On November 17, the commission said on its web site that the decision should be carried out. But the Interior Ministry would have to issue formal permission, which it had not done as of November 23.
The Interior Ministry has refused to implement administrative court orders while appeals are in process. Maj. Gen. Refaat Qomsan, an official from the Interior Ministry's elections bureau, told Human Rights Watch that it had reinstated 64 candidates overall. He said the ministry "has no objection to executing any order" but that "there could very well be an appeal by anyone with interests in the cases."
Ahmad Fawzy, from the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, told Human Rights Watch that the ministry should implement these court orders immediately because only an administrative court can order a stay, and appeals are being filed before courts not competent to hear them. In his view this rationale reflected an official strategy to delay implementation.
Hafez Abu Saada, of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told Human Rights Watch that, in all, 350 candidates had been eliminated and reinstated by the court, but that he knew of only one of them who had been given permission to run by the Interior Ministry. Of the candidates left in limbo, about 14 are Muslim Brotherhood candidates. In Alexandria, four of eight Muslim Brotherhood candidates reinstated by the court have been unable to obtain a candidate number and symbol to confirm that they are on the ballot, Sobhi Saleh, a member of parliament associated with the Brotherhood, told Human Rights Watch.
Harassment of Journalists
On November 21, security officers detained for a half hour four reporters covering a Muslim Brotherhood candidate's campaign walk in the northern Cairo suburb of Shubra al-Kheima. A female journalist who asked not to be named told Human Rights Watch that a state security officer stopped the group and told her she needed permission to cover any campaign activities and that she should check in with police when out in the field.
Ashraf Khalil, a reporter for Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, told Human Rights Watch that the officer told the group they needed special permission to cover events in the street. Khalil later wrote in Al Masry Al-Youm: "It was more annoying than intimidating, more bureaucratic than bullying. But what happened to me and several journalistic colleagues Sunday night was a clear window into the type of petty harassment the regime routinely employs to shrink the local political playing field and limit the activities of foreign journalists."
At a November 22 news conference in Cairo, Qomsan told journalists: "When you involve yourself in the conflicts of the candidates and if those conflicts breach the law, we will respond and you might get caught up. We are keen on enabling everyone to do their jobs. However, we are very cautious to prevent acts of violence that may be triggered by supporters of candidates."
None of the reporters who were detained in Shubra said they were threatened by campaign activists or supporters or that they needed protection from security officials.
"Rather than theorize about reporters getting caught up in possible conflicts, Egypt should give journalists open access to public events without intimidation so they can do their jobs," Stork said.