Heba Morayef

Elections alone don’t mean democracy. Rights for women and religious groups matter too

As millions of Egyptians queued to vote in the first free presidential elections in the country’s history, they continued the conversations that have dominated coffee shops in every city for the past six weeks in the long lines outside polling stations — on the merits of the candidates and the implications of this week’s vote for Egypt’s future.

The suspense of not knowing who will win, exacerbated by the weakness of Egypt’s polling industry and the scarcity of demographic data, all legacies of Hosni Mubarak’s security apparatus, has prompted excitement and fear in equal measure.

The choices that Egyptians make will to a great extent reflect how much change they want after “the revolution”. They must decide whether to trust Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), and what role religion should play in politics.

The past year and a half of military rule has stifled the momentum for change of the heady days of early 2011 in Tahrir Square, when demands for freedom and social justice were loud. Some Egyptians now long for the stability that Mubarak offered, driving up support for candidates who had leading roles in the former regime. Others believe that only the liberal Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh or the secular left-nationalist Hamdeen Sabbahi can curb the military’s power.

The Brotherhood’s powerful electoral machine quickly propelled the FJP candidate, Mohamed Morsi, into the group of front-runners — a fact welcomed by the Brotherhood’s broad band of supporters, but viewed with dismay by liberals who fear an uncompromising regime should it control parliament and the presidency.

The FJP took 46 per cent of the seats in last winter’s elections, a reflection that the long-outlawed Brotherhood has a real constituency. Egypt is a conservative country and many want to see it in power. The party contends that since it joined the Government in January it has been unable to implement any reforms or address Egypt’s socio-economic ills because it doesn’t control the executive. But its decision to run for the presidency despite repeated assurances that it would not, and its attempt to dominate the assembly drafting Egypt’s new constitution have stoked distrust at a time when civilian consensus is needed to push back the military’s efforts to secure special status for itself.

Defenders of human rights see both positive and negative signals from the party. On the plus side its draft law regulating non-governmental organisations such as my own would be the most progressive Egyptian that civil society has seen. It has pushed for stronger penalties for torture and police abuse, something Brotherhood members have invariably experienced directly or through family and friends. Parliamentary committees dominated by the party have proposed freedom of information laws that directly challenge the security agencies’ control. With Egypt’s state of emergency due to end this month, the party can end a sorry chapter of Egyptian history.

On the negative side, the party’s MPs have not condemned excessive use of force by the military against demonstrators, and on women’s rights its response has been weak and worrying. It has failed to condemn proposals to repeal the right of women to initiate no-fault divorce or to amend the 2008 child law to decriminalise female genital mutilation, to lower the marriage age from 18 to 15 and to reduce women’s custody rights over their children after divorce because these laws conflict with Sharia — a worrying echo of the Mubarak era.

A lesson from Egypt’s stormy transition is that democratic legitimacy is not built on elections alone, but on laws that protect basic freedoms, including the rights of women and to practise religion. This means insisting on prosecuting sectarian violence against Christians, and allowing minorities such as the Shia, the Bahais and Ahmedis to practise their faiths freely and publicly.

Egypt remains burdened with the repressive laws and institutions that characterised Mubarak’s police state and now has the legacy of a year and half of military rule, characterised by torture, virginity tests and the beating and killing of protesters.

The biggest test for the new president will be to what extent he can push back the generals’ power and what immunities from public scrutiny the army will be granted. With the June 30 military handover to civilians finally in sight, perhaps Egyptians will get some answers to these questions.

*Heba Fatma Morayef is a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.*