Egypt's real state of emergency is its repressed democracy
Egypt has recently held yet another fraudulent and farcical election. Ballot boxes were stuffed. Votes were bought. People who considered voting for the opposition were subjected to violence by professional thugs. And these transgressions have been well documented by human rights groups.
Democracy must mean more than merely going through the motions.
In theory, Egypt has a constitution and laws that reflect the will of its people. But in reality, the provisions are a hodgepodge that perpetuates the iron grip of the ruling regime. President Hosni Mubarak enjoys imperial powers. There is no legislative oversight of the military budget. No more than five people are permitted to assemble without permission to stage a peaceful demonstration. Universities have security forces on campus to ensure that students do not engage in political activities.
A recent constitutional amendment has made it almost impossible for an independent actor to run for president. Any candidate who is not a member of an officially sanctioned party is forbidden to have a headquarters or to raise funds. Political activists are often blocked from renting venues for meetings. In the 12 months since I began campaigning for reform in Egypt, I have received a flood of requests for interviews, but after the recent crackdown on the media hardly any local TV stations have dared to express interest in talking to me.
In theory, Egypt has multiple political parties. In practice, establishing such a party requires permission from a committee dominated by the National Democratic Party (NDP) - the political machine that has kept Mubarak in power since 1981. And any new party must exist for five years before it can field a presidential candidate.
In theory, Egypt has an elected president. But over the past half-century, the country has had only three rulers. There were differences in their style and vision, but all have presided over an authoritarian and repressive political system. For the past 29 years, Egyptian society has existed under a draconian "state of emergency," a tool that has allowed the president to suspend basic constitutional protections and that has been used to detain, torture and sometimes kill those who dare to dissent.
In theory, Egypt has a democratically elected parliament. In practice, one-third of the members of its upper house are appointed by the president. Of the 508 seats, 440 are held by members of the NDP. In no way is the Egyptian parliament representative of the Egyptian people. Although about 10 percent of Egyptians are Coptic Christians, the Copts hold only 3 seats in parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood, a religious movement that managed to win 20 percent of the seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections, was shut out of the November elections and now holds no seats. The Wafd, the largest liberal party, won six seats. Both boycotted the run-off vote because of the substantial fraud committed and documented during the first-round voting last month.
In theory, Egypt has a court system; in fact, legal decisions are often ignored when they run contrary to government policy.
Egypt's economic and social fabric continues to deterioriate. Despite annual growth in gross domestic product of 5 to 6 percent the past few years, there has been little to no trickle-down effect. The obscene gap between rich and poor worsens daily. The middle class has all but disappeared. More than 40 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 per day. Nearly 30 percent are illiterate - a sad commentary for the culture that, more than 2,000 years ago, gave the world the Library of Alexandria. In Cairo, a mega-city of more than 15 million, half the population lives in shantytowns next to gated communities that rival the opulence in Southern California.
Egypt urgently needs a new beginning. The voices of dissent are growing in number. We come from many orientations, from different vocations, from different parts of society, from different faiths. But we speak with a single voice in seeking social justice. We demand an accountable and transparent system of government, with meaningful checks and balances. We want economic opportunity for all Egyptians and the right to live in dignity and freedom. Together we are organizing around peaceful change. The international community ought to support our struggle for freedom and hold Egypt to its international commitments with respect to human rights. The rights of the Egyptian people should not be trampled in exchange for an elusive promise of stability.
The present pseudo-stability based on repression is a ticking bomb that is dangerously close to exploding. Lasting stability in Egypt, as in any nation, will come only through genuine democracy that responds fairly to the needs and aspirations of all its people.
The writer, a former director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was the 2005 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.