1998 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 6.0
Civil Liberties: 6
Political Rights: 6


In 1998, the Egyptian government moved to increase economic openness even as it continued a full-scale assault on political dissent. Arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and summary justice against suspected Islamic militants continued unabated despite a sharp decline in terrorist activity. Meanwhile, a renewed commitment to economic reform resulted in the removal of barriers to privatization and investment.

Egypt gained formal independence from Great Britain in 1922, though the latter continued to exercise gradually dwindling control until its surrender of the Suez Canal Zone in 1956. Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasser became head of state in 1954 after leading a coup that overthrew the monarchy, and ruled until his death in 1970. A constitution adopted in 1971 under Nasser's successor, Anwar al-Sadat, grants full executive powers to the president, who is nominated by the 454-member People's Assembly and elected to a six-year term in a national referendum. Sadat was assassinated by Islamic militants in 1981 for making peace with Israel. Under his successor, Hosni Mubarak, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) continues to dominate a tightly controlled political system. In 1993, Mubarak won a third presidential term with 96.3 percent approval in a national referendum.

In the spring of 1992, the radical Islamic Group tapped into popular discontent concerning official corruption, high unemployment, and widespread poverty. It escalated its attacks on the police, Coptic Christians, and tourists in a campaign to establish an Islamic republic by force. The authorities responded with harsh crackdowns, and in early 1994 began arresting members of the non-violent Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist movement dating from the 1920s which is technically outlawed but tolerated by the government.

Years of repression by authorities appear to have neutralized the threat of Islamic terrorism. The leaders of the major militant groups, along with thousands of their followers, remain in jail or in exile. More than 70 political prisoners have been executed since 1992 under special military courts set up to handle terrorist offenses. Popular support for militant Islamists has dwindled as their campaign has focused more on violence than on alternative policy. Ideological rifts and policy disputes within the Islamic Group and the Muslim Brotherhood have left both groups divided. In addition, Egypt's rapidly growing economy has mitigated the discontent that fueled the spread of militant Islam.

Yet the threat of unrest remains. While the economy is currently growing at a rate of five percent a year, some 10 to 30 percent of the workforce is unemployed or underemployed. Violent rebellion still appeals to those in poorer areas that have not felt the effects of economic growth. There is widespread frustration with a government that is perceived to be corrupt and unresponsive. And, as indicated by the massacre of 62 people in Luxor in November 1997 and several other incidents of terrorism in 1997 and 1998, isolated gangs and splintering factions remain a viable threat even as militant leaders appear to be rethinking their strategies.

The Egyptian government has quickened the pace of economic reform prompted by a sharp decline in tourism after the Luxor massacre, declining oil prices, and the Asian financial crisis. It has relaxed its opposition to privatization of public utilities such as telecommunications and electricity, and approved legislation in June which will lead to the privatization of state-owned banks as well as allow foreigners to own majority stakes in insurance companies. In January, parliament voted to scrap highly restrictive regulations of Company Law 159, making it easier to form new joint-stock companies and to gain access to investment capital. Furthermore, new legislation is expected to increase transparency in the public sector's tenders procedure.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Egyptians cannot change their government democratically. Parliamentary elections held in 1995 were characterized by widespread fraud and irregularity. Political violence led to the deaths of 51 people and wounded over 850 more. The Muslim Brotherhood could not compete because of a ban on religious-based parties. While its members may run as independents, Muslim Brothers planning to contest the elections were arrested. Just before the vote a military court sentenced 54 members to jail terms of up to five years for non-violent activities.

Elections took place in June 1998 for half of the 264-member Shura Council; the president appoints the other half. The upper house of parliament has no legislative authority; its role is restricted to issuing opinions and reports on topics of its choosing. The landslide victory of the ruling NDP (97 percent of the Council seats) came as a surprise to no one; opposition leaders called the elections "fraudulent and corrupt."

Requests to form political parties are routinely denied by the state-controlled Political Parties Committee (PPC), usually because their platforms are "unoriginal." The application of Wasat, a younger generation of Muslim Brotherhood activists trying to break away from the party, was delayed for nearly two years before being rejected in May. The Social Justice Party and its newspaper were suspended by the PPC in April ostensibly because of internal infighting, though Egyptian pro-democracy groups allege that the government will seize any chance to dissolve an opposition party.

The militant Islamist battle against the government, now contained mainly in Assiut and al-Minya provinces, has resulted in over 1,200 deaths since 1992. Security forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings of militants during antiterrorist operations.

The Emergency Law has been in effect since Sadat's assassination in 1981, and is up for renewal every three years. Its provisions allow for detention of suspects without charge for up to 90 days. By some estimates, over 25,000 activists have been jailed or detained since 1992.

International human rights groups regularly condemn arbitrary arrest, abuse, and torture of detainees by police, security personnel, and prison guards. It is not uncommon for security forces to arrest friends or family members of suspects, either as punishment for the suspects' activities or as incentive for a suspect to turn himself in. At least two people died in police custody in 1998. One of these was the visiting father of a detainee.

The Egyptian judiciary enjoys limited independence. The president appoints both the general prosecutor and the head of the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest court. Under Law 25/1996, the president may refer civilian cases to military courts. Since 1992, suspected Islamic Group and Muslim Brotherhood activists have been tried in military courts where due process rights are severely curtailed. There is no appellate process for verdicts by military courts; instead, verdicts are subject to review by other military judges and confirmed by the president. While convicted members of the Islamic Group are frequently executed, Muslim Brothers have never been sentenced to death, reportedly because of their wide popular support.

The Press Law, the Publications Law, the Penal Code, and libel laws all restrict press freedom. Critics of the president, members of the government, and foreign heads of state may incur heavy fines or imprisonment for violations. Newspapers published outside Egypt can be distributed with government permission. A January 1998 company law includes a provision that requires permission from the prime minister to establish a newspaper. The prime minister's decision is not subject to appeal. The government has used its monopoly on newspaper printing and distribution to control the output of opposition publications. The ministry of information owns and operates all domestic television production.

In order to combat "yellow journalism," a government campaign launched in March 1998 resulted in the banning of at least three newspapers, prison sentences for at least four journalists on charges of libel and slander, and the confiscation of numerous newspapers. On March 31, authorities banned the distribution of 36 newspapers printed in tax-free industrial zones for two months.

The interior ministry may withhold approval for public demonstrations under the Emergency Law. The ministry of social affairs has broad powers to merge and dissolve nongovernmental organizations. Human rights organizations such as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) and the Arab Program for Human Rights Activists (APHRA) are frequently subject to harassment by the government. In December, the secretary-general of the EOHR was detained for six days on charges of "accepting funds from a foreign country with the aim of carrying out acts harmful to Egypt."

Women face discrimination in many legal and social matters. Foreign husbands and children of Egyptian women are denied Egyptian nationality, and women must have permission from husbands or male relatives to travel abroad. A ban on female genital mutilation took effect in December 1997, though it is not widely enforced.

The government portrays itself as a staunch supporter of Islam, the state religion, while it cracks down on fundamentalist influences in academia, mosques, and other institutions. In addition to the 40,000 already government-controlled mosques in Egypt, the government announced in December that 6,000 others would be placed under control of the ministry of religious endowments by June 30, 1999. The Imams of all newly appropriated mosques are required to attend state-run religious indoctrination courses. Female students who wear the traditional munaqabat, a veil covering the entire body, have been ordered to adopt standard school dress or be dismissed.

Muslims have murdered, kidnapped, or raped scores of Coptic Christians in recent years and burned or vandalized Copt houses, shops, and churches. The government has seized Coptic church-owned land, closed churches, and frequently uses an Ottoman Empire-era law to deny permission to build or repair churches. The murder of two Copts in August, allegedly by five Muslims, was followed by the arrest and reported torture of up to 1,200 Copts. Authorities claimed that the arrests were meant to preempt sectarian violence that might result from the two murders.

The 1976 law on labor unions sets numerous restrictions on the formation and operation of unions and the conduct of elections. The government-backed Egyptian Trade Union Federation is the only legal labor union federation. Article 124 of the Penal Code criminalizes labor strikes.

Child labor is a serious problem. By law, children under 14 are not allowed to work, except in agriculture, where they may take seasonal jobs at 12 years old as long as they do not miss school. The law is routinely ignored, however; the Egyptian Center for Social Research finds that nearly one in ten children under the age of 14 works. They comprise over seven percent of the total work force, and nearly all of them work in agriculture for wages no higher than $1.50 per eight-hour day.

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