2001 Scores

Status: Not Free
Freedom Rating: 5.5
Civil Liberties: 5
Political Rights: 6


The government of President Hosni Mubarak resisted intensified pressure for democratic and economic reform in 2000. Despite the effective neutralization of Islamic insurgents and a sharp reduction in militant violence, the government in February extended for three years the emergency law that allows it to suppress political dissent in the name of protecting national security. The legislation was used regularly throughout the year to crack down on the opposition, particularly in the run-up to parliamentary elections in October and November.

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 Mubarak, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) continues to dominate a tightly controlled political system.

In the early 1990s, the radical Gamaat Islamiya (Islamic Group) tapped into popular discontent with official corruption, high unemployment, and widespread poverty. In a campaign to establish an Islamic republic by force, it escalated attacks on police, Coptic Christians, and tourists. The government's response has been the brutal repression of all forms of political dissent. Thousands of suspected militants have been tried and jailed without due process, and more than 70 political prisoners have been executed under special military courts set up to handle terrorist offenses. The nonviolent Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist movement dating from the 1920s that is officially outlawed but generally tolerated, has been a particular target because of its popularity.

Years of repression and a relentless military campaign have largely eradicated the threat of Islamist violence. In addition, ideological rifts and policy disputes within the two major extremist groups, Gamaat Islamiya and Jihad, have left both groups divided and ineffective. Popular support for militants has eroded as a result of their greater emphasis on violence than on alternative policy. The Gamaat announced a ceasefire in March 1999, and the government has since followed a policy of gradually releasing jailed suspected militants who renounce extremist ideology. Some Jihad leaders began to call for peace in early 2000, but the government as yet questions the credibility of such announcements. Authorities continue to reject the idea of dialogue with any Islamist group.

With legislative elections due at year's end, opposition party members and NGOs began an intensive campaign promoting constitutional reforms to ensure an election fairer than the 1995 poll, which was fraught with irregularity, violence, and vote rigging. Although the government rejected calls for significant reform, a constitutional court ruling in July effectively invalidated the 1990 and 1995 legislatures on the grounds that elections were supervised by police rather than judges and were therefore unconstitutional. The ruling forced the government to guarantee full judicial supervision of 2000 elections, a move welcomed by opposition groups.

The NDP won 170 seats outright, but more than 200 candidates who ran as independents switched over to the NDP after winning seats. Muslim Brotherhood candidates won 17 seats, making the outlawed party the largest opposition faction in parliament. The Wafd party won 7 seats; Tagammu, 6; the Nasserist Party, 2; and the Liberal Party 1. Despite improvements in procedure, observers called the 2000 election only marginally fairer than past contests. Unlike the NDP, opposition parties were subject to limits on their media coverage. By September, a reported 1,000 Muslim Brothers were behind bars as the result of a government campaign to avoid any significant opposition. In a notable case, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the director of an independent research institute that intended to monitor the elections, was arrested in June along with ten associates. He was charged with harming Egypt's image and spying for the U.S. In September, he faced further charges of illegal foreign funding and bribery. One election observer sent by Amnesty International was assaulted at a Cairo polling station, and there were credible reports that police used intimidation and roadblocks to prevent people from voting. Eleven people died in election-related unrest.

Ambiguity in the government's economic policies caused concern among investors during the year. The Egyptian economy has recently withstood poor oil revenues, a reduction in tourism due to terrorism, and lower investor confidence in emerging markets, while a program of liberalization has achieved growth rates of about five percent. However, the government balked at the scheduled privatization in 2000 of a state cement company and one of the four major state banks, reportedly because of hostile public opinion. It has also delayed signing a partnership agreement with the European Union that would open its market to European imports. In July, Standard & Poor downgraded its outlook on Egypt from stable to negative, citing an increasing fiscal deficit and questionable commitment to privatization.

Egypt continued to play the role of regional mediator in the Middle East peace process throughout 2000, and in late October hosted an emergency summit of the 22-member Arab League in response to the outbreak of hostilities between Palestinians and Israeli forces. In convening the summit, leaders sought to promote a unified Arab response to the crisis and to prove their commitment to the Palestinian cause in the face of widespread anti-Israel street demonstrations throughout the Arab world. In November, Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel, citing "Israeli aggression" against Palestinians.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Egyptians cannot change their government democratically. The constitution does not allow for a presidential election. Instead, the elected People's Assembly nominates one candidate to be confirmed in a national referendum. The assembly has limited influence in economic, security, and foreign policy; almost all legislation is initiated by the executive. The 1995 parliamentary elections were characterized by widespread fraud and irregularity. In July 2000, the constitutional court effectively invalidated the parliament elected in 1995 by ruling that the traditional system of interior ministry supervision of elections was unconstitutional, and that elections should be supervised by the judiciary. Consequently, elections were held in three rounds during October and November so that a relatively small number of judges could supervise all polling stations. Despite this measure, the elections were regarded as neither free nor fair.

The 264-member Shura Council, or upper house of parliament, has no legislative authority; its role is restricted to issuing opinions and reports on topics of its choosing. The NDP dominates the People's Assembly, the Shura Council, and local government. Political opposition remains weak and ineffective. Requests to form political parties are routinely denied by the NDP-controlled Political Parties Committee (PPC), usually because their platforms are "unoriginal." The PPC has allowed the legal establishment of two political parties in the last 20 years, bringing the total to 16. The NDP uses the political parties law and other restrictions to impede opposition activities and access to media. The popular Muslim Brotherhood may not compete in elections because of a ban on religion-based parties, but its members may run as independents. Thousands of Muslim Brothers were rounded up and arrested prior to the 2000 legislative elections.

Emergency law has been in effect since Sadat's assassination in 1981 and is up for renewal every three years. Its provisions allow for the arrest without charge of suspected opponents of the regime, as well as their families and acquaintances. Torture, poor prison conditions, and lack of adequate food and medical care are pervasive in custody. However, the interior ministry in September announced that it would ban flogging and caning as punishments. Another positive development came in November, when two policemen were jailed for the torture of two detainees, one of whom died in custody.

The judiciary operates with 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 Gamaat Islamiya 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 Gamaat convicts are frequently executed, Muslim Brothers have never been sentenced to death. Fifteen Brotherhood members were sentenced to between three and five years' imprisonment in November for membership in an illegal organization and "infiltrating" professional syndicates, universities, and trade unions.

The Egyptian courts have recently demonstrated a greater degree of independence, and have thus established themselves as the only serious challenge to state authority. In addition to the July ruling on electoral procedures, the constitutional court ruled in June that a restrictive NGO law passed in 1999 was unconstitutional on the grounds that it was not subjected to the proper parliamentary debate procedures. In June, the supreme state security court handed down the maximum penalty against 31 businessmen, including four members of parliament, in the first corruption case to target politicians. In July, an administrative court ruled against government interference in bar association elections. Also in July, an administrative court overturned the PPC's suspension of the opposition Labor Party and its newspaper. Each of these rulings has possible far-reaching implications for government openness and accountability.

The Press Law, the Publications Law, the Penal Code, and libel laws restrict press freedom. Criticism of the president, the government, and foreign heads of state may result in fines or imprisonment. The government owns stock in the three major daily newspapers, and the president appoints their editors in chief. The government also monopolizes printing and distribution of newspapers. Opposition parties publish newspapers with government subsidies. The information ministry owns and operates all broadcast media. The government announced in January that it would allow the establishment of private joint stock companies for satellite broadcasting, and reserve the right to censor content. Three journalists from the opposition Al-Shaab and five from Al-Ahrar were sentenced to prison in April for libel. Al-Shaab was closed for four months by the PPC because of alleged divisions within the leadership of the paper's parent Labor Party. A satirist was charged in July with threatening national security for writing a public service announcement urging Egyptians to vote. Egypt has some 250,000 Internet users in a population of 66 million, of which nearly half are illiterate.

In September, Amnesty International denounced systematic harassment of opposition politicians and civil society institutions in the run-up to legislative elections. The PPC temporarily closed the Islamist Labor Party in July, citing a party leadership struggle. In February, the secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) was charged with illegally receiving money from foreign sources. The case was dropped a month later with no official explanation. The EOHR's registration as an official NGO was delayed indefinitely for "security reasons" in July. In April, the bar association was placed under judicial supervision for three years in an attempt by the government to limit participation by the Muslim Brotherhood. The government denied legal recognition to a union of women's NGOs established in 1999, and instead set up its own umbrella organization. The interior ministry may withhold approval for public demonstrations under emergency law. The ministry of social affairs has broad powers to merge and dissolve NGOs. A new law on associations that expanded these powers was declared unconstitutional in June.

Women face discrimination in many legal and social matters. Foreign-born husbands and children of Egyptian women are denied Egyptian citizenship, and a woman must have permission from a male relative to travel abroad. A ban on female genital mutilation took effect in 1997, though it is not widely enforced. In 1999, the government repealed a law allowing a rapist to avoid punishment by marrying his victim. In a society that links family honor to the chastity of its women, a rape victim may consent to marry her attacker in order to avoid disgracing, and perhaps being murdered by, her family. "Honor killings" occur in both Muslim and Christian communities. A personal status law passed in January makes it easier for a woman to obtain a divorce and allows her to call upon the state to garnishee her husband's wages to help support her. A new marriage contract issued in August provides a space for mutually agreed-upon conditions, such as a wife's right to work or to travel abroad, so long as the conditions comply with Islamic law.

The government portrays itself as a staunch supporter of Islam, the state religion, as it cracks down on fundamentalist influences in academia, mosques, and other institutions. The imams (spiritual leaders) of licensed mosques are chosen and paid by the government, which also monitors sermons. Most Egyptians are Sunni Muslim. Orthodox Copts constitute about ten percent of the population. The Jewish community reportedly numbers about 200, and there are small numbers of Shiite Muslims and Bahais. Any perceived illegitimate interpretation of Islam is grounds for heresy and sedition charges. Security officials arrested 48 people in March for membership in an alleged Muslim cult that believes the government is heretical.

Muslims have murdered, kidnapped, raped, and forcibly converted scores of Copts in recent years, and burned or vandalized Copt homes, shops, and churches. The government has seized Coptic Church-owned land, has closed churches, and frequently uses an Ottoman Empire-era law to deny permission to build or repair churches. No official has been held accountable for the arrest and reported torture of some 1,200 Copts in late 1998 in connection with sectarian violence resulting from the murder of two Copts in August 1998. Courts in Sohag and Dar al-Salam began trying 135 defendants in June in connection with sectarian unrest that killed at least 20 Copts and one Muslim in December 1999 and January 2000. Twenty defendants received prison sentences ranging from six months to ten years in Dar al-Salam, while 19 were acquitted. In December, a Sohag court released 58 Muslims and 31 Copts pending the outcome of the trial.

The 1976 law on labor unions sets numerous restrictions on the formation and operation of unions and the conduct of their elections. The government-backed Egyptian Trade Union Federation is the only legal labor federation. Article 124 of the penal code prohibits labor strikes.

Child labor is a serious problem. By law, children under 14 are not permitted to work, except in agriculture, where they may take seasonal jobs at age 12 as long as they do not miss school. The law is routinely ignored, however. A recent Egyptian study found that 64 percent of children work before age 14. With poverty and unemployment pervasive in Egypt, many children forego school to earn money for their families. They find informal sector jobs in agriculture or manufacturing that do not guarantee standard working hours, safety regulations, or stable wages.

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