Countries at the Crossroads 2005 - Egypt

  • Author: Denis J. Sullivan
  • Document source:
  • Date:
    5 May 2005

(Scores are based on a scale of 0 to 7, with 0 representing weakest and 7 representing strongest performance.)



Denis J. Sullivan is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Middle East Center at Northeastern University.

The "Egyptian Regime" – established by Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1954-70), sustained by Anwar Sadat from 1970 until his assassination in 1981, and since led by Hosni Mubarak – is one that has prevented freedoms of speech, assembly, and association and has especially denied democracy and other political rights. The law-making process, along with political and security institutions, is used more to thwart political opposition and civil liberties than to protect (let alone expand) them. Mubarak keeps Egypt an authoritarian system, far from the democracy that he claims it to be. Like Nasser's before him, Mubarak's primary target in many of these efforts is the Muslim Brotherhood, the oldest and most popular opposition movement in Egypt. But Mubarak also has his sights on other Islamists (or politically motivated Muslims), including militant groups. His government and the parliament he controls have established laws on a wide array of issues to prevent human rights organizations, women's groups, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from forming, fund-raising, and providing social welfare services that seek to treat socioeconomic problems and other symptoms born of poverty and political exclusion.

Alongside these laws is an array of procedures and policies that have made Egypt an under-performer across the spectrum, from accountability and public voice to civil liberties, rule of law, and anticorruption and transparency. One of the most obviously offending laws, which also is a policy decision of the president and his near-rubber stamp parliament, is the Emergency Law, which effectively suspends Egypt's 1971 constitution. Compounding Egypt's poor performance is its deficient record on torture, political imprisonment, and the use of military courts to expedite convictions of civilians, which allows the government to accelerate executions of those it seeks to crush and denies the accused any recourse to judicial review.

While Egypt is not a military dictatorship in technical terms (as the president is officially a civilian now), it is a military-backed authoritarian system. Mubarak is a former air force officer who rules with the support of the military as well as the security services, led by the mukhabaraat (secret police). Like Sadat and Nasser before him, Mubarak can always count on these security services when he needs them. For example, as elections for parliament approached in 1995 and 2000, the security forces rounded up "hundreds"1 of Muslim Brothers who were candidates for office.

Mubarak knows that the single most popular opposition movement in the country is the Muslim Brotherhood, established in 1928 and prominent ever since. Although Mubarak's dictatorial regime is not as brutal as others in the Arab world (such as Hafez al-Asad or Saddam Hussein), he perpetuates authoritarian rule with few effective limitations to his power.

Alongside these elements of authoritarianism, Egypt has a vibrant civil society and an array of political institutions that could promote democracy. However, the president has not abided by his own promise, made repeatedly since he came to power, to allow democracy to function. Egyptian politics thus remain both restricted and promising.

Fifty years after Nasser established the current regime, the president still determines the actual degrees of freedom in Egyptian society. Hosni Mubarak has now served 24 years as president, longer than either Anwar Sadat (11 years) or Gamal Abdel-Nasser (16 years). All three spoke of serving the Egyptian people; none served with a popular mandate won through competitive elections. All three have perpetuated a system that tolerates torture, represses political opponents, denies full equality before the law for women, and undermines the notions of rule of law and of political and legal limitations to the power of the executive.2 And still, somehow, Egyptian citizens continue to assert their rights (often at great personal risk to themselves and their families) to attain greater power – the power to vote, the power to have a voice in government, the power to assemble, to a free press, to expression and belief. Egyptians continue to organize, as best they can under repressive conditions, in NGOs, syndicates, and political parties. However, there is much more for them to do in order to realize their rights more fully.

Accountability and Public Voice – 2.31

The authority of government in Egypt is not based upon the will of the people. While Egypt can boast of regular and perhaps also free elections, they are not fair elections under fair electoral laws. There is universal and equal suffrage, open to multiple parties (approximately 16 are legally registered), with elections conducted by secret ballot. In 2000, for the first time in the Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak regime, the parliamentary elections were monitored by independent electoral authorities – namely, the judiciary. While the government of Egypt does not allow international observation of elections, judicial oversight of the elections of 2000 is likely to have included a more honest tabulation of ballots and was probably freer of fraud and intimidation than any other election in the 50-year history of the current regime.

The president is not elected freely. The Magles al-Sha'b (People's Assembly or Parliament), controlled by the president, chooses one name to put before the electorate in a referendum. The people have the right to vote yes or no. Thus, presidents have been reelected with anywhere from 96 percent to 99.9 percent of the vote since the time of Nasser. Opposition candidates have no real opportunity to put their names before the electorate. Since 1952, no rotation of power has taken place between the ruling party (which has had four different names between Nasser's time and now) and any opposition party. Nasser and Sadat each chose their own successor; while Mubarak has yet to name his intended successor, speculation has been rife for the past several years that he is grooming his son Gamal for the position.

In the 1980s, Egypt moved toward pluralism and a more representative political system. In 1987, opposition and independent candidates controlled 30 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) won only 69.3 percent of the vote that year, its poorest showing ever. By 1995, however, the NDP held 94 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly.

Irregularities clearly occur in elections, and the 1995 vote was particularly weak in this regard. However, patronage also plays an important role in keeping the ruling party in power. Government supporters benefit from government jobs, which dominate the economy. The ruling party wins in large part because it is the only party with something to offer its supporters.3

The elections of 2000 posed a challenge to the government. Public displeasure with the Mubarak regime was high leading up to the elections; internal political problems within the ruling party had also surfaced. The ruling party chose old-guard candidates to run in mostly safe districts (i.e., districts it was sure it would win), prompting younger-generation candidates to run as independents. Ultimately, while the NDP did win 388 seats (around 85 percent of the 444 elected to parliament), only 175 of those were the official (usually old guard) candidates. The others ran as independents and then rejoined the NDP after they won. Thus, voters had expressed their frustration and elected a majority of non-NDP candidates, including 54 true independents (who either were never part of the NDP or chose to break completely from it) and members of opposition parties. These 54 included 17 Muslim Brothers (the largest bloc of any opposition group), who ran as independents. Although the Brotherhood is an outlawed organization, there is enough openness in Egyptian society and enough defiance of the government's political parties law so that identities of Muslim Brotherhood candidates are well known. Besides the 444 elected members, parliament contains 10 members appointed by the president.4 He usually chooses people from minorities (e.g., Copts) or other groups (women or politically important but under-represented groups) to demonstrate his attempt to balance the results.

Beneath the surface, an array of laws and procedures belies the appearance of free, fair, regular elections. A government-controlled parties committee has the power to deny parties the right to register and operate openly. This committee regularly asserts its power, especially against leftist and Islamist parties. Moreover, the government uses election laws to ensure greater or lesser majorities. For example, the single-member-district voting system in place of proportional representation allows the government to use its vast patronage system, control of security forces, and control of the airwaves and other media to generate votes. In the months leading up to local and national elections (as occurred in 1990, 1995, and 2000), the government rounds up and imprisons hundreds of primarily Islamist candidates. On election day itself, police are usually out in large numbers, and there is considerable intimidation of voters, especially in Islamist strongholds. In 1995, according to some accounts, police intimidation resulted in as many as 87 deaths and 1,500 injured on election day; in 2000, 10 were reportedly killed and around 60 injured.5

Egypt has no campaign finance restrictions. In fact, would-be politicians frequently donate their own wealth to the ruling party in order to be put on the ballot, thus ensuring their victory in the parliamentary elections.6

Although the executive is not accountable to the legislature, the judicial branch has a degree of independence from both the legislative and executive branches. Courts have issued rulings that have made the executive branch change policies or laws and even overturned elections (as in 1987 and 1990). Egypt's civil service also has some degree of independence through its recruiting procedures, which tend to reward the merit of the individual applicant rather than that person's wasta (personal connections). Nevertheless, wasta continues to be used when merit fails to secure someone a place in the ever-expanding bureaucracy. In the late 1980s, a study found that the vast majority of state employees received their jobs based on graduation from university (41 percent) and through competitive entrance examinations (45 percent); only about 11 percent attained their positions due to wasta.7 While these statistics are dated, they indicate a major achievement for the Nasserist state, which inherited a system that was primarily driven by wasta or favoritism.8

Civil society is both restricted and overly regulated but is active and engaged in spite of government restrictions. NGOs work to advance specific causes, primarily for local development needs. On rare occasions, the government will allow NGOs to comment on legislation (such as environmental issues). However, the government applies a very effective (if unwritten) policy of divide and conquer that has kept Egypt's vibrant NGOs from working together as a unified community. NGOs have had to endure decades of government restrictions, control, harassment, and even political and legal campaigns against them.

Law 32 of 1964 was always a restrictive law of associations, providing the government of Egypt with significant tools to control, manage, and generally stifle civil society institutions. Under substantial pressure from civil society organizations within the country as well as from outside Egypt, the government attempted for several years to respond to demands for reform while not actually improving the situation. In June 2002, parliament passed an even more restrictive Law of Associations, Law 84.9 This latest law places nearly insurmountable restrictions on accepting foreign funding and continues to provide the president and his security institutions with extensive powers to dissolve NGOs not to the executive's liking. Under Law 32 the government used this power to shut down operations of NGOs it considered political opponents – for example, it shut down the Arab Women's Solidarity Association when its leader, Dr. Nawal al-Sa'dawi, criticized President Mubarak for his support for the United States during the 1990-91 Gulf War.10

Egypt is awash in periodicals, weeklies, monthlies, and daily newspapers – government-owned and semi-official as well as opposition papers. However, few are independent. Under Nasser and Sadat, and to a great degree under Mubarak, government-appointed editors are expected to self-censor their product and can be removed if they do not.11 The Mubarak government actively pursues journalists who criticize his sons or himself. In such cases, censorship, and even retribution including attacks, is well demonstrated. Circulation of the main government dailies is not widespread, and most opposition papers are weeklies with limited distribution.

Under the Press Law of 1995, the government can impose hefty fines and prison terms on journalists convicted of slander (a charge that the government itself can define). This law was put on the books after the opposition and Labor Party newspaper Al-Sha'b published reports critical of sitting ministers and appeared ready to investigate the alleged shady business practices of Mubarak's sons. The newspaper was closed in 2000.12 However, the court ruled that Al-Sha'b could resume publication, saying it was unconstitutionally banned.13


  • The government should again allow the judiciary to monitor and otherwise supervise parliamentary elections, and international monitors should be allowed in all future elections.
  • The government should return to a proportional representation system for parliamentary elections.
  • Direct elections for the president should be established.
  • Law 84 should be abolished, and the government should engage in a meaningful dialogue with civil society leaders and international human rights/legal rights organizations to develop a new Law of Associations.
  • The government should suspend the Press Law and allow the next legislative session to review and revise it; only the judiciary, not the executive, should be authorized to determine when slander has taken place.

Civil Liberties – 2.18

Egypt has a long record of torture by officers of the state against prisoners, and the state has not had a consistent or otherwise committed record of punishing the perpetrators of such crimes. In mid-2004, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) published a report revealing that torture is a common practice in police stations, detention centers, and prisons. They found controls against torture to be weak, and legal repercussions for perpetrators rare. Torture has been revealed in nearly all of Egypt's governorates and affects all social classes. Its use is not limited to the detainee but can extend to the detainee's family. Between 1993 and April 2004, EOHR recorded 412 torture cases, 120 of which resulted in the death of the victim. The government began prosecuting perpetrators of torture in 2000; however, under Egyptian legislation, sentences for torture are light.14

Beyond torture, the government has engaged in state violence and mass arrests aimed primarily at Islamist militants – Islamic Jihad and al-Gama'a al-Islamiya (the "Islamic Group") – but also against nonviolent Muslim Brothers and many other nonmilitant opponents of the regime;15 completely innocent and apolitical groups, notably homosexuals, also fall prey to government repression. The government of Egypt has been roundly and consistently criticized throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, both internally and by international organizations, for its use of unjustified imprisonment, mass arrests, torture, and other elements of state terror. Prison conditions in Egypt are abysmal, according to most human rights organizations both inside and outside Egypt.16

In June 2004, the government admitted that a member of the Muslim Brotherhood had died while in police custody. The ministry of interior said that Akram Zuheiri's "pelvic bone had been broken while he was being transported between detention facilities, and that he had died while being treated at the hospital, most likely from internal bleeding exacerbated by his diabetes."17 Given the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the government, Zuheiri's death was immediately the subject of speculation. Allegations were made that Zuheiri had in fact died as a result of torture at a police station. Zuheiri and 53 other Brotherhood members had been arrested on May 16, 2004, as part of the government's ongoing crackdown on the group. All were charged with sending the group's members abroad for training, with the ultimate aim of toppling the Egyptian government; the suspects denied the charges.18

The government has promulgated a string of laws and acts to limit personal freedoms and further consolidate state control over Egyptian society. The Emergency Law, which effectively suspends Egypt's 1971 constitution, has been in full effect in Egypt since 1981. The Antiterrorism Law of 1992 gives the government sweeping powers in determining who is a terrorist and allows execution for the crime of simply belonging to what it deems to be a terrorist organization. According to Amnesty International, the government has also increased use of the death penalty in the decade since 1994. The death penalty is invoked for security crimes (terrorism) but also cases of rape, murder, and drug crimes.19

In one of the most celebrated and publicized accounts of government repression of a democracy advocate, Saad Eddin Ibrahim was convicted – along with 27 associates – by a state security court in May 2001 of violating military decree No. 4, prohibiting the receipt of funds from abroad. Ibrahim was released temporarily in February 2002 by Egypt's highest appeals court, the Court of Cassation, which overturned the conviction and called for a retrial. It was unclear whether this release was due to repeated but quiet American pressure. Ibrahim's lead defense lawyer, Ibrahim Saleh, denied that there was international pressure, saying that Egypt's judicial system is completely independent.20 The courts do enjoy a reputation for their relative independence from the executive branch, but the state's charges against Ibrahim were not dropped at that point. Saad Eddin was retried twice and on March 18, 2003, was finally acquitted on all charges by Egypt's Court of Cassation.21

Men and women are nominally equal under Egyptian law. In practice, men's rights predominate through personal status laws. These laws govern marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance and are based on a traditional model of the family in which men are treated as superior to women. For example, as Human Rights Watch argues, the Egyptian government has created separate divorce systems for men and women. Men have a unilateral and unconditional right to divorce without going to court. Women must enter the court system, where procedural and evidentiary hurdles discriminate against them.22

Still, the government of Egypt has taken measures, including legislation, to improve laws and regulations to lessen if not end discrimination against girls and women. In 2000, Egyptian women won the right to file for no-fault divorce (khula). But to exercise that right, they had to agree to forfeit their financial rights, including having to repay the dowry given to them by their husbands upon marriage. While khula was adopted as a way to speed up the divorce process, it still requires women to petition the court to terminate their marriages (which men do not need to do). [Editor's note: In October 2004, the Egyptian government established family courts; however, these courts still fail to counteract structural discrimination against women.]

The government of Egypt has also worked to protect the physical rights of girls and women through its strong stance against female genital mutilation (FGM). In 1996, the government banned all medical and nonmedical practitioners from performing FGM. And in December 1997, the Court of Cassation upheld that ban. Anyone caught performing FGM is subject to the loss of his/her medical license and criminal punishment. If a girl or young woman should die at the hands of such a person, that person is subject to a charge of manslaughter.

Egypt is a transit country for women and girls trafficked from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union into Israel for forced prostitution. The government of Egypt does not fully comply with minimum international standards for the elimination of trafficking. In early 2004 the ministry of justice initiated an effort to enact comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation to meet these standards. However, complicating such efforts are the terms of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, under which Egyptian border security forces are restricted in their operations along the Sinai border with Israel, where many trafficking victims transit.23

Egypt's population is about 90 percent Muslim; between 6 percent and 10 percent are Coptic Christian. Still, the government refuses to acknowledge that minorities exist in Egypt – and in particular refuses to consider Copts a minority population. The government delays or prevents investigations into alleged mistreatment of Copts (e.g., by the state or its security forces as well as by militant Muslims) because, according to the government, the Copts are part of the Egyptian family, and thus they are not a minority. Yet, Copts have suffered from discrimination for decades; the Coptic pope was imprisoned by Sadat, and Copts face government resistance, even rejection, when seeking to renovate or construct their churches.

Some militant Muslims seek to transform Egypt into a fundamentalist Islamic state or to transform Egyptian society into a more pious one. These include Islamic Jihad (Gehad, in Egyptian dialect) and al-Gama' al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group). However, most politically motivated Muslims in Egypt are non-violent, including the leadership and vast majority of the still-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. In an effort to rein in Islamist militancy, the government issued an executive order in 1992 to nationalize tens of thousands of sha'bi (private) mosques. However, the effort has fallen far short of its objective of forging a single, government-controlled voice of Islam in Egypt.

In 1994, Saad Eddin Ibrahim and his Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies (ICDS) organized a conference on "Minorities in the Arab World." The Egyptian government, including through its control of the media, launched a campaign against the organizers and implicitly threatened to undermine it should they attempt to continue to host it in Cairo. As a result, about one-third of the invitees declined to attend. The government-controlled media then published articles denying that minorities faced problems in Egypt and attacking the conference.24 Ultimately, the conference was held in Cyprus.

Investigating the human rights of Copts has landed scholars and activists in prison, including Hafez Abu Sa'ada, Secretary General of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). Abu Sa'ada was arrested in December 1998 and charged in February 2000 (along with EOHR's lawyer) for "taking money from foreign sources [a British Parliamentary human rights association] without permission" and for "defaming Egypt" – i.e., for conducting investigations into violence against Christians. The government eventually agreed not to pursue the trial but did not drop the charges.25

Egypt's emergency state security courts have been used to judge whether people of various faiths, beliefs, and even sexual orientations are guilty of "extremist ideas," "debauchery," and other crimes. Emergency courts deny the accused most rights, including the right to appeal to a higher court. Beyond the infamous arrest and subsequent trial in May 2001 of more than 60 men whose only "crime" was their homosexuality, scores of others have been similarly arrested and tried for their religious beliefs and membership in Islamist political movements.

In 2001-02, Amin Yussif (a 51-year-old civil servant), his wife, Amal Mahmud, and six others were detained in emergency court under charges of "exploiting religion for extremist ideas," which carry up to five years' imprisonment. The group was "accused of having held private religious gatherings and advocating modifications to basic Islamic rules, including rules for prayers and pilgrimage."26 Amnesty International has noted an increase in arrests and trials of those exercising their right to freedom of religion. At the end of 2001, more than 50 prisoners of conscience were incarcerated in Egypt. Between January and April 2001 more than a dozen alleged members of the Baha'i faith were arrested and detained for several months. In February 2001 the UN Special Rapporteur on religious intolerance noted that "Baha'is are not allowed to meet in groups, especially for religious observances, and their literature is destroyed."27 In general, the government does not permit non-Muslim proselytizing.

Egypt's Law 39 (1975) on Rehabilitation of Disabled Persons mandates assistance through government-sponsored job training, quotas requiring larger companies to hire a minimum number of disabled workers, and job protection. There is no specific protection against discrimination of people with disabilities.28

The Syndicates Law of 1993 was enacted after several syndicate elections were won by Islamist candidates. This law gives the government power to appoint governing boards to unions and syndicates and declare syndicate elections invalid.29 Should demonstrations occur by syndicate members, the government can "direct" them (e.g., confine them to a university campus, where they can be contained). The government also frequently uses excessive force against demonstrators.


  • The government of Egypt should suspend the Emergency Law and return to the 1971 constitution as the law of the land.
  • The government must embrace international standards on prisoners' rights by amending and adopting legislation to bring it in line with international standards, thus allowing for better public monitoring as well as the independent and impartial review of complaints.
  • The government of Egypt should ensure freedom of belief, thought, conscience, and religion by complying with international treaties to which it is a state party. Accordingly, the government must foster a culture of inclusion and non-discrimination through manifest state behavior and the encouragement of public dialogue.
  • The government should review and repeal discriminatory provisions in the family and penal laws to promote a single standard of divorce for men and women.
  • Torture must end and its perpetrators must be punished.

Rule of Law – 3.19

Egypt's constitution guarantees the independence of the judiciary (Articles 165 and 166). Judges in the regular court system are appointed for life by the president upon recommendation of the Higher Judicial Council; they may not be dismissed without serious cause. The Higher Judicial Council is headed by the president of the Court of Cassation and is composed of senior judges and the attorney-general. However, in practice the executive authority has considerable influence over the judiciary through judicial appointments. Judges are employees of the ministry of justice, which administers and finances the court system. Thus the executive is the de facto head of the judiciary.30

Egypt has a dual system of security courts. Permanent state security courts have two levels and draw their judges from the regular court system; the state security court – emergency section (emergency courts) has much more direct executive involvement in its composition and jurisdiction. The permanent state security courts allow some basis for appeal; the emergency section permits no judicial appeal, but the military governor (under the state of emergency) is allowed to affirm the verdict or order a retrial.

The president may also invoke the Emergency Law to refer any criminal case to the emergency courts, in which the accused does not receive most of the constitutional protections of the civilian judicial system. The government asserts that referral to emergency courts usually has been limited to terrorism or national security cases, as well as major cases of drug trafficking; however, the government also has occasionally used emergency courts to prosecute homosexuals, heterodox religious groups, and political dissidents. Government authorities have ignored judicial orders in some cases.

In June 2003, parliament passed several reforms introduced by the NDP's policy secretariat, headed by Gamal Mubarak.31 The reform package included a law abolishing the state security courts. The courts had been used to deliver swift justice on national security issues, but they also tried ex-ministers, businessmen, and democracy advocates (including Saad Eddin Ibrahim), among others. After their abolishment, a number of cases referred to the state security courts were transferred to regular criminal courts. However, as long as the government retains and uses emergency courts, abolishing the state security courts will not improve human rights or rights of the accused in any meaningful way.32

Military courts, which are part of the military hierarchy, also continue to be used by the government for swift justice. Military courts are generally intended to try those cases involving the armed forces, but during a state of emergency the president is authorized to transfer crimes to them. Under military courts, civilian defendants have no due process before an independent tribunal. There is no appeals process; instead, verdicts can be reviewed by other military judges and confirmed by the president.33 The authority of military courts to try civilians has been supported by Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC).

And yet, in the ordinary court system, there is growing independence and impartiality. Judges increasingly assert and defend their authority to secure constitutional rights for all Egyptians. Increasingly, though far from consistently, the legislative and executive branches do comply with judicial decisions. Judges are among the best-trained professionals in government. They have expanded the scope of press freedom by dismissing libel suits of government ministers against the opposition press and have widened the scope of labor rights by dismissing charges against strikers.34

One of the most impressive demonstrations of judicial independence occurred in July 2000, when the Supreme Constitutional Court ruled that the upcoming parliamentary elections must have complete judiciary supervision. The government reacted favorably, passing amendments by presidential decree to establish full judiciary supervision for all future parliamentary elections. Even the opposition press praised the president for working within the constitution.35

Still, the regime ignores the courts when it can. For example, the ministry of interior continues to exercise sweeping powers of arrest and detention of dissidents and frequently ignores court decisions. Reliance on the Emergency Law allows the government to ignore the rule of law, the courts, judicial review, and other areas where it would have to subject itself to monitoring by the two other branches of government. What is less visible, and more sinister, is Mubarak's quiet yet persistent efforts to undermine judicial independence. In August 2001, Mubarak appointed a chief justice and five judges to the SCC from the ministry of justice, in defiance of the court's tradition of self-selecting its chief justices from its own ranks.36

While the constitution provides a platform for the rule of law in civil and criminal matters, it is suspended under the Emergency Law. Constitutionally, people are innocent until proven guilty; they have the right to an attorney; and they should be considered equal before the law and the courts. However, the "security state" of Egypt mistreats people generally, and some more than others – especially Islamists and other opponents of the state. Prosecutors are agents of this security state and thus have no effective independence from the government or its security forces. Prosecution of public officials and ruling party actors for corruption and other abuses of power is selective, depending on when the government decides it wants to punish someone by removing them from power in a public fashion.

There is neither effective nor democratic civil state control over the police or military; both are powers unto themselves, and the military is the supreme power of the Egyptian state. One of the most visible measures of this is the fact that the military budget has since Nasser's time been a secret; there is no parliamentary oversight of the military's budget, and thus no public awareness of the degree of the economic power of the military. What is well known, on the other hand, is that the military owns, runs, and profits from a significant portion of the Egyptian economy – from agriculture to manufacturing to certain tourism services. While Egypt is not a military dictatorship per se, as the president takes off his uniform to assume the civilian post, the governments of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak all have secured their power first and foremost through the military; power comes second from the secret police apparatus (the mukhabaraat), and third from the civilian institution of the ruling party, currently the NDP.

While Egypt has made some progress in ensuring property rights, there has also been stubborn resistance by both governmental and private stakeholders to promoting equality before the law. Most recently, in May 2002, Egypt passed a comprehensive intellectual property rights (IPR) law to comply with World Trade Organization regulations. However, the law may not adequately protect rights, to the extent that some in the scientific community worry that the legislation, as written, may actually deter the transfer of technology and investment from abroad.37

Most Egyptians live in illegal dwellings with limited infrastructure. Those who can afford legal property and a building permit face years of bureaucracy to acquire them.38 Another arena of progress is in the government's willingness to promote (although as yet with no measurable success) ownership of property for the majority of Egyptians), an extremely difficult objective given the significant level of poverty in Egypt (some estimates say more than 50 percent of the population live in poverty). In June 2001, Egypt passed Law 148, the Home Mortgage Law, allowing many Egyptians an important vehicle to purchase a private home. Even with the new option of a private mortgage, the initial down payment still remains beyond the means of most people. Nevertheless, the law is a step in the right direction toward liberalizing the financial institutions and providing greater access to them for all Egyptians.


  • The government must more consistently respect the rulings of the regular court system.
  • The government should return to the time-honored tradition of promoting judges within their own ranks, not from executive branch agencies such as the ministry of justice.
  • The emergency court system should be disbanded.
  • The military court system should be used only for military cases.
  • The military's budget should go before the parliament for public debate.

Anticorruption and Transparency – 1.76

Egyptian governments, under both the current regime and its historical predecessors, are notorious for excessive bureaucratic regulations, registration requirements, and other controls that feed corruption. Whenever Egyptians face such controls, money is what ultimately triggers the requisite signature or relevant approval. Compounding the normal bureaucratic culture is the state ownership of many or most of the primary economic levers – banking and financial institutions, tourism, oil, the Suez Canal, manufacturing, the media, and so on. Furthermore, government employees receive insufficient pay, while a decreasing minority of Egyptians achieve increasingly vast wealth, thus creating a growing income gap between the classes and causing the supposed middle class to be squeezed to the smallest minority between the rich and the poor. Corruption has remained a significant problem under Sadat and Mubarak. Both promised to do much, but in fact neither has done anything significant to tackle it effectively.

That said, on November 16, 2002, President Mubarak made a clear statement that his government's new anticorruption campaign was going to last. In a speech before both houses of parliament marking the opening of their legislative session, he said, "the rule of the law is a basic necessity for combating corruption and fighting favoritism." Parliament opened that week with the NDP firmly in control; Fathi Sorour was re-elected by his colleagues as speaker of parliament for the 13th year in a row, as were his deputies and committee chairmen. However, the one major exception was Abdallah Tayel, formerly the powerful head of the economic committee, who was in jail on corruption charges. In September 2002, Tayel had his parliamentary immunity lifted and soon afterward was charged with corruption for giving out loans as the head of the joint-venture Misr Exterior Bank.39

In 2002-2003, parliament passed a number of proposals aimed at promoting transparency of governance and at attacking corruption. First, in September 2002 the NDP announced the creation of a new secretariat for ethics, headed by a retired judge, to confront widespread corruption among NDP members. In November 2002, the government appointed new chief executives to the four major public-sector banks and required that each establish an audit committee. In May 2003 parliament passed the Unified Banking Law, governing the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), the banking system, and foreign exchange bureaus. The law was designed to give the CBE greater oversight powers by entitling its governor to appoint senior banking officials. This came in response to several bad loans by public-sector banks to tycoons who then defaulted and in many cases fled the country.40

While the government of Egypt, led by Hosni Mubarak, has made headlines and some strides in attacking corrupt government officials (prosecuting a number of them in 2002 and 2003) and suggesting structural reforms to promote transparency, many political analysts suspect that the reforms are simply another tool in the hands of an authoritarian leader determined to pave the way for his son to succeed him. The timing of the anticorruption campaign has been indicative. The campaign's near-total focus on senior officials in President Mubarak's NDP has been concurrent with the political rise of his son, leading to speculation that the crackdown is simply clearing a path for an increasing public role for Gamal. Most strikingly, the anticorruption campaign is completely government-run and managed, without any input from NGOs or other civil society groups. Although the government has expressed a desire to forge coalitions to combat graft, it has kept firm unilateral control over the anticorruption campaign.41

Egypt has a number of agencies that could, if properly empowered by the president, promote transparency and fight corruption. A central auditing agency, working out of the prime minister's office, is engaged in privatization of government assets and strives for financial transparency.42 The Administrative Control Authority is Egypt's primary anticorruption watchdog,43 although it does not have jurisdiction to investigate accusations of corruption against certain categories of state employees. All of these agencies are directly tied to the executive branch and thus the presidency; therefore, reform (with public accountability and transparency as part of that overall agenda) is only possible if the president wants it.

If the Administrative Control Authority uncovers corruption in the public sector, it refers its allegations to the supreme state security courts for prosecution. In 2002, these courts did convict several businessmen and officials, including a former finance minister, a former attorney-general, the former governor of Giza, and some members of parliament. In these cases, defendants received long prison sentences and large fines.

A branch of Transparency International functions in Egypt. Egypt's score on Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI) continues to improve, from 1.1 out of 10 (10 = no corruption) in the late 1990s to 3.2 in 2004.44

Only the government decides which corrupt officials may be exposed and punished. The draconian 1995 press law and the restrictive NGO Law of Associations stifle civil society and leave nongovernmental democracy advocates susceptible to arrest, trial, and fines if they speak out against corrupt officials. Thus, even if opposition press and NGO leaders were correct that corruption is rampant, the government still wields the power to muzzle them.

Complicating the efforts by NGOs and others to combat corruption is the fact there is little public access to government information. With the military budget beyond scrutiny, the budget-making process is primarily closed to meaningful legislative and public inspection. While foreign assistance is overseen by the donors and is therefore administered in a reasonably fair manner, it is not immune from the country's overall corruption.


  • The government should maintain its proclaimed campaign against corruption and look to independent judicial reformists to head up the effort. Judicial procedures should be revised so that instances of alleged corruption are tried in regular courts, rather than state security courts.
  • The government should assist its own corruption and transparency watch-dog agencies in operating independent of the executive, for example through a more transparent and accessible budget process and new freedom of information laws.
  • The government should accept NGOs and the press as partners in the campaign against corruption, while establishing mechanisms (such as the equivalent of an office of the ombudsman, responsible for overseeing anticorruption efforts, or anonymous telephone tip lines) to enable government employees and citizens to report instances of bribery, corruption, and misuse of government funds.


1 In 1995, the numbers were not known exactly, but Amnesty International and other human rights groups used the term "hundreds"; in the 2000 elections, the number was "more than 200" Muslim Brothers detained. "Egypt: Muslim Brothers on Trial Must Be Released" (New York: Amnesty International, 27 July 2000),

2 Salwa Sha'rawi Gomaa points out that Egypt ranked 68 out of 70 countries studied in the UNDP's "Gender Empowerment Measure" (GEM) in 2003. Progress of Arab Women, 2004 (Cairo: UN Development Fund for Women [UNIFEM], Arab States Regional Office, 2004), 273.

3 Michael Collins Dunn, "Egypt's Parliamentary Campaign Begins," The Estimate: Political and Security Intelligence Analysis of the Islamic World and its Neighbors XII, 19, 22 September 2000,

4 The numbers quoted here add up to 452 seats; 2 districts in Alexandria were hotly contested and the results were not validated until a final round or by-election was held after the 2000 election.

5 Michael Collins Dunn, "Egypt's Parliamentary Elections: An Assessment of the Results," The Estimate XII, 23, 17 November 2000,

6 For a fictionalized discussion of this process, see Alaa al-Aswany, The Yacoubian Building, translated by Humphrey Davies (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2004; originally published in Arabic, 2002).

7 Monte Palmer, Ali Leila, and El Sayed Yasin, The Egyptian Bureaucracy (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988), 59-61.

8 Nazih N. M. Ayubi, Bureaucracy and Politics in Contemporary Egypt (London: Ithaca Press, 1980), 157, 469.

9 "Civil Society in Egypt Under Attack," Media Alert (New York: Human Rights First, 5 June 2002),

10 Interview with Dr. Nawal Saadawi; see also Denis J. Sullivan and Sana Abed-Kotob, Islam in Contemporary Egypt: Civil Society vs. the State (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999), 25.

11 Egypt: The Political Role of the Media (Washington, DC: U.S. Library of Congress, n.d.),….

12 Mona El-Ghobashy, "Egypt," Global Corruption Report, 2004 (Berlin: Transparency International [TI], Country Report, 2004), 186,

13 Michael Collins Dunn, "Egypt's Parliamentary Campaign Begins," The Estimate XII, 19, 22 September 2000,

14 "Torture in Egypt: An Unchecked Phenomenon" (Cairo: Egyptian Organization for Human Rights [EOHR], n.d.),

15 "Terrorism: Questions and Answers – Jamaat al-Islamiya, Egyptian Islamic Jihad" (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 2004),

16 See, for example, "Tuberculosis ... The Slow Deaths in the Prisons of El Wadi El Gadeed and Damanhour" (EOHR, 23 January, 2001),

17 Jailan Halawi, "Deadly Negligence: The Recent Death of a Muslim Brotherhood Detainee Has Cast an Unequivocal Light on Prisoners' Rights," Al-Ahram Weekly, 17-23 June 2004,

18 Ibid.

19 "Egypt: Continuing executions while use of death penalty decreases worldwide" (London and New York: Amnesty International [AI], 10 August 2004),….

20 Quoted in Jailan Halawi, "Going Home," Al-Ahram Weekly, 7-13 February 2002.

21 For extensive background on this case, see "Egypt's Best Known Activist on Trial" (New York: Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, n.d.),….

22 "Divorced from Justice: Women's unequal access to divorce in Egypt" (HRW, December 2004),

23 "Trafficking in Persons Report" (Washington, DC: U.S. State Department, 14 June 2004), discussed in "Human Trafficking and Modern Day Slavery,"

24 Saad Eddin Ibrahim, "An Arab Culture of Denial,", edition 2, vol. 43, 9 December 2004,

25 "Human Rights Defenders in Egypt" (Human Rights First: Middle East Initiative, n.d.),

26 "Egypt: Ongoing Violations of the Right to Freedom of Belief," (AI, International Secretariat, 4 March 2002),

27 Ibid.

28 "Egypt: Rights of People with Disabilities" (Chicago: Center for International Rehabilitation, 2003)

29 See especially, Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, "Islamic mobilization and political change: The Islamic trend in Egypt's professional associations," in Joel Beinin and Joe Stork, eds., Political Islam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 120-35.

30 "Egypt: Attacks on Justice, 2002" (Geneva: International Commission of Jurists [ICJ], 27 August 2002),

31 For an extensive treatment on the speculation, see Denis J. Sullivan, "The Struggle For Egypt's Future," Current History (January 2003).

32 Mona El-Ghobashy, "Egypt," Global Corruption Report, 2004 (TI), 184-89,

33 "Egypt: Attacks on Justice, 2002" (ICJ),

34 Egypt: The Judiciary, Civil Rights, and the Rule of Law (Washington, DC: U.S. Library of Congress, n.d.),

35 Mona Makram-Ebeid, "Abstract: Egypt's 2000 Parliamentary Elections," Middle East Policy Council Journal VIII, 2 (June 2001),

36 Mona El-Ghobashy (TI, 2004), 187.

37 Wagdy Sawahel, "Technology transfer centres to be set up in Egypt," SciDev.Net, 11 November 2004,….

38 Maria Golia, Cairo: City of Sand (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2004), 18.

39 "Egypt's Anti-Corruption Campaign" (Istanbul and London: Oxford Business Group, 11 November 2002),

40 Mona El-Ghobashy (TI, 2004), 184-85.

41 Ibid., 185.

42 "Financial Management: Egypt" (Beirut: UNDP, Programme on Governance in the Arab Region [POGAR], n.d.),

43 "Egypt: Falling Star," Al-Ahram Weekly, 26 September-2 October, 2002,

44 "Corruption Perceptions Index, 2004" (Berlin: Transparency International, 22 October, 2004),

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