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Bianca Jagger

Bianca Jagger

Posted: February 11, 2011 08:45 PM

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned today and handed over power to the military. This historic day will resonate throughout the Arab world and beyond, it was the culmination of 18 days of unprecedented popular non-violent revolution.

At last the people of Egypt were able to oust their corrupt leader without foreign occupation or foreign invasion. Their success will give incentives to people throughout the Arab world to struggle for freedom and democracy, empowering them to call for the resignation of other oppressive and corrupt governments. This unprecedented historic process began with the protests in Tunisia that brought down the 23-year-old regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The protests erupted after the tragic self-immolation of 26-year-old Mohammed Bouazizi, who, in desperation, set himself on fire on December 17, 2010 in front of a local government building in Sidi Bouzid because police had seized his grocery cart, saying he didn't have the proper permit to sell produce. The discontent of the people was also fueled by the WikiLeaks cables revelations of government's crimes and corruption; it set the stage for a new era of transparency and accountability. When the leaks were added to the already lethal combination of oppression, unemployment, economic discontent and rising food and fuel prices, disillusioned and disenfranchised youths in Tunisia took to the streets to protest against the oppressive regime under which they have been living. Some believe that WikiLeaks served as a catalyst for a digitally-driven, non-violent revolution.

After the initial riots, the rapid evolution of protests in the streets was made possible in cyberspace with Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. Such large scale conversations and such rapid mobilization of the public were not possible before the advent of social networking.

The protests we have witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan were non-violent protests against tyrannies which have lasted decades, spanning the 20th and 21st centuries and five U.S. administrations. Although I hesitate to cite a 'domino effect,' which will see regimes toppling all over the Middle East, the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt have paved the way for further peaceful revolutions. But what comes next?

The protests in Egypt began on January 25, 2010, and were initiated through a Facebook page, set up by Wael Ghonim, who was held by police for 12 days before being released on February 7. Following nationwide protests, President Mubarak announced on Tuesday, February 1 that he had dissolved the previous government, and appointed Omar Suleiman as vice-president; he promised that he would not run for reelection and that he would relinquish power to an elected successor. On Thursday, February 10, Mubarak made a highly anticipated televised speech.

Expectation ran high among the peaceful protesters, and throughout Egypt. TIME magazine described the mood of the hundreds of thousands of protesters massed in Tahrir Square as one of "celebratory expectation." The hope was that Mubarak would announce his resignation.

What transpired was very different. Mubarak professed his commitment to an "agreed-upon framework for a peaceful transfer of power through responsible dialogue with all factions of society and with utmost sincerity and transparency." Mubarak pledged to the "setting up of a constitutional committee that will look into the required amendments of the constitution and the needed legislative reforms." Mubarak also issued a 'request' to the aforementioned committee for certain constitutional reforms to be enacted, all of which relate to Egypt's appalling human rights legislation.

Hosni Mubarak has resigned. But where does Egypt stand now? What legal mechanism exists to allow a peaceful and democratic transition in Egypt at this time of uncertainty? Alarmingly, Mubarak has left power in the hands of the armed forces: which breaches the constitution. BBC correspondent Jon Leyne commented on the 11th of February, 'the army takeover looks very much like a coup.'

There are no concrete measures in place to guarantee the implementation of a peaceful and democratic transition. These issues urgently need to be addressed. There is dire need for clear, immediate reform of this institutionalized repressive regime which, for over thirty years, has committed and endorsed terrible human rights violations and consistently favored the ruling elite. Abusive laws and practices have been written into the Constitution itself. A state of emergency has been continuously enforced since 1981 to repress calls for reform.

Mubarak's speech on the 10th of February was a bizarre amalgam of ambiguity, half promises and patronage. He stated that he addressed the Egyptian people 'from the heart, a father's dialogue with his sons and daughters... It pains me to see how some of my countrymen are treating me today.' Speaking of those peaceful protesters killed in conflict with his supporters, he said: 'I tell the families of those innocent victims that I suffered plenty for them, as much as they did. My heart was in pain because of what happened to them, as much as it pained their hearts.' What Mubarak did not do was present concrete plans for reform, or directly discourage military action against the protesters. His speech was disingenuous and deceitful.

Vice President Omar Suleiman

Vice President Suleiman's speech which followed Mubarak's on the 10th of February was equally condescending and deceitful: 'Youth of Egypt, heroes of Egypt, go home,' he urged the pro-democratic protesters. According to Amnesty International, "The language used by Vice President Suleiman to try to discourage protesters from making their voices heard is also unacceptable. It is ironic that a government which has fired on and allowed thugs to attack peaceful protesters is attempting to persuade protesters to go home by warning of 'chaos' and 'destruction'." Mubarak's resignation is a step in the right direction, but Suleiman is an extension of Mubarak. It would be a grave mistake to leave Suleiman in charge of the transition process.

Suleiman's appointment as Vice President is controversial, to say the least. The role was newly revived by Mr. Mubarak. Egypt hasn't had a vice president since Mubarak held the post himself, in 1981. The position is a potential stepping stone to the presidency -- and Suleiman has an alarmingly checkered political history. Whilst serving as chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service, he was dubbed "one of the world's most powerful spy chiefs."

He is regarded as a subcontractor for torture for the U.S.: he was responsible for running the United States' secret extraordinary rendition and torture program in Egypt. An example of this program is the case of Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad Alzery, two Egyptian asylum seekers, who were according to Redress, 'removed from Sweden to Egypt by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency in cooperation with the Swedish authorities and outside of any legal process,' on charges of terrorism in 2001. The deportation was carried out by American and Egyptian personnel on Swedish ground, with Swedish servicemen as passive onlookers.

In 2005, in Agiza v. Sweden (Communication No. 233/2003), the UN Committee against Torture found that Sweden had violated the Convention against Torture. The following year, in Mohammed Alzery v. Sweden (Communication No. 1416/2005), the UN Human Rights Committee found Sweden to have violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Alzery was released without charge after two years in prison however, 'he continues to suffer physically and psychologically as a result of his torture and ill-treatment.' Agiza was sentenced to 15 years in prison in a military tribunal.

The Egyptian people are being asked to place their trust in Suleiman. But his history of aiding the U.S. to torture its own citizens does not inspire hope for the future of human rights in Egypt -- nor does it inspire confidence for the future of an autonomous democratic government. As Yashwanth Manjunath reported for Fox News, "Suleiman is in a prime position to replace [Mubarak] as President of Egypt. If that happens, look for Suleiman to be nothing more than a US/Western puppet."

I hope the calls for Omar Suleiman's resignation from the office of vice president will be heard. His methods have no place in a democratic society.

The Armed Forces

Egypt has been left in the hands of the high command of the armed forces. Mr. Mubarak's apparatus of repression: the secret police, the dreaded Mukhabarat, his secret intelligence service and the military, is still in place. While the protesters have a peaceful agenda, these agencies do not. Their treatment of the protesters and the media has been arbitrary and brutal. The pro-democracy protesters have played an admirable and heroic role. Many protesters were detained without charge and became victims of police brutality. According to the BBC, "activists estimate that more than 300 people have been killed in the popular uprising and several thousand have been injured. Funerals and memorial services have been taking place on a daily basis." Clearly, there needs to be an immediate cessation of all forms of coercion and oppression by the new Egyptian government. The first step towards this is lifting the state of emergency, which gives the security forces such extraordinary powers of arrest and detention.

The Human Rights Watch 2011 review finds Egypt's secret police and uniformed police alike responsible for routine, systematic torture of prisoners. "This is used both to extract confessions," says Tom Porteous, UK Director of Human Rights Watch "and as an instrument of punishment and deterrent". As Mr. Porteous has told the BBC: "State repression and abuse are coming out of the torture chambers and onto the streets". BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner states: 'Whether it is the official secret police of the State Security Investigations (SSI), the intelligence agents of the Mukhabaraat, or just hired street thugs, these instruments of power have long been used to intimidating effect on those opposing the government or even speaking out about human rights abuses.'

Throughout the last 18 days journalists from all over the world have fearlessly documented the protests at serious personal risk. They have often found themselves detained, harassed, and harmed by the armed forces. "At least one journalist, Ahmed Mahmoud, who worked for a state-owned publication, has been killed during the demonstrations," The BBC has stated. "He was shot in the eye by a police officer on the 29th of January while taking photographs of the protests on his mobile phone from the balcony of his office."

Between the 3rd and 4th of February the Committee to Protect Journalists "recorded 30 detentions, 26 assaults, and eight instances of equipment having been seized. In addition, plainclothes and uniformed agents reportedly entered at least two hotels [in Cairo] used by international journalists to confiscate press equipment." On February 2nd the BBC's Rupert Wingfield-Hayes was handcuffed, hooded and interrogated, while another journalist, from Al-Arabiya TV, was beaten so badly by plain clothes men he had to be hospitalized. ABC News gives a shocking selection of other instances of brutality and violence towards journalists, from a wide range of countries: "Swedish public broadcaster SVT said its reporter Bert Sundstroem has been operated on for knife injuries after being apparently arrested in central Cairo." The reporter had earlier participated in a live broadcast, but when his producer called him for another report from Tahrir Square two hours later an Arabic speaker answered and said Mr. Sundstroem was being held. According to a Swedish translation posted on SVT's website, the voice said: "Your man is being held by the military. You sons of whores, if you want him back you will have to come get him. Your man is held by the Egyptian government. He is alive and awake."'

A correspondent with ABC America, Brian Hartman, said he was threatened with beheading after being stopped a checkpoint in Cairo. In a Twitter update, Hartman wrote: "Just escaped after being carjacked at a checkpoint and driven to a compound where men surrounded the car and threatened to behead us." "We thought we were goners," Hartman said later. "We absolutely thought we were doomed." A Greek reporter was stabbed in the leg by Mubarak supporters and a photojournalist with him was beaten in the head, a Reuters witness said. Reuters television said one of its crews was beaten up on the 3rd of February close to Tahrir Square while filming a piece about shops and banks being forced to shut during the clashes. CNN's Anderson Cooper said he and his crew were punched and kicked in Cairo by Mubarak supporters. Two reporters working for The New York Times were detained overnight Wednesday and released on Thursday, the newspaper said. Al Jazeera's offices in Cairo were set on fire along with the equipment inside, and its website was hacked. The Egyptian military detained a correspondent for the network's English language news channel for seven hours. This is an appalling catalog of violence against the world's press. But it is not a surprise. It is indicative of a larger problem.

Amnesty International has called for an investigation into the detention of some 35 human rights activists and journalists, including two Amnesty International staff members, who were freed after spending almost two days in military custody. Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa director said, 'The Egyptian authorities must now carry out an urgent independent investigation into why human rights activists monitoring protests in Cairo were targeted in this way, and who gave the orders for it.'

As Souad Mekhennet and Nicholas Kulish, two journalists detained by the Mukhabarat, wrote in the New York Times on February 4th: 'Our discomfort paled in comparison to the dull whacks and the screams of pain by Egyptian people that broke the stillness of the night... seeing -- and in particular hearing through the walls of this dreadful facility -- the abuse of Egyptians at the hands of their own government.

For one day, we were trapped in the brutal maze where Egyptians are lost for months or even years. Our detainment threw into haunting relief the abuses of security services, the police, the secret police and the intelligence service, and explained why they were at the forefront of complaints made by the protesters.'

The following constitutional reforms, as set out by Amnesty international, must be carried out with all possible speed.

  • Immediately lift the state of emergency and repeal all provisions of the Emergency Law. The state must not arbitrarily detain people, torture them, engage in other reprisals against them, or deny their right to fair trial. In this respect, the authorities should repeal those aspects of Article 179 of the Constitution that give sweeping powers of arrest to the security forces and allow the Egyptian President to bypass ordinary courts and refer people suspected of terrorism to military and special courts.
  • Review Law 84 of 2002 (the Law on Associations) to enable non-governmental organizations to function without impediments such as prior authorization, funding controls and administrative dissolution under Article 42 of the Law.
  • Bring the crime of torture in Egyptian law in conformity with the definition in Article 1(1) of the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. In particular, explicitly prohibit all forms of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, and make clear that the prohibition is absolute and must not be suspended under any circumstances, including during a state of war or other public emergency.
  • Impose an immediate moratorium on all executions.
  • Commute all death sentences and review the Penal Code in order to reduce the number of capital offenses, with a view to working towards abolition of capital punishment.

Egypt is at a critical moment in history. We must ensure that adequate structures are in place to make the transition to a democratic state. As foreign affairs analyst Fareed Zakaria told CNN, "If you look at Iraq, it was the decisions made in the first month [after Saddam Hussein's rule ended] that ended up creating the climate for what became a civil war." This must not be allowed to happen in Egypt. The protesters have earned the right to live in a democracy.

As Noam Chomsky observes, "In the Arab world, the United States and its allies have regularly supported radical Islamists, sometimes to prevent the threat of secular nationalism. A familiar example is Saudi Arabia, the ideological center of radical Islam (and of Islamic terror). Another in a long list is Zia ul-Haq, the most brutal of Pakistan's dictators and President Reagan's favorite, who carried out a program of radical Islamization (with Saudi funding)." The United States has given Mubarak's government an average of $1.5 billion in aid every year, much of it military aid according to the Congressional Research Service. Washington provides military aid to only five foreign beneficiaries: the dictatorship of Egypt, the former dictatorship of Tunisia, Jordan, Israel, and finally Colombia, which has long had one of the worst human-rights records, and received the most U.S. military aid in the American hemisphere.

As Chomsky says, "the doctrine traces far back and generalizes worldwide, to U.S. home territory as well. In the event of unrest, tactical shifts may be necessary, but always with an eye to reasserting control." Oil is a huge factor in this 'control.' The protests have been sparked by repressive regimes but also driven by huge increases in the prices of staple food, such as wheat, corn and sugar. Oil is and will always be linked to economic crisis. The price of oil is rising and will continue to rise.

Now is the time for the US to support the pro-democracy protesters in Egypt, to prevent power passing from one repressive regime to another.

Egyptians must be allowed to participate in shaping their future. The pro-democracy protesters have succeeded in ousting Mubarak, but the struggle is not over and there is a long way to go. The US and the EU can play a leading role, ensuring Egypt's orderly transition to democracy, the rule of law and the protection of human rights. This would be appropriate restitution for the support the US and its allies gave to the Mubarak regime which terrorized the country for over thirty years.

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Editor's Note: This post has been updated from its original version.

 

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