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Sahar Aziz

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Rule Of Law, Not Rule By Law for Egypt

Posted: 11/26/11 06:38 PM ET

Egypt is forever changed. Whether ruled by a civilian government or a military junta, gone are the days when the government can blithely dismiss the will of the people or coerce them into obedience. This most recent wave of mass protests demonstrates Egyptians' refusal to go back to the dark ages of iron fisted dictatorship. Government accountability is the new normal.

Holding a government accountable, however, is of little value if it is ad hoc and necessitates violence. Rather, meaningful accountability occurs when it is embedded in a legal system based on a societal expectation that the government serves the people, not the other way around. The January 25 revolution and each subsequent wave of protests are rooted in demands for oversight and transparency of government.

The time is ripe to invest in rule of law in Egypt.

Thus far, Egyptians have had little choice but to go to the streets to make their demands heard. What often starts out as a peaceful expression of political will quickly turns violent at the hands of the current military junta. Agitators are government hired thugs or state police tasked with beating, shooting, and poisoning innocent civilians with potent military grade tear gas.

While exigent circumstances, namely the SCAF's refusal to hand over power to a civilian government, warrant mass demonstrations, this model is unsustainable. Resorting to the streets every time a government fails to implement the will of the people does not come without a significant price to the country. The ensuing political instability keeps tourism, a major source of Egypt's national income, at historic lows. It also shuts down the stock exchange, closes factories, and puts hundreds of thousands of Egyptians out of work.

These adverse consequences are cited by a significant number of Egyptians increasingly frustrated with the ongoing protests in Tahrir Square. They emphasize their need to work, feed their families, send their kids to schools, and return to a sense of normalcy in their everyday lives. Many question if democracy and stability are compatible, and if forced to pick they would choose the latter.

Like past dictators, it is precisely such disillusionment that the military hopes will defeat those demanding meaningful democracy now, not later. What started out as a revolution has transformed into a war of attrition between Egyptian nationalists of all political stripes committed to transforming Egypt to a meaningful democracy and an illegitimate military junta engaged in duplicity, delay tactics, and coercion to hijack the revolution.

Unless the focus shifts to transitioning Egypt to a nation with a strong rule of law foundation where government accountability occurs on a daily basis, the military will have the upper hand in this asymmetrical battle.

Egypt has a rich legal history that has produced one of the most complex and sophisticated legal systems in the Middle East. But this very system has been one of the strongest tools in the arsenal of Egypt's dictators. Mubarak and his predecessors were notorious for concentrating their power through rule by law.

The SCAF has proven itself to be no exception. They have granted themselves extraordinary powers through legal decrees and supra-constitutional legal declarations, surpassing Mubarak's tyranny.

Not to be mistaken with rule of law, rule by law allows government officials to manipulate laws to concentrate and further entrench their power while eliminating political opposition. In contrast, rule of law ensures no one is above the law, all citizens are treated equally before the law, adjudicators of disputes are independent and objective, and legitimate grievances can be redressed without destabilizing mass protests.

Many legal reforms are needed but none are more important for government accountability than freedom of information laws. Such laws are glaringly absent in Egypt, denying the citizenry and media accurate information necessary to identify and rectify flagrant abuses of power. Similarly, laws regulating nongovernmental organizations strips civil society the independence and autonomy to perform its indispensable role in government oversight. The independence of the judiciary, the bedrock of a functional rule of law system, has also been substantially compromised over the past thirty years.

Absent these and many other needed legal reforms, Egyptians will be left with no other choice than to turn to the streets, as they should when faced with the false choice between oppression and freedom. But for those who believe democracy and stability are not mutually exclusive, the time is ripe to invest in transforming Egypt's corrupted rule by law system to transparent and fair rule of law.

Despite the international community pouring millions of dollars into Egypt, not enough of it is going towards supporting Egyptian lawyers, democracy activists, and academics seeking to implement legal reforms that allow the people to hold their government accountable. This paves the way for combating public corruption, promoting equal rights for minorities and women, and defending human rights.

The past tumultuous six months prove that Egyptians are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to implement democracy. Never again will they allow themselves to be denied the fundamental right to control their national destiny.

Strengthening the rule of law is a potent tool to that end.

Sahar Aziz is an Associate Professor at Texas Wesleyan School of Law, a legal fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association.