What Egypt Needs to Do

Over two months have passed since the July 3 coup in Egypt, but nearly nothing new has been achieved. Assurances of reform by the new leadership differ little from the ones given by previous dictators, including Mubarak, Tantawi, and Morsi. The current legal framework is now essentially back to what it was during Mubarak's rule. The leaders of the new military government declared a state of emergency when they took over, and on Sept. 12 they extended it for another two months.

The new leadership is distracting us with its games: curfews, a few superficial amendments to the Egyptian constitution that leave its authoritarian core untouched, and an imaginary "war on terror" against groups that the government refuses to consider "terrorists" (the Egyptian army claims that it is now fighting units of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, but insist that both are "resistance groups" rather than terrorist organizations). The new Egyptian administration should stop playing games and trying to buy time. The oppressive laws of the dictatorship must be dropped immediately. A society can't undergo a transition if basic freedoms are restricted -- unless, that is, the transition is meant to be toward dictatorship.

First, the Egyptian government must address the issue of freedom of expression. The authoritarian penal code criminalizes opinions, specifying some 20 specific views that can land Egyptian citizens in prison merely for expressing them. Section 14 of the Penal Code refers to "journalism crimes," criminalizing such opinions as: encouraging recruits to disobey orders; erotic literature; affecting the reputation of the country; insulting the president; insulting a foreign president; insulting a foreign diplomat; insulting the army, the parliament, or the courts; and insulting a civil servant. And that's not even to mention Section 11, which criminalizes blasphemy.

Thousands of Egyptians have been jailed or fined because of these articles since 1937 when the code was first issued. I was one of them, having been sentenced to three years in prison after I criticized the army in 2011. I'm free now, but tens of others remain in prison for speaking out. We can't call a country democratic if its citizens are not allowed to criticize their government. How are candidates supposed to campaign in elections if they know that they can land in prison for the opinions they express while campaigning? A democracy is not a democracy without freedom of expression, and Egypt has to remove these oppressive laws if it wants to move forward.

Second, Egyptian civil society should be allowed to function. The current civil society law was issued in 2002, and it restricts the activity of non-government organizations, threatening civil society activists with jail time simply for doing their work. All of us still remember how a court sentenced 43 NGO workers to prison on charges of receiving foreign funding. The same verdict also ordered the confiscation of documents from a group of nonprofit organizations, including the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Freedom House, the International Republican Institute, and the National Democratic Institute.

Egypt needs a civil society law that should guarantee four conditions: Citizens should have the freedom to form their own organizations. The government should remove restrictions on the political activity of NGOs. The state should be barred from interfering in the internal decisions of civil society groups. Finally, such groups should have full freedom to raise their own funding. If these conditions are met, then the country's citizens will finally be in a position to build a strong civil society, a crucial precondition for the further democratization of the country. So far, however, the government has said nothing about reforming the current repressive law.

Third, the government must allow outside observers to monitor elections. Egypt has not had a genuinely free election since a group of military officers staged a coup against the king in 1952. It stretches credulity to claim, as his own government did, that Gamal Abdel Nasser was truly elected with 99.9 percent of the vote in 1956. Egyptians first began protesting in 2011 against the parliamentary election held the previous year, which they believed had been rigged. The military then arranged for another election in 2011 that was so plagued by obvious fraud that Egyptian courts declared it illegal. There are cases now in front of the administrative court arguing that the 51 million names in the voter database contain around 13 million repeated and fake names (some 25 percent of the total). We can be sure that future politicians chosen in elections will also be accused of fraud if this issue is not addressed properly.

After the July 3 coup, the new rulers have stated several times that they are prepared to accept international election monitors. But there's a catch. According to the transitional roadmap issued by the new government, the election is scheduled to take place three months from now, though most election monitoring missions need to spend at least six months in a country in order to set up operations. Since the Egyptian government has yet to issue any formal invitations to international observers, it should be clear that the military rulers have no desire to allow a clean election. And that, in turn, makes it almost inevitable that the next government in Egypt will face challenges to its legitimacy (especially by the Islamists), and that will lead to more instability in Egypt.

Fourth, Egypt should abide by the international legal framework on human rights and elections. Over the past few decades, the Egyptian dictatorship has been notably reluctant to sign any international documents that would ensure greater freedom to Egyptian citizens. International organizations have very limited authority to monitor human rights violations in Egypt since the country has never signed or ratified most of the corresponding treaties. Foreign Minister Nabil el-Araby pledged in 2011 that Egypt would sign the additional protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but this never happened. If the new administration in Egypt wants to prove that a democratization process is under way, then it should sign and ratify both the additional protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Rome Statute governing the International Criminal Court. Egypt should also join the Council of Europe and the Commonwealth of Nations. It defies common sense to claim that Egypt is a democracy while the country's international participation is restricted to dictators' clubs such as the Arab League and the Islamic Conference Organization.

Egypt has now endured three years of profound instability. The economy is shrinking. Thousands have lost their lives in political violence. Embassies had been attacked. Egyptian territory has been used as a base for attacks on other states. If Egypt does not begin to face its real problems now, the chaos will grow. Neither Egypt nor the international community has an interest in allowing this to happen.

Maikel Nabil Sanad is an Egyptian activist and leader of the "No to Compulsory Military Service" Movement. He became a prisoner of conscience after boycotting military trials in August 2011 and spent 130 days on a hunger strike. He is also a member of the board of 



The Syria-Venezuela Connection

Last week, as the world was mulling an American-led attack on the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro sent U.S. President Barack Obama a letter.

In the rambling missive, Maduro pressed the case for peace, quoting Jesus Christ, Simón Bolívar, Hugo Chávez, Robert Fisk, and Susan Sontag. He ended it with a hyperventilated "No to war!!!" while ignoring the issue at the heart of the crisis: Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons on his own people.

It is somewhat odd that Venezuela should want to get itself involved in the Syrian conflict. Venezuela is far away from the Middle East, and none of its strategic interests are involved. Syria is neither a large oil producer nor an important client of Venezuela. Nevertheless, both the late Hugo Chávez and Maduro have long made efforts to become strategic allies of Assad.

Chávez courted Assad strongly while he was alive. He visited Damascus on at least three occasions and, while there, wasted no time blasting Israel and siding with Syria and Iran, another of his close partners. Chávez also cut off Venezuela's diplomatic relations with Israel during his tenure, and Maduro has shown no signs of mending those ties. Chávez even established a nonstop flight between Caracas and Damascus, an air link with little commercial value that has raised more than a few eyebrows in international intelligence circles.

This alliance has proven valuable for Assad. Last year, in defiance of international sanctions, Chávez sent at least three shipments of diesel fuel to Syria's government. (It is not known if the shipments have continued.)

Where does this empathy come from? It could be from within Venezuela itself.

There is a sizeable Syrian community in Venezuela, and a few prominent members of the Venezuelan government hail from it. Key among them is Tareck El Aissami, a former interior minister and the current governor of Aragua state -- an important region close to Caracas. Other notable Syrian-Venezuelan chavistas include the transportation minister and the head of the National Police.

One of the more outlandish members of the Syrian-Venezuelan chavista clique is National Assembly member Adel El Zabayar. In recent weeks, El Zabayar abandoned his job as a legislator to travel to Syria and join the government's forces in fighting the rebels and the United States. Maduro has since praised El Zabayar's "dignified" stance. Chavistas have meanwhile taken to the streets in support of Assad. (The photo above shows pro-Assad members of the ruling Socialist Party demonstrating outside the Syrian embassy in Caracas.

The country's foreign trade structure may also have something to do with Venezuela's willingness to get involved. Since Venezuelan exports consist, almost exclusively, of oil, it has little to risk in terms of international sanctions by behaving like the enfant terrible of foreign relations. After all, when your commodity is something everyone needs, you can get away with more than other countries that rely on access to markets.

Another part has to do with Venezuelan culture. Venezuelans pride themselves as being outgoing, and so they don't have the shyness of being a "small country" that one would find in other Latin countries. Furthermore, the mythology of Venezuela's Independence War, when Venezuelan soldiers traveled to other countries to help liberate them, has left a certain interventionist strain in the Venezuelan psyche. Whether it is working for peace in Central America during the 1980s, or fostering anti-American stances in this century, Venezuela has always equated foreign policy with meddling in other people's business.

Venezuela's stance may also have something to do with Maduro's need to establish an anti-American leftist identity. According to Amherst professor Javier Corrales, Hugo Chávez's staunch anti-Americanism was as much ideological as it was practical. According to Corrales, Chávez -- whose power was based on an uneasy coalition of nationalist military elements and radical leftist groups -- used anti-Americanism as a way of keeping his coalition together. By embracing anyone willing to defy the United States, Chávez assured himself an anti-imperialist identity while he pursued other, more pragmatic goals.

Nicolás Maduro seems to be following this pattern. In fact, Maduro has a much more urgent need to forge an identity for himself than Chávez. He is seen as a weaker, less known, less capable version of Chávez, and as such he needs to establish himself as Chávez's heir by tacking strongly to his legacy. Immersing himself in the Syria crisis partly accomplishes this.

Finally, the Syria discussion serves as a useful distraction from the dynamics within Venezuela itself. Venezuela is suffering from high inflation, scarcity of goods, frequent blackouts, and daily protests. As domestic problems mount by the day, it seems an international crisis is just the diversion Maduro needs.

Juan Nagel is the Venezuela blogger for Transitions and the co-author of Blogging the Revolution. Read the rest of his posts here.