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February 25, 2011

Steps for Tangible Change in Egypt

Washington, DC – Today, as thousands of protestors return to Egypt’s Tahrir Square to keep pressure for tangible change on Egypt’s ruling military council, Human Rights First is outlining a series of steps designed to bring Egypt closer to democracy. It is also calling on the Obama Administration to voice support for these key reforms. “It’s time for real change to start to take shape in Egypt,” said Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks. “Since taking over from the deposed President Mubarak on February 11, the military council has maintained absolute control. The military dominated cabinet – a group appointed by former President Mubarak and led by former air force general, now Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq - remains in office. If the military is to play a credible role as the guardian of a transition to democracy in Egypt, it must demonstrate its willingness to share power with civilians and ultimately to submit to civilian control. The question is open on whether the military is prepared to take that leap.” The Egyptian military was an integral part of the discredited Mubarak regime and benefited enormously from state patronage such as operating businesses and having preferential access to housing, leisure clubs and other privileges. According to Hicks, the potential loss of these benefits is likely slowing down Egypt’s transition, a reality that continues to frustrate and anger opposition leaders who led the protests that toppled Mubarak. Human Rights First notes that there are many steps along the way to a more democratic Egypt and a government more capable of responding to the needs of the Egyptian people.  Six major steps that U.S. officials should be immediately pushing for include:
  1. Military willingness to share executive power, even in this transitional period, by bringing credible civilian figures who are not tainted by association with the previous regime into an interim executive council. This would indicate the military council’s readiness to submit to civilian rule under a new elected government and revised constitution.
  2. Government repeal of repressive legislation including the Emergency Law, laws restricting political parties, and laws that undermine the independence of professional associations and non-governmental organizations.
  3. The release of all political prisoners.  Reports indicate that not all political prisoners have been released.
  4. An end to arbitrary detention and torture.  This was a widespread practice under Mubarak and there are reports that the problem is ongoing, though on a much smaller scale.
  5. Meaningful progress on Constitutional reform.  A review of key parts of the Constitution that must be changed to enable free elections to take place is under way.  This process must result in real change soon.
  6. Establish an immediate transitional and independent authority to regulate Egypt’s telco and ISP sector. This would create a more stable business climate, ensure the free flow of information and privacy of communications, as well as avert the temptation to use SMS and other services to hack into or malign political opposition.
In addition to supporting those actions, the Obama Administration should also convene a meeting with social media entities to discuss ways to ensure platforms used around the world are open, secure and conducive to political expression and organizing in transition. This sector is largely U.S. owned and includes such companies as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. The Obama Administration could also press for a more immediate response to industry criticisms that have been raised following the recent uprisings in the Middle East. “Independent human rights activists who have played a leading role in pushing for change and mobilizing popular protests have a vital role to play in ensuring that Egypt’s rulers make good on their promises to deliver real change,” concluded Hicks. “The U.S. government should also play its part in ensuring that this time there is no backsliding in Egypt’s progress towards a more representative, more responsive and better government.”

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