Egypt: International organizations urged to monitor constitutional referendum amid repressive climate

Egypt: International organizations urged to monitor constitutional referendum amid repressive climate

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                                       Joint Press Statement

The undersigned rights organizations call on international organizations to monitor the upcoming referendum to amend the Egyptian constitution; if approved, the amendments will grant unilateral authority to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi by expanding presidential term limits together with eliminating judicial independence[J1] [Office2] .  In its campaign to ensure the amendments’ passage in the referendum scheduled for April 19-22, the Egyptian state has trampled upon all guarantees of a free, impartial referendum; completely denying citizens their right to peacefully express any objection to the amendments, whether in the context of governmental or state-sanctioned channels, the media, or the public sphere.

Not only did the Egyptian state harness its repressive arsenal to silence any voices critical of the proposed constitutional changes, but it also sped along the process to such an extent that public debate was not even feasible: it took less than three months since the amendments’ proposal on February 3rd for them to be sent to referendum. Even though the final amendments were not made public, the parliament approved the articles yesterday, and the referendum will be held on Friday. The uncanny haste in which the amendments’ are being pushed through, together with the suppression of their content, is indicative of the state’s desire to finish the process so quickly that Egyptians will be denied any opportunity to discuss or even know how the amendments will impact their lives.

The signatories urge international organizations to evaluate the national milieu  in which the amendments were proposed; a climate characterized by threats of imprisonment and prosecution against persons peacefully expressing opposition to the amendments; the media silencing of any discussion about the amendment’s details alongside smear campaigns and accusations of treason against dissident voices; and the curtailing of any role for Egyptian independent civil society in monitoring the referendum.

The Egyptian state’s severe overreach in its campaign to guarantee the amendments’ passage is illustrated by its elimination of official, state-sanctioned channels to express peaceful opposition.  Members of parliament  and other public figures were threatened and intimidated, or arrested and prosecuted for expressing independent or dissident opinions about the amendments through ostensibly government-approved channels. As soon as the formation of the Federation to Defend the Constitution was announced as an open, democratic framework to protect the constitution through peaceful means, the state security apparatus acted to break up the federation and intimidate its members.

Security forces stormed the home of former Member of Parliament Mohamed Mohi el-Din, a founder of the Federation and a former constituent assembly member,  on February 22, 2019. After appearing before the prosecution without his lawyer, Mohi el-Din remains in custody on charges of “forming a group in violation of the law…to obstruct the operation of state institutions and the enforcement of the constitution and law,”  under case no. 277 of 2019.  That same day, security forces arrested four members of the Dostour Party, part of the Federation to Defend the Constitution, from their homes in connection with the same case.

Like the Federation to Defend the Constitution, the Democratic Civil Movement pursued legally sanctioned methods to register its opposition to the constitutional amendments.  It  filed an application to hold a peaceful demonstration in late March to oppose the amendments, in line with the conditions set forth in Law 107 of 2013 on demonstrations. Although demonstrations and rallies in support of the amendments proceeded and continue to proceed without permits and with the blessing of the competent court, the Movement’s application was denied on the grounds of unsuitable security conditions.  Those who filed the application or were calling for the demonstrations —among them former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi, media figure Ibrahim Eissa, and businessman Naguib Sawiris—were threatened with imprisonment by the security establishment.[1]

The intimidation, arrests, and prosecution of Egyptian citizens using state-sanctioned channels for expressing peaceful opposition to the amendments is accompanied by a media silencing of any dialogue about the amendments’ details, with independent or oppositional perspectives essentially eliminated from media discourse. Opponents of the amendments have been branded as traitors and numerous official complaints have been filed against them,[2] accusing them of spreading false news, high treason, and inciting against and defaming the Egyptian state.

The media’s alignment with the state in smothering any semblance of opposition to the constitutional amendments should not be surprising, given that state’s tightening stranglehold over virtually all media outlets in Egypt. The security apparatus has extended its control over most television channels and newspapers, either by purchasing them outright or acquiring control of their administrative and financial structures.  Concurrently, state has blocked 500 websites, and routinely intimidates and threatens media figures, journalists, and others expressing independent or oppositional voices.

Not only is Egypt lacking any independent media context in which an open, free dialogue about the upcoming constitutional referendum could occur, it is also lacking an adequate public sphere where such a process can be implemented with fairness and partiality. Repressive legislation has eliminated citizens’ right to peacefully protest[3] while the ability to express opposition through political channels has been eliminated by the targeted arrests of political party and movement leaders, and the placing of party leadership on terrorist lists.[4] Independent civil society organizations, which could potentially monitor the referendum process, have been exceptionally crippled by draconian legislation and state prosecution.[5] [6]

In sum, the current national climate in Egypt is devoid of any space in which a constitutional referendum can occur with even minimal guarantees of partiality and fairness. The undersigned organizations condemn all repressive, unjust measures taken against those who oppose the amendments or call for a boycott of the referendum while reaffirming their call to international organizations to monitor the constitutional referendum process, which is set to eliminate arguably the last remaining gain of Egypt’s 2011 revolution, the enshrining of presidential term limits into the constitution. [J3]

Signatory Organizations

  1. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
  2. Egyptian Front For Human Rights
  3. Committee for Justice
  4. The Freedom Initiative
  5. Nadeem Center
  6. Belady Center for Rights and Freedoms

[1] According to al-Araby al-Jadid, those who filed the application to hold the demonstration were told that it was futile to seek support from abroad, since the constitutional amendments would be pushed through. They were then warned it would be difficult to avoid imprisonment if they did not avoid announcing demonstrations.

[2] This was the case with actors Amr Waked and Khaled Abu al-Naga, both of whom had their membership in the Actors Syndicate suspended after they met with members of the US Congress to discuss the proposed amendments, the status of human rights, and the future of democracy in Egypt.

[3] Over the past six years, taking control of all avenues for the free expression of opinion, taking control of the public sphere by eliminating the right to peacefully demonstrate with Law 107/2013 and its frequent invocation of the repealed Law 10/1914 on assembly, leading to a wave of unjustified arrests on charges of advocating for or participating in an unlawful assembly, and demonstrating without a permit.

[4] Seeking to hollow out the public sphere further, the state has similarly sought to cripple political parties  and movements by arresting their senior and midlevel leaders, imposing upon them a broad array of charges, such as “establishing a group in violation of the law,’ to placing party members on terrorist lists.. All potential presidential candidates were arrested in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election; General Sami Anan, former army chief of staff, is now serving a ten-year prison sentence, while Anan’s Human Rights Affairs Deputy Judge Hisham Genena is serving five years in prison.

[5] It has fostered a climate of intimidation for civil society organizations, particularly rights groups, while banning their leaders from travel and freezing their assets to paralyze their operations.

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