Egypt: The Change Has to Be Institutional, Has to Be Now

February 8, 2011

The protests in Egypt erupted in the context of more than 30 years of severe repression © Sarah Carr

In Egypt these days, feelings of elation and dread, are often close together.  Today, elation that Google executive Wael Ghonim was released after almost two weeks of incommunicado detention; dread from news from reporters and other credible sources that former Amnesty International prisoner of conscience Karim Amer had been arrested.

Even as the protesters in Tahrir Square say they feel protected, arrests by security forces occur around the country.  And in the background, negotiations continue to seek a solution to the political crisis. Talks continue between the Mubarak government and opposition groups and between the U.S. government and all Egyptian players.  For many protesters, these talks seem distant from their ability to influence.

It’s easy to understand the protesters concerns. For three decades, this government has muzzled civil society, made torture systematic, restricted the free press and free political association, attacked an independent bar and judiciary and given impunity to police officers.  After all that, the protesters are hearing from many sources, including the U.S. government, that they must give these same people an opportunity to reverse all that.  With the arrests of Amer and others continuing, it’s easy to understand why they believe that won’t happen.

Nevertheless, with the negotiations continuing, Amnesty International’s message remains focused on institutional change that will prevent human rights abuses. We continue to call for solidarity with the Egyptian protesters.  Amnesty International UK is spearheading a Global Day of Solidarity this coming Saturday, Feb. 12.  We hope Amnesty International members around the world will participate in events in their community or sponsor events of their own.  (Contact your regional office to get an Egypt Activist Toolkit.)

But in addition, Amnesty is pressing a plan for change.  News reports indicate that government officials have, for example, promised to end the State of Emergency (SOE) when the situation settles.  That’s hopeful, but it’s not enough.  In 2007, the Egyptians entrenched some of the powers given to the government under the State of Emergency into its constitution, so even if the SOE is eliminated, the government can legally access vast powers that can lead to abuse.

Here is a short list of places where Egyptian activists would like reform to start.

  • End of State of Emergency
  • Release of prisoners of conscience and end the prolonged administrative detention of all political prisoners
  • Review all laws and articles of the Egyptian constitution related to freedom of press, speech and political association and bring them into line with international covenants.
  • Grant the judiciary the role to provide independent oversight of elections; and end special military and emergency courts that act outside the civilian court system.
  • End  impunity for police and security forces who have engaged in torture or ill-treatment.
  • End all policies that promote the use of torture, including arbitrary and prolonged detention and those that unfairly limit access of the prisoner to lawyers, family members and medical care.

There are more.  Before the protests, Amnesty International was in the middle of a campaign on slum housing and forced evictions that underscored how the government’s neglect and corruption abused the social and economic rights of many Egyptians, particularly women and children.  But change can’t be delayed. Only if actions such as these are taken can the protesters be confident of institutional change.  They must happen regardless of who is in office, and they must happen now.