Thursday, March 24, 2011

Egypt and Democracy: Old Men Tired of Playing Democracy

Apparently, the "old men" in the "new" Egyptian Cabinet appointed by the military are tired of playing "democracy".  In a move that stunned many of the revolutionaries, the Cabinet issued a law, under the still existing "emergency law", banning protests, threatening up to seven years in prison and 500kLE (Egyptian Pounds) equal to approximately $100k US.  

The ban is apparently a response to all of the on going protests, a new feature in Egypt's daily life, along with the threat of another massive protest on Friday.  The many protests around the country include students at GUC (German University of Cairo) demanding an independent student union as well as at Mansour University and Cairo University.  Most are demanding the deans and administrative staff step down because they were appointed by Mubarek and students believe they are complicit in corruption.  Also, students believed that the administration had been complicit in fixing student elections.

Further, it appears that the Cairo University had shut down the female dormitories 'for their own safety".  The male and female students were demanding that they be re-opened.  This may have been an attempt to begin segregating education (a rumor that has been going around for several weeks).  Classes at the university had been suspended and the students demanded that they resume.  The Minister of Education appeared at Cairo University on March 8 and insisted the students demands would be met.  It is unclear whether these demands were actually met.  Students continued to protest, but were "detained" and "dispersed" late Wednesday, March 23 by the military after the ban was in place.  

Earlier in the day, police protested for better wages and health care in front of the Interior Ministry Building.  Early Wednesday morning the Interior Ministry caught fire.  Early reports suggested that the protesting police were throwing molotov cocktails, but other media reports and eyewitnesses refuted the report.  The fire had broken out on the fifth floor of the building and spread to the eighth.  New reports suggest that there may have been a wiring problem in the air conditioning unit, while other reports suggest that employees set the fire.  A prosecutor is investigating.

There are multiple rumors that this fire was set deliberately to destroy information.  The floors that were burned contained the ministries' department for personnel records.

At the same time, the Egyptian exchange opened and dropped 10% in 10 minutes.  The exchange was closed for half an hour then re-opened to stabilize though the Egyptian pound continued to drop against the dollar (now at 5.67LE to $1) and Egypt Air posted a whopping 700 million LE (appx $1.2mil) due to "continuing unrest and earthquake in Japan".  

The cabinet may believe that the new law on protesting anywhere that "disrupts business and public life" will help "stabilize" the country to improve the economy and re-assure investors.  The cabinet may also feel that it has received some form of approval or mandate from the overwhelming approval of the referendum on Saturday, March 19.  

The Jan25 Youth Coalition is calling for a new protest on Friday:

In a statement on Thursday, the coalition said protesters will demonstrate their solidarity with the "assaulted university students and to support workers against intimidation attempts through the use of repressive laws, which should have been used to bring those truly corrupt to justice."

The coalition said the new law is "a serious indicator of a political direction that will act as a barrier against any real democracy, which the people have the right to practice.”

 The development of the law banning protests is interesting.  It does seem to state some form of western ideas on protesting that suggests that protesters cannot block roads or business right aways, at least, not without a permit.  The Egyptian law does not seem to provide a method to obtain a legal permit to protest though law under the previous regime did provide for a permit process.  Most of those permits were denied so most Egyptians wanting to protest ignored the process.

While the law seems to suggest that the ruling council or the cabinet (old men) are growing impatient with the continuing turmoil, it also appears that they are somewhat (or very) out of step with the idea of democracy.  In this case, protesting as a form of "free speech" is a feature, not a bug.  Lucky for Egypt, the protests have almost all been relatively non-violent. The Egyptian people have, for the most part, taken to it like a duck on water. 

While the protests might be annoying to some, most of them are causing very little interruption of the larger on going life of the cities and nation.  Frankly, based on the foreign coverage of the situation, there is less concern with the protests and more concern with the political process.  A type of "wait and see if it is really democracy" with big dollops of hope overlaid with a giant portion of skepticism.

With the stock exchange coming back on line yesterday after seven weeks shut down, the losses seem to be less about perceived instability and more about market adjustment after weeks of being closed.  A clue that the cabinet in charge has no real concept about how an economy works and has misinterpreted it's potential future improvement or crash.  In fact, several reports indicate that investment in Egypt is going forward.  At least on the tech side where a major company has purchased an Egypt based tech on the grounds that obviously the very large youth population is getting into tech in a big way.

In this case, the "old men" have apparently over played their  hands, potentially causing more protests and "instability" instead of calming the situation.  That seems to indicate that they aren't all that far removed from Mubarek's regime who tried to quail the protests by cutting off the internet and, instead, issued a form of challenge.  Now that the revolutionaries have issued their own challenge, everyone will be in a "wait and see" position for their response.

It doesn't appear to be long in coming.  Today they issued a statement accepting the amendment to the election laws regarding establishing a political party that seems to actually be very liberal.  It still denies political parties established on religion, but it insists that these parties cannot discriminate based on gender, "origin, language, religion or creed".  This has been another demand of the revolution.

The religious context seems to be a slap at the Muslim Brotherhood who are attempting to establish the "Freedom and Justice Party", but says that the members must be part of the MB.  Obviously, the MB only accepts Muslims.  That is an interesting conundrum. 

However, the MB has other problems indicating some smaller groups are splintering off as predicted even as the MB begins to field it's parliamentary candidates.  It is unclear how they will field these candidates if their party does not meet the new/old guidelines regarding membership.  On the other hand, the revolutionaries are talking about protesting while the MB is already preparing for the elections.  Strangely though, the cabinet's ban on protesting may have given the revolutionaries a second chance at re-engaging the public about civil rights, reasons for the revolution and the ability to re-confirm some alliances to begin their political process for the up coming elections. 

Elections that have become vitally important to the writing of a new constitution.  A new constitution that is now assured by the Supreme Council's guarantee that the old constitution will be thrown out and a completely new one written, disregarding the laws that are in place now to insure the political process going forward.

What is extremely bizarre is to watch this back and forth, one minute rushing towards democracy, the next going totally in the opposite direction.

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