Old Men’s Guns vs. Civil Rights

We will know in the coming months whether the current “second chance” roadmap to constitutional reform in Egypt achieves that transition to democratic legitimacy that was mismanaged in the two years after the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime.

We will know in the coming months whether the current “second chance” roadmap to constitutional reform in Egypt achieves that transition to democratic legitimacy that was mismanaged in the two years after the overthrow of the Hosni Mubarak regime. Equally significant in the short term is the current tension in Egypt revolving around the growing resistance to the transitional government’s new laws restricting public demonstrations and allowing civilians to be tried in military courts.

Will we see popular forces that brought down the Mubarak government mobilize yet again to oppose the current government’s draconian laws that aim to control and stifle political protests? It is not yet clear if those demonstrators who have taken to the streets in half a dozen Egyptian cities in the past few days represent a wide cross section of the Egyptian population, or only a small stratum of activist progressives. Will Egypt now see its fourth popular revolt against autocracy in the past three years?

The current opposition to the transitional government’s harsh laws and rough behavior was boosted Thursday night around 10 p.m. Cairo time when Interior Ministry police forces stormed the home of Alaa Abdel Fattah, a prominent Egyptian blogger and democracy activist who had been arrested several times since 2006 under each of the last few Egyptian regimes. The police did not even bother to obtain a search warrant, and even though Abdel Fattah had publicly declared that he would turn himself in on Saturday, and confirmed this with a telegram and registered letter to the Public Prosecutor. The police nevertheless attacked his home, beat him and his wife Manal, took both their computers and telephones, and now hold him in detention.

He and April 6th Movement founder Ahmed Maher, who was also arrested, have received the most publicity and have triggered growing protests in the past few days, but their cases are symptomatic of a much deeper problem in Egypt that pertains to the persistent curtailment of citizen rights by the government. All governments seem to do this, from Mubarak to the first transitional government led by the armed forces, to the Muslim Brotherhood government and now back to the second military-led transitional government. Yet Egyptians continue to fight back against such shows of autocratic rule, which in the last week has included arresting dozens of demonstrators, subjecting them to beatings and sexual harassment, torture, firing into peaceful demonstrations in universities and killing students, and sentencing girls and young women to jail terms of up to 14 years for demonstrating in public.

One can only be heartened by the determination of Egyptian citizens and activists to resist the chronic desire of Egypt’s rulers to maintain their citizens in a state of political and personal docility. The twin legacies of the rule of Arab countries by unelected and unaccountable military men and the insistence by Arab citizens on enjoying their full human and civil rights have been continuously confronting each other in Egypt in recent years, especially since 2010. This struggle between the rule of old men with guns and citizens with constitutional rights remains the central battle across the entire Arab world. Alaa Abdel Fattah’s statement on his intent to turn himself into the police testifies powerfully to why activists and ordinary citizens continue to struggle and even die for their rights (thanks to novelist Ahdaf Soueif for her translation). Speaking for several hundred million Arabs, in my view, he notes:

“That I do not recognize the anti-protest law that the people have brought down as promptly as they brought down the monument to the military’s massacres—

“That the legitimacy of the current regime collapsed with the first drop of blood shed in front of the Republican Guard Club—

“That any possibility of saving this legitimacy vanished when the ruling four (Sisi, Beblawi, Ibrahim and Mansour) committed war crimes during the break-up of the Rabaa sit-in—

“That the Public Prosecutor’s Office displayed crass subservience when it provided legal cover for the widest campaign of indiscriminate administrative detention in our modern history, locking up young women, injured people, old people and children, and holding in evidence against them balloons and T-shirts—

“That the clear corruption in the judiciary is to be seen in the overly harsh sentences against students whose crime was their anger at the murder of their comrades, set against light sentences and acquittals for the uniformed murderers of those same young people.”

These are the battle lines of modern Arab statehood and citizenship that have defined our region for over half a century. In the continuing struggle between old men with guns and citizen activists brandishing their constitutional rights, there is no question that constitutionalism must triumph, and the suffocating, humiliating modern Arab legacy of military rule must end. Once again, we look to Egypt to shape and resolve this battle.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

 Copyright © 2013 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global

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