Egypt: Systematic Crackdown Days Before Elections

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Egypt: Systematic Crackdown Days Before Elections

Mass Arrests, Intimidation, Campaign Restrictions Make Fair Outcome Questionable

CAIRO - Egypt has carried out mass arbitrary arrests, wholesale restrictions
on public campaigning, and widespread intimidation of opposition
candidates and activists in the weeks leading up to parliamentary
elections on November 28, 2010, Human Rights Watch said today. In a
report released today, Human Rights Watch argues that the repression
makes free and fair elections unlikely.

The 24-page report, "Elections in Egypt, State
of Permanent Emergency Incompatible with Free and Fair Vote," documents
the vague and subjective criteria in Egypt's Political Parties Law that
allow the government and ruling party to impede formation of new
political parties. Egypt remains under an Emergency Law that since 1981
has given security officials free rein to prohibit or disperse
election-related rallies, demonstrations, and public meetings, and to
detain people indefinitely without charge.

For this election, unlike others over the last 10 years, the
government has drastically limited independent judicial supervision,
following 2007 constitutional amendments that further eroded political
rights. The government has rejected calls for international observers,
insisting that Egyptian civil society organizations will ensure
transparency. As of November 23, however, the main coalitions of
nongovernmental organizations have yet to receive any of the 2,200
permits they have requested to monitor voting and vote counting.

"The combination of restrictive laws, intimidation, and arbitrary
arrests is making it extremely difficult for citizens to choose freely
the people they want to represent them in parliament," said Joe Stork,
deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"Repression by the government makes free and fair elections extremely
unlikely this weekend."

Human Rights Watch is not monitoring the voting or counting process
in the Egyptian elections. As it has elsewhere, it is focusing on
documenting systematic violations of the right to freedom of expression,
assembly, and association - rights that are fundamental to free and
fair elections.

Mass Arrests of Opposition Activists, Disruption of Campaigns
Since the Muslim Brotherhood announced on October 9 that its members
would run for 30 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly as
independents, security officers have rounded up hundreds of Brotherhood
members, mostly supporters who were handing out flyers or putting up
posters for the candidates. On November 24, Abdelmoneim Maqsud, the
group's chief lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that security forces had
so far arrested 1,306 Muslim Brotherhood members, including five
candidates, brought 702 before prosecutors, releasing the rest and
detained two under the emergency law. The government contends that the
group's activities violate Egyptian laws prohibiting political
activities with a religious reference point.

Human Rights Watch interviewed separately 14 Muslim Brotherhood
supporters from one Alexandrian and three Cairo constituencies. They
gave consistent accounts of having been arrested after taking part in
traditional election campaign activities - participating in a campaign
tour, distributing flyers in support of a candidate, or putting up
campaign posters. Uniformed police, often accompanied by plainclothes
State Security officers, have blocked or dispersed gatherings by
Brotherhood candidates, sometimes using force to break up marches and
rallies. The intimidation has been especially notable in Alexandria.

"Independent candidates have the same rights to campaign as those of
the ruling party," Stork said. "The timing of these arrests and the
blocking of campaign events make it clear that the purpose of these
arrests is to prevent the political opposition from campaigning
effectively."

Security forces have also targeted other political activists. In
Munufiyya, security officers arrested Khaled Adham, Mohamed Ashraf, and
Ahmed Gaber, three activists with the National Association for Change,
as they were collecting signatures for a petition in support of a
movement for political change led by Mohamed El Baradei, who has led a
coalition of activists demanding an end to the state of emergency and
legal reform. Authorities detained the three men for two-and-a-half
hours, then released them without charge.

Under international law, freedom of expression and association can be
limited only on narrowly defined grounds of public order, and the
restriction must be proportionate to the need. A ban on an organization
solely because of the political positions it holds, and the fact that it
uses a religious framework or espouses religious principles, is not a
legitimate reason to limit freedom of association and expression under
international human rights law.

A government may legitimately ban a party that uses or promotes
violence, but the government's allegations that such an action is needed
must meet a high standard of factual proof. In addition, authorities
may arrest and detain individuals responsible for specific criminal
acts, but not for mere membership in, or support for, a political
organization that the government has decided to outlaw.

Lack of Independent Supervision, Failure to Issue Monitoring Permits for Civil Society Groups
Constitutional amendments in 2007 drastically reduced judicial
supervision of elections that the Constitution had previously required. A
2000 Supreme Constitutional Court ruling had provided for full judicial
supervision of every polling place, but the 2007 amendment to article
88 reduced this to supervision by "general committees" in which judicial
presence is limited.

Although Egyptian officials say that Egyptian civil society groups
will monitor the parliamentary elections, a leaked report by the
quasi-official National Council for Human Rights on the June 1, 2010
Shura Council elections cast doubt on that contention. The report
criticized the High Elections Commission, which formally has
responsibility for running the elections, for refusing to issue 3,413 of
the 4,821 monitoring permits requested by Egyptian civil society
organizations for the Shura Council elections.

The High Elections Commission (HEC) announced on November 22 that it
would issue permits for the parliamentary elections, and some
organizations received a small percentage of the permits they had
requested. But as of November 24, one of the two main coalitions, which
includes the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights and the Centre for
Trade Union and Workers Services, has not received a response to its
request for 1,113 monitoring permits. Another coalition including the
Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, the Cairo
Institute for Human Rights Studies, and Nazra has received no response
to its request for 1,116 permits. The commission also stipulated that
the monitors' access to polling sites would be subject to the permission
of the person in charge of each polling place and that photography was
prohibited.

"The Egyptian government has repeatedly rejected calls to allow
international observers in as interference, insisting instead that
Egyptian civil society will monitor," Stork said. "Yet four days before
the elections, 123 organizations in two of the main monitoring
coalitions have yet to receive a single one of the 2,229 permits they
requested."

Failure to Carry out Court Orders to Reinstate Candidates
On November 16, an administrative court ordered the reinstatement of
dozens of candidates whose candidacies had been rejected by the
elections commission. On November 17, the commission said on its web
site that the decision should be carried out. But the Interior Ministry
would have to issue formal permission, which it had not done as of
November 23.

The Interior Ministry has refused to implement administrative court
orders while appeals are in process. Maj. Gen. Refaat Qomsan, an
official from the Interior Ministry's elections bureau, told Human
Rights Watch that it had reinstated 64 candidates overall. He said the
ministry "has no objection to executing any order" but that "there could
very well be an appeal by anyone with interests in the cases."

Ahmad Fawzy, from the Egyptian Association for Community
Participation Enhancement, told Human Rights Watch that the ministry
should implement these court orders immediately because only an
administrative court can order a stay, and appeals are being filed
before courts not competent to hear them. In his view this rationale
reflected an official strategy to delay implementation.

Hafez Abu Saada, of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, told
Human Rights Watch that, in all, 350 candidates had been eliminated and
reinstated by the court, but that he knew of only one of them who had
been given permission to run by the Interior Ministry. Of the candidates
left in limbo, about 14 are Muslim Brotherhood candidates. In
Alexandria, four of eight Muslim Brotherhood candidates reinstated by
the court have been unable to obtain a candidate number and symbol to
confirm that they are on the ballot, Sobhi Saleh, a member of parliament
associated with the Brotherhood, told Human Rights Watch.

Harassment of Journalists
On November 21, security officers detained for a half hour four
reporters covering a Muslim Brotherhood candidate's campaign walk in the
northern Cairo suburb of Shubra al-Kheima. A female journalist who
asked not to be named told Human Rights Watch that a state security
officer stopped the group and told her she needed permission to cover
any campaign activities and that she should check in with police when
out in the field.

Ashraf Khalil, a reporter for Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, told Human
Rights Watch that the officer told the group they needed special
permission to cover events in the street. Khalil later wrote in Al Masry
Al-Youm: "It was more annoying than intimidating, more bureaucratic
than bullying. But what happened to me and several journalistic
colleagues Sunday night was a clear window into the type of petty
harassment the regime routinely employs to shrink the local political
playing field and limit the activities of foreign journalists."

At a November 22 news conference in Cairo, Qomsan told journalists:
"When you involve yourself in the conflicts of the candidates and if
those conflicts breach the law, we will respond and you might get caught
up. We are keen on enabling everyone to do their jobs. However, we are
very cautious to prevent acts of violence that may be triggered by
supporters of candidates."

None of the reporters who were detained in Shubra said they were
threatened by campaign activists or supporters or that they needed
protection from security officials.

"Rather than theorize about reporters getting caught up in possible
conflicts, Egypt should give journalists open access to public events
without intimidation so they can do their jobs," Stork said.

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