Arrest of Muslim Brotherhood supporters illustrates limits to democracy in Egypt

Neil Hicks [International Policy Advisor, Human Rights First]: "Detaining political opponents is a control mechanism long favored by the Egyptian government. The continuing incarceration of Ayman Nour, apparently for having the temerity to challenge Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election is a case in point. Rounding up supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition political movement, prior to elections has long been a feature of Egypt's political landscape. The current detention of scores of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the run up to local council elections scheduled for April 8, 2008 fits this pattern.

The Muslim Brotherhood, technically banned since 1954, has an idiosyncratic status that reveals much about the political approach of Egypt's ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP), in what is essentially a highly centralized one party state. As an illegal movement, the Brotherhoods' supporters can be detained and prosecuted as and when the government deems it necessary.

The NDP claims to be on the path to political reform in Egypt and to be committed to expanding democracy. In practice, the NDP seeks to manipulate and control the political process. It is happy to give the appearance of the existence of a pluralistic, competitive political system — after all, democracies should have an opposition — but it can tolerate only opposition that exists within boundaries set by the state. The same might be said of the state's attitude to independent non-governmental organizations. It will tolerate the existence of such organizations, but only if they comply with a law on associations that provides the government with control over their activities.

The Muslim Brotherhood's participation in elections, sometimes permitted and sometimes banned, is carefully controlled so as to produce a certain number of votes and victorious candidates for them, but not so many as to challenge the NDP's monopoly on power. The Brotherhood's strong showing in the limited number of seats it was permitted to contest in the 2005 parliamentary election gave the NDP an indication of the strength of its popular support, hence the need to weaken its preparation for the next electoral contest, coming up in April.

In Egypt, political rights and freedoms flow from the state, not from the people. The state grants and denies such privileges (not rights) in accordance with its interests and calculations. This approach is fundamentally at variance with conventional ideas of citizens as rights holders placing concomitant obligations on the state, provided for in international human rights law."

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