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Egyptian police officers carry ballot boxes to a counting center, after polls closed in the Abdeen neighborhood of Cairo, November 28, 2010 (AP)

For a revolution that was deliberately timed to coincide with the country’s National Police Day, it is ironic that Egypt’s repressive security apparatus will determine who will vote. The list of names being prepared by the Ministry of Interior (MOI) aims to identify former convicts but would also include political prisoners who, according to Egyptian law, are registered alongside lawbreakers. In a country where imprisonment is still extensively used to silence dissent, there are concerns this list will serve as an instrument to disenfranchise the very people who helped topple President Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

The lack of transparency has only fueled suspicions. The MOI has refused to comment and a spokesperson for Egypt’s High Electoral Commission confirmed the police database exists but declined to comment on the number of names it contains. With the country’s first post-revolutionary elections only days away, the police have an unchecked monopoly in deciding who will vote and are leaving prospective voters little or no time for appeals. [1]

The lack of trust between Egyptians and their law enforcement agency isn’t new. Haunted by the assassination of his predecessor, Mubarak expanded the role of the police, reactivated the emergency law and cracked down brutally on political opponents. During his thirty-year rule, the number of police personnel rose from 150,000 in 1974 to 1.7 million, making Egyptians the most heavily policed nation on the planet. [2]

But it was Habib El-Adly, Mubarak’s longest serving minister, who took police brutality to new levels. During his tenure, torture was routinely practiced at police stations, human rights lawyers were beaten, women detainees allegedly faced sexual abuse, and Ministry-affiliated thugs acted as a second-tier security force. [3]

After the uprising, the acrimony remained and many accused the police of being vengeful. Acclaimed author Alaa Al-Aswany recalled the situation in an article entitled: “Who can save the Egyptian people from the police?” He described how, for many in the force, the revolution was personal. Officers watched as thugs and criminals attacked citizens, as if to say: “Didn’t you carry out a revolution against police brutality? Well, forget about the police and defend yourselves.” [4]

Egyptian women are checked by a police officer outside a polling station, on their way to vote during the runoff of the parliamentary elections in Cairo, Egypt, December 5, 2010 (AP).

The Minister of Interior has sought to reassure a skeptical public that the institution has abandoned its methods of old by announcing a new police code of honor. Moreover, a spokesperson for the Electoral Commission sought to alleviate voting concerns by pointing out that members of the Muslim Brotherhood, imprisoned during Mubarak’s regime, will participate in the upcoming elections. But as the government released the Islamists from prison, the police referred more than 12,000 civilians, mostly demonstrators, to military tribunals, leaving many unconvinced of any real change. [5]

Since the fall of Mubarak, Egypt’s interim rulers have been accused of partaking in a program of systematic political exclusion.  The constitutional amendments, announced earlier this year, denied Egypt’s Nobel Prize winner, Ahmed Zewail, the chance to run for president. Later, thugs prevented another presidential candidate and Nobel Laureate, Mohamed ElBaradei, from voting in this year’s referendum.  Last month, an Egyptian court disqualified a third presidential hopeful, Ayman Nour, from participation in the elections on the grounds of a previous forgery conviction.

Elliott Abrams of the Council of Foreign Relations, a non-partisan think tank, describes Egypt’s new electoral system as so “ridiculously complex” that it “would confuse a bunch of PhD statisticians, much less an electorate that is about 30 percent illiterate.” Many fear, denial of suffrage for political prisoners may yet be another tool to undermine Egypt’s transition towards democracy. [6]

Egypt’s Political Rights law (number 73 for 1956) is vague on the matter and stipulates that those convicted of felony as well as those serving their prison sentences are banned from voting. Article four extends the prohibition to include lesser crimes that are routinely used by the police to trump up charges against political opponents. Additionally, article 184 of the penal code criminalizes “insulting the military establishment” and article 102 forbids “spreading false information,” leaving ample room for legal maneuvering. [7], [8]

The right to vote is one of the fundamental principles of democracy. Therefore, voter disenfranchisement is a serious attack on human rights and is seen by many as a threat to democracy. As a punishment, denial of suffrage is unjust and confers a notion of “civil death” that is not proportionate to the severity of the offense. The fact that prisoners lose many of their freedoms does not imply they should lose all their rights. In 2002, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned a prior decision forbidding federal prisoners from voting, and this year the U.K. was forced by the European Court of Human Rights to end a blanket ban on prisoner voting. [9]

Disenfranchisement as a means of political suppression has been used by a great number of authoritarian regimes and comes in many forms. The military junta in Burma (Myanmar) barred political prisoners, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, from voting last year in the country’s first general election in two decades. [10]

Left unchecked, and in light of the ongoing bitterness felt toward the police, there is a risk the MOI’s master list of ex-convicts may be used to settle political scores. This could mean excluding Egypt’s political prisoners from participating in the democratic system they suffered so hard to create. As Egyptian revolutionaries risk disenfranchisement, it is ironic to remember that it is the disenfranchised who foment revolutions.

The viewpoint expressed here is the author’s own and is not endorsed by Middle East Voices or Voice of America. If you disagree with the author of this post, you may use our democratic commenting system below. Also, you may e-mail counterpoint@middleeastvoices.com with a short proposal for a Counterpoint. Our policy is to run Counterpoint essays as often as possible. Should our editors accept your proposal, they will be in touch with you on how you can submit your full essay. Once published, a link to your alternative perspective will also be added to the original post.

Tamer Fouad, MD

Tamer Fouad is an Egyptian physician and blogger commenting on political and current affairs in Egypt as well as on the Arab transition towards democracy. He has also published several awareness articles promoting liberalism and free speech on the Muslim Brotherhood's English website Іkhwanweb.com, but is not affiliated with the Brotherhood. Tamer is a regular contributing author on MiddleEastVoices.com.

5 Comments

  1. Fouad, MD

    November 17, 2011

    Thanks Mary for your comment and your kind words. Yes you are correct about the electoral laws. They’re a mess. Regarding disenfranchisement, another thing that I didn’t mention in this article is the issue of disenfranchisement as a consequence of incarceration. Those political prisoners that are still serving there sentences e.g. prominent activists, Alaa AbdelFatah and Maikel Nabil, will not be able to vote if he remains in prison past election day.

    Reply
  2. Yousef

    November 17, 2011

    It is hardly surprising that a country with no staunch elements of democracy is preventing ” a fundamental principle of democracy”. The concept of human rights is yet to be established and cannot be taken for granted in a country that up until not that long ago was ruled by absolutism. The change must be formed within the governmental institutions and the public itself. That kind of change will not happen overnight. We will just have to wait and see how future events will unfold.

    Reply
  3. Mary

    November 17, 2011

    This article is excellent and gives a taste that the fight for democracy is an ongoing process especially dealing with the way citizens think and view their government. Voter disenfranchisement is an important issue that must be addressed especially since historical elections are about to take place in Egypt. Having clearer election laws and process should be discussed further and perhaps implemented in future elections.

    Reply
    • Fouad, MD

      November 17, 2011

      Thanks Mary for your comment and your kind words. Yes you are correct about the electoral laws. They’re a mess. Regarding disenfranchisement, another thing that I didn’t mention in this article is the issue of disenfranchisement as a consequence of incarceration. Those political prisoners that are still serving there sentences e.g. prominent activists, Alaa AbdelFatah and Maikel Nabil, will not be able to vote if he remains in prison past election day.

      Reply

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