Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Three steps toward freedom in Egypt

Here is an Oped by my department chair.

By Jennifer Bremer
February 16, 2011, 12:48 am

Egypt has started down the road to truly momentous reform, but reformers will find that road blocked unless three barriers are removed, and soon.

First, state approval to form political parties must be suspended for at least six months. In principle, such approval should be eliminated altogether, but first things first. Egypt cannot hold elections without real parties that can field candidates nationwide and compete for popular support. Right now, Egypt has no real political parties at all. Instead, it has an odd-ball assortment of handicapped and moribund groups, each dysfunctional in its own way.

The largest official party, the National Democratic Party, has been a creature of the regime from its very creation. Mubarak’s departure has hopefully put a stop to the NDP’s alarming evolution toward a quasi-fascist machine linking regime-dependent businessmen, party apparatchiks, tame intellectuals, and government officials.

This is not the time to ban the NDP or its members, however. Whatever the sins of the party leaders, the NDP, like the Chinese Communist Party and Iraq’s old Baathist party, attracted many capable and dedicated people looking to get on the inside track or, more rarely, to promote policy reform.

Many will no doubt move adroitly to distance themselves from the NDP. Their emergence in successor parties is to be welcomed, not shunned: this is the time for unity, not de-Baathification-on-the-Nile. Ex-NDP-ers who were not themselves involved in illegal or corrupt acts can bring knowledge, governing experience, and (yes) patriotism to new political groupings. There will be time later for a truth and reconciliation process, if need be.

What matters most in the coming months is that the process be truly open. This means letting not only former NDP-ers but also Muslim Brothers into the process. The Ikhwan, a party in all but law, is the only such grouping with a legitimate mass following. It cannot be kept outside the process if there is to be hope for real democracy in the Middle East’s largest nation.

The second urgent priority is to suspend state control over the formation, funding, and governance of civil associations of all kinds, including NGOs and professional syndicates. Never has there been a more urgent need to foster free exchange of ideas and information among Egyptians.

Ultimately, the whole NGO law should be rewritten, if not abolished altogether. For now, NGOs should be permitted simply to register under the companies law as non-profit corporations, as some have done in the past to avoid the repressive associations law. The one-stop-shop should accept and process such applications on an accelerated basis.

Both state approval for external funding to NGOs and state authority to approve or name board members should also be suspended. Under current regulations, NGOs must get approval for any foreign funding, even support from well-known foundations for utterly innocuous apolitical activities. Approval can take months or be denied for frivolous reasons or no reason at all.

It is meaningless to allow NGOs to open up if they cannot go after funds to do their work. Egypt’s security faces much greater threats from the social ills that NGOs tackle than from any type of social activism.

The syndicates should be freed up as well. They have historically served as independent reform voices in Egypt and across the Middle East. The Mubarak regime crippled and repressed these bodies, particularly following elections of Ikhwan-dominated boards at several syndicates. It is time to hold syndicates accountable for their performance and to end ex-ante censorship.

Third, the Higher Council should suspend state control over public polls and surveys. Policy-making during this critical period must be able to benefit from solid information on the public’s opinions, their problems, and, simply, what is happening. At present, a researcher who conducts a survey in public without state approval quite literally risks prison. No wonder reliable information to guide policy is notoriously scarce.

How to achieve all this without a legislature? Well, one advantage of being a successor state to the Ottoman Empire, like Egypt, is that senior government leaders have very broad authority to issue decrees with all the force of law.

While over-reliance on decrees has self-evident weaknesses, a recent assessment of Middle East public governance reform found using decrees could speed reform and encourage experimentation, improving later legislation. Now is a time to foster experimentations, if ever there was one.

Jennifer Bremer
chairs the Department of Public Policy and Administration in the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.

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