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Egypt’s dissidents held down by law

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Special to The Times

Days before Monday’s elections for the upper chamber of the Egyptian parliament, 17 of 19 Islamist opposition candidates were summoned to court and questioned under a newly approved constitutional amendment barring political candidates from using religious slogans.

Critics said the arrests further stacked the deck in favor of pro-government candidates in an election in which low voter turnout was expected and with an outcome -- which should be officially announced this week -- that was a foregone conclusion.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. June 13, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 13, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Egyptian elections: An article and caption in Tuesday’s Section A about the treatment of dissidents in Egypt said 17 opposition candidates were arrested. They were not arrested but were summoned to a hearing held by an election commission.

Critics also said that laws stifling political dissent had long been the norm in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. This latest law, they said, is used as a blunt instrument to stifle popular will rather than further people’s aspirations.

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Legal tradition

“Everyone fears they can be arrested at any time for anything,” said Nasser Amin, an Egyptian lawyer who heads the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, an advocacy group. “It makes people lose faith in the law, judges and justice.”

Egypt has long been the Arab world’s wellspring for legal thought and theory. The region’s greatest jurists and lawmakers studied in Cairo. Over the decades, Egypt’s laws, based on a combination of French and Islamic legal codes, have been exported to Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Yemen.

Critics, including domestic opposition figures, human rights groups and the U.S. State Department, said that Egypt’s leaders had abused the law to consolidate power rather than serve the common good, buttressing a brutal state security apparatus that has at times resorted to violence when legal maneuvers fail.

Last week’s action against election opponents of President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party is rooted in the manipulation of laws that began more than 50 years ago after Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser took power following a 1952 coup d’etat.

Nasser and his ruling junta banned the Muslim Brotherhood, a decades-old Islamist group that continues to have strong support among some Egyptians, and all other political parties but their own. His regime also outlawed the formation of new parties on the grounds that the country had undergone a revolution, faced dire threats and had to suspend laws.

Critics said the rule of law suffered further after the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat. His prodigy, Hosni Mubarak, who took over as president, began to use the law “not just to control, but to punish” Egyptian society, Amin said.

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Mubarak’s government detained opponents without trial under a state of emergency that continues to this day and referred dissidents to special state security courts. There were no appeals. The convicted could beg for amnesty from only Mubarak.

“This was an attempt to get the opposition to kneel down before the president,” Amin said.

Still, independent-minded judges have often acquitted those arrested for political reasons.

Government supporters defended laws such as the restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood as necessary to protect the state. “I think these laws came to protect the civility of the state and the civil society against attempts to mix religion with politics,” said Majdi Daqqaq, a journalist and one of Mubarak’s most outspoken supporters. “The Muslim Brotherhood has a secret [agenda]. They want to establish an Islamic caliphate, and they have secret militias.”

He described widespread domestic and international criticism of Egyptian elections as sour grapes by opponents of Mubarak.

‘Needs of the society’

“Those who say that laws are made to serve the ruling party are saying that because they wanted the laws to serve their own interests,” he said. “In fact, laws are not made to serve the ruler or any particular party but to respond to certain needs of the society.”

But the Mubarak-controlled parliament has also enacted laws meant to control Egypt’s nonreligious opposition political groups and figures. For example, one law requires trade associations to have huge quorums for a meeting of the group’s leaders to take place, in effect making it impossible for them to get any business done.

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A press law lists 30-some forbidden topics for journalists, including insulting Mubarak or a foreign leader. A 1999 law requires government approval before a nonprofit group can form or receive foreign donations.

Other Arab countries have emulated these steps. Yemen passed a similar law targeting nonprofit groups in 2001, Jordan in 2002.

Egypt moved toward democracy and reform in 2000 when it allowed judicial control of legislative elections, but balked when candidates representing the Muslim Brotherhood began winning. Security forces began arresting and beating supporters of the Brotherhood and blocking voters from entering polling stations in certain districts.

Still, the opposition fared better than expected.

For the 2005 elections, Mubarak loyalists in parliament voted to create an electoral commission headed by presidential appointees. It excluded independent judges from the list of election monitors, critics said.

Judiciary excluded

But again, the Muslim Brotherhood fared even better than in 2000.

For Monday’s elections, new strictures were set, including the amendment barring candidates from using religious slogans. The sometimes-feisty judiciary was also removed from its role of supervising the vote.

“The disclosure of electoral fraud during the last elections was why judges have been kept away from monitoring the elections,” said Mahmoud Mekki, a prominent judge who serves on the country’s highest appellate court.

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The changes were approved by a popular referendum in which the government reported a turnout of more than 20%, but which independent analysts put at no more than 5%.

The ruling party invoked the religious campaigning law when it filed a complaint last week against the 17 candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has pointed out that Egypt’s legal system itself is based in part on religious law.

“I was summoned and charged with distributing leaflets with religious slogans,” said Assayed Ibrahim Saleh, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate running for office in the Ossim district, 15 miles west of central Cairo. “They didn’t allow me to post any banners. I posted two banners, and they were removed. I wasn’t allowed to photocopy any campaign material.”

Yet signs of independence continue to bubble to the surface. The very election commission Mubarak created agreed to consider sanctions against only eight of the 17 candidates accused of using religious slogans. And all eight were later cleared of charges.

Saleh said he was watched and harassed by security forces from the time he filed his papers to run. More than 100 of his supporters were detained.

Phalanxes of state security guards and riot police stood in front of polling stations in opposition strongholds. “When I came here to vote they said, ‘No, you cannot go inside,’ ” said Tarek Mohammed Hamed, who came to vote in Ossim for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate. “They said, ‘There are no elections now.’ ”

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daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi is a Times staff writer and El Hennawy a special correspondent.

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