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New Egyptian Prime Minister Chosen To Placate Pro-Democracy Demonstrators

Essam Sharaf, the new Prime Mnister of Egypt. Photo/Wikimedia

As Egypt’s military rulers fired their prime minister to head off another huge pro-democracy demonstration in downtown Cairo after Friday prayers, a government fact-finding committee revealed that it has heard testimony that police snipers shot protesters from tops of buildings in Tahrir Square.

The committee’s statement was announced on state TV Thursday, but omitted from the State web site. The committee said that pro-democracy protesters were “injured, killed and intimidated” by figures associated with the Mubarak regime.

The Committee said that police snipers shot protesters from atop the Mugamma, Ramses Hilton hotel, American University of Cairo and Interior Ministry buildings during the height of the Tahrir Square protests.

When asked about authorization, the committee said it had heard from two former senior policemen who said snipers would not fire on protesters without permission from the government, the Washington Post reported. The committee was tasked with investigating oppression during recent protests.

The Committee reportedly talked with around 120 eyewitnesses of the clashes in Cairo and Giza on 28 January. They said police shot protesters with live ammunition, killing some and injuring others.

Some eyewitnesses told the Committee that Mubarak thugs, not protesters, had set the National Democratic Party headquarters on fire, according to the Washington Post.

The committee’s statement also reported that it had viewed a video of two armored police vehicles — one mowing over protesters while the other reversed to hit others.

In other developments, the replacement of Prime Minister Shafiq was expected after members of the pro-democracy movement labeled him a Mubarak “crony.” The Military Council appointed Essam Sharaf, a former transportation minister, to succeed Shafiq and would start forming a new government. The statement was carried on the military’s Facebook page and then confirmed by a military spokesman.

Whether Shafiq’s dismissal would mollify pro-democracy demonstrators remained to be seen. Friday was to be a “Day of Determination.” Protestors would demand a new government, the dissolution of the state security apparatus, a new constitution, and the formation of a civilian presidential council.

Shafiq’s resignation illustrates his unsuccessful efforts to “polish himself while many people dislike him,” according to Cairene Mohammad Gomaa, an international consultant. He told this reporter, “Shafik as an ex-military person thinks that people must stop disturbance; he thinks they should make their requests and then must go home, to let him govern in peace.”

“He was surely very nervous with people asking him to go. He was mostly behind this rough treatment (by the military) that happened Friday night,” Gomaa said.

Many protesters are now saying that they believe the military is moving too slowly in meeting their demands. They are calling for sweeping actions, not minor concessions.

Pro-democracy forces are still furious about the military crackdown last Friday night, when masked police deployed electric prods to chase people out of the square and arrested and detained several protestors.

Demonstrators – especially the young – see the behavior of the police as evidence that the military still doesn’t “get it.”

The task facing Sharaf is daunting. Human Rights First’s Neil Hicks notes:

“It is becoming urgent that the transitional authorities in Egypt demonstrate that they are moving forward in responding to demands for more democracy, more political freedom and a government that responds to the needs of the people.”

Last week, Human Rights First outlined a series of steps to support Egypt’s leaders in achieving a more democratic Egypt and a government more capable of responding to the needs of the Egyptian people. The United States should press for these reforms, which include:

  • Military willingness to share executive power, even in this transitional period, by bringing credible civilian figures who are not tainted by association with the previous regime into an interim executive council. This would indicate the military council’s readiness to submit to civilian rule under a new elected government and revised constitution.
  • Government repeal of repressive legislation including the Emergency Law, laws restricting political parties, and laws that undermine the independence of professional associations and non-governmental organizations.
  • The release of all political prisoners. Reports indicate that not all political prisoners have been released.
  • An end to arbitrary detention and torture. This was a widespread practice under Mubarak and there are reports that the problem is ongoing, though on a much smaller scale.
  • Meaningful progress on Constitutional reform. A review of key parts of the Constitution that must be changed to enable free elections to take place is under way. This process must result in real change soon.
  • Establish an immediate transitional and independent authority to regulate Egypt’s telco and ISP sector. This would create a more stable business climate, ensure the free flow of information and privacy of communications, as well as avert the temptation to use SMS and other services to hack into or malign political opposition.

Chip Pitts, former chief executive of Amnesty USA and a law lecturer at Stanford University, agreed that the tasks facing the new government are monumental and will take some time. He told The Public Record that, while “lifting the emergency laws and releasing political prisoners are the two biggest tasks” facing the new Prime Minister, “There are other urgent tasks the military with others must address.” These include:

(i) Building credibility by fostering broader and better stakeholder engagement” with protesters and opposition leaders and empowering new and more legitimate faces beyond the new PM (the relatively untainted prior transport minister Essam Sharaf), now that Mubarak crony and interim PM Shafik has been forced out, so that the Egyptian people and the international community can be more confident that priority reforms will be implemented more effectively and quickly;

(ii) Settling upon the best approaches to handle the major economic challenges facing the regime and especially the half of the populace living on less than $2 a day (including by repudiating prior methods of corrupt crony capitalism and securing the international technical and financial assistance needed), while avoiding a repeat of the IMF structural adjustment debacle of the 1990s;

(iii) More clearly preparing for truly open and democratic presidential and parliamentary elections to take place later this year as promised;

(iv) Continuing and extending the process of constitutional reform, including adding measures that guarantee pluralism, tolerance, and fundamental human rights for all citizens consistent with the best traditions of Islam — as opposed to debased interpretations that some groups would want to use to justify discrimination against women, homosexuals, and religious or other minorities; and

(v) In addition to “lifting the emergency laws” and removing the formal negative legal and institutional tools of the prior regime (including the secret police and military tribunals), the state and military must immediately reinforce in all conceivable ways the positive state duty to protect citizens and peaceful dissenters, re-establishing the rule of law and preventing crime while avoiding any hint of return to the prior culture of repression.

(As with any hierarchical organization, this requires clear communication from the top, modeling the behavior among the top officers, and implementation through concrete actions on the ground and punishment of those abusing rights).

Less urgent but just as important will be, over the medium and long-term, encouraging use of the newfound freedoms to nurture a strong and vibrant civil society, nongovernmental organizations, authentic political parties and competition, and clear inclusion rather than exclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood (since demonizing the organization based on inaccurate stereotypes will only risk re-radicalizing the group); and ensuring that the accountability processes already started regarding Mubarak and the others most responsible for the corruption and violence against the Egyptian people are brought to meaningful conclusion.

William Fisher, a regular contributor to The Public Record, has managed economic development programs for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere for the past 25 years. He has supervised major multi-year projects for AID in Egypt, where he lived and worked for three years. He returned later with his team to design Egypt’s agricultural strategy. Fisher served in the administration of President John F. Kennedy. He reports on a wide-range of issues for numerous domestic and international newspapers and online journals. He blogs at The World According to Bill Fisher.

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