Egypt is going through a period of enormous promise through citizen empowerment, writes Sahar Aziz in this guest post. But for Egypt to achieve sustainable democracy, many reforms remain to be implemented, the most important of which is public access to information that permits meaningful government accountability.
Secrecy is anathema to democracy. Government dealings shrouded in secrecy were central to Mubarak’s modus operandi, and ultimately led to pervasive corruption and widespread embezzlement of state resources. As detailed in a recent report by the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association, Freedom of Information Legislation: Best Practices for Egypt, the country must enact freedom of information laws that guarantee citizens access to information about the government’s dealings and spending.
For centuries, the norm has been prohibition rather than access to information. Indeed, the law stymied transparency—leading to unchecked and undetectable corruption. A survey conducted just prior to the 25 January revolution by the Egyptian Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC) found that more than 94 percent of Egyptians believed corruption was a serious problem in their country, and 70 percent believed corruption had increased from the previous year.
At least 90 countries worldwide have enacted freedom of information laws—over half of them within the last fifteen years. Although Egypt’s circumstances are understandably unique, best practices from countries with similar profiles and predicaments offer valuable lessons.
The country’s parliament is currently debating the passage of Egypt’s first ever freedom of information law. A coalition of human rights organizations and journalists led by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) have submitted an exhaustive bill that incorporates international best practices. A second bill submitted by the nonprofit United Group is considered a middle of the road bill that is not as restrictive as the government’s bill, but at the same time does not go far enough in ensuring exemptions cannot be abused by the government.
Unsurprisingly, the executive branch has proposed the most restrictive draft law that would exclude national security agencies from public scrutiny. Supporters of the draft law raise the specter of national security in order to intimidate the population into giving up their right to information about their government’s dealings. But in light of Egypt’s appalling record of torture and disappearances of political dissidents, excluding the security agencies would be a fatal blow to human rights in Egypt.
Currently, parliament is debating which bill should be the starting point for deliberation. Based on the experience of India and other developing countries, as highlighted in a recent report Freedom of Information Legislation: Best Practices for Egypt, the country would be well served to adopt the bill proposed by civil society organizations. To effectively counter endemic corruption, the law must be comprehensive and coupled with the appropriate and adequate enforcement mechanisms to allow for meaningful transparency.
Egypt’s new law should also require non-public bodies engaged in public functions to comply with freedom of information laws. Because private companies are increasingly assuming roles traditionally performed by government, requiring them to disclose information is necessary to achieve full transparency. Some argue, however, that requiring non-public bodies to comply may discourage private investment in those functions due to the costs of compliance.
Ultimately, Egyptians must weigh the significant gains from reduced corruption, which promotes private investment, with the inconveniences of record keeping and reporting imposed on the private sector. ??To promote greater confidence and trust in government, Egypt’s parliament should also require the executive branch to voluntarily publish a broad range of information to Egyptian citizens. Among other things, disclosures should include operational information relating to the activities and procedures of government agencies, lists, registers, databases, and budget information. Salaries and other benefits of government officials should also be disclosed publicly.
The disclosures must be available in a format readily accessible to Egyptians. The experience of Mexico is informative. Because Mexico has a 93 percent literacy rate and an internet penetration rate of almost forty percent, consolidating affirmative disclosures on a web site is cheap and effective. Even though Egypt’s literacy rate is 66 percent and internet penetration rate is twenty-six percent, a staggering 60 percent of the population is thirty years old or younger. For that reason, posting affirmative disclosures on the internet may also prove effective, especially as Egypt considers implementing programs to expand internet access throughout the country.
Egyptians have the right to be involved in the affairs of their government. Not only does access to information enhance Egyptians’ participation in government, but it also sets Egypt on the track towards a more equitable and prosperous country. For the Egyptian revolution to succeed, knowledge must trump ignorance.
This is an edited extract of a longer article available here.
The Center for International Private Enterprise engages Egypt’s private sector in the democratic process by strengthening business associations and enabling civic participation and entrepreneurship. CIPE and its local partners enhance transparency and accountability by building institutions of corporate governance and organizing private sector initiatives to counter corruption. CIPE’s programs in Egypt are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy and the U.S. Agency for International Development.