Sheldon Chumir Foundation
The Egyptian government’s crackdown on citizens demonstrating for their rights and freedoms serves to remind us of the importance of the Rule of Law to a well functioning society.
We intuitively know that the Rule of Law is essential to good governance, but exactly how and why this is so is not so easy to spell out. By applying Rule of Law principles to what’s happening in Egypt, we begin to see what the Rule of Law should, and should not, amount to in practice.
Rule of Law principles
The World Justice Project (WJP) has identified four principles for assessing whether a governance system conforms to Rule of Law standards. Let’s consider only these two. First, laws should protect, amongst other things, fundamental rights, including personal security and property. Second, laws must be fairly enforced.
What do we see in Egypt?
Police disappeared from many Egyptian communities after the first few days of demonstrations. While we are told that many police officers sympathize with the protesters, that cannot explain their widespread disappearance. They must have been ordered to withdraw. That withdrawal dramatically increased Egyptians’ anxiety and sense of insecurity.
We were also told this is exactly the result authorities desired – to strike fear of looting and other criminality in the hearts of citizens so they will want law enforcement back, even at the price of stifling dissent.
Manipulating law enforcement to achieve such a purpose is clearly unfair and a gross violation of the Rule of Law: security of the person and of property is not to be sacrificed for political gain.
Order – in the sense of preventing criminality – must always be maintained. Nothing good can ever come from abandoning ordinary citizens to lawlessness, and deliberately inducing chaos to suppress free expression, assembly and association is never defensible.
The first WJP principle cited above requires the legal protection of “fundamental rights.” Fundamental rights can mean many different things, for example the right to clean water. But WJP focuses on the civil and political rights “that are firmly established under international law and bear the most immediate relationship to rule of law concerns,” including freedom of opinion, expression, assembly and association.
Of course, as the legions of political prisoners and victims of torture in that country can attest, there has been no such guarantee under Egypt’s repressive dictatorship. Indeed, repressive dictatorship is the antithesis of the Rule of Law. Even if dictators adhere to the rules they put in place – and why should they since they make them? – the best we might have is Rule by Law. But this is not Rule of Law.
Shortly after Vladimir Putin became president of Russia in 2000, he endorsed establishment of the Rule of Law in that country, which he revealingly referred to as “dictatorship of law.” But the Rule of Law is not a dictatorial mechanism. It is a concept about the role that law plays in societies where the state is meant to serve the people. It is an enabling concept: law should be used to nurture the democratic aspirations of the citizenry not repress them.
In any well functional society, it is necessary to maintain order so that people can get on with their lives. But maintaining order for its own sake without any respect for fundamental rights and freedoms is illegitimate. Law as a means to maintaining order is a key component of the Rule of Law, but law and law enforcement aimed at suppressing legitimate dissent is not.
Canadians must protect our Rule of Law
Sadly, it is not only notorious dictatorships such as Egypt and virtual dictatorships such as Russia that get the Rule of Law wrong. As the policing disasters during the G20 in Toronto last year illustrate, failure to maintain order – where were the police during the outbreak of looting? – together with vicious attacks on protesters and adoption of repressive, and probably illegal, regulations can occur even in a well-established democracy such as Canada.
If good governance is ever to take hold in Egypt, it will have to develop institutions that guarantee genuine Rule of Law. But outside observers will have to be realistic about the lengthy and complex effort required to accomplish the job. Individual Canadians should support Egyptians’ democratic aspirations, call upon the Canadian government to fund technical assistance on development of the Rule of Law in Egypt and commit to keeping our own freedoms and institutions as strong as they can be.
We won’t be any use to others if we let our own Rule of Law deteriorate.
Janet Keeping is a lawyer and president of the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.