Egypt is undergoing a period of enormous promise and citizen
empowerment. For the first time in its history, Egyptians are electing
their president through a relatively fair and free process. The mood in
the streets is electrifying as people from all walks of life feel
vested in their country's future. Despite the bumpy post-revolution
road, Egyptians deserve to be acclaimed for their perseverance and
commitment to democracy.
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. Without
accurate information, Egyptians cannot adequately stop the rampant
corruption debilitating the nation's economy and political system. Nor
can the media serve as an effective check on government abuse.
Secrecy is anathema to democracy. Government dealings shrouded in
secrecy was Mubarak's modus operandi, and it ultimately led to pervasive
corruption and colossal embezzlement of state resources. Thus, Egypt
must enact a freedom of information law that guarantees citizens access
to information about their government's dealings and public spending.
For centuries, the norm has been prohibition rather than access to
information. Indeed, the law stymied transparency -- leading to
unchecked and undetectable corruption. Soon before the January 25th
Revolution, a survey by the Egyptian Information and Decision Support
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.
Such perceptions were reinforced by media reports exposing corrupt
land sales, corrupt licensing deals, and embezzlement by prominent
members of Egypt's former government who amassed staggering wealth.
Thus, a freedom of information law, currently nonexistent, is an
indispensable tool in bolstering the transparency of government
decisions and increasing investor confidence in Egypt's economy. In
light of Egypt's rapidly dwindling foreign currency reserves and pending
economic crisis, anti-corruption measures are no longer a luxury. They
are imperative to the nation's survival.
At least 90 countries worldwide
have enacted freedom of information laws -- over half of them within
the last 15 years. Although Egypt's circumstances are unique, best
practices from similarly situated countries offer valuable lessons.
The most common flaw in freedom of information laws is exclusion of
entire agencies and classes of information based on overly broad
national security claims. India's experience, however, provides a
cautionary tale. India excluded some public bodies in their entirety
from the scope of the law, resulting in the unintended consequence of
concealing important information that exposes corruption. India's
freedom of information law excluded intelligence and security agencies
for the purpose of protecting sensitive security information. India's
government abused this exemption when advocates sought information
regarding corrupt practices within India's Central Bureau of
Investigation -- the government categorically denied the request even
though it was unrelated to national security.
The Egyptian government has proposed a draft law that would exclude
national security agencies from public scrutiny. Supporters of the
draft law raise the specter of national security cower the population
into giving up their right to information about their government's
dealings. But in light of the 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.
In addition, Egypt should 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 to the public.
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 40 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 26 percent, 60 percent of Egyptians
are 30 years old or younger and widespread use of the Internet occurred
throughout the Revolution on Facebook and Twitter. For that reason,
posting affirmative disclosures on the internet in Egypt may also prove
effective, especially as Egypt considers implementing programs to expand
internet access throughout the country.
Freedom of information laws can easily be nullified by overly broad
exemptions. Thus, exemptions should be narrowly tailored to prevent its
circumvention by agencies. Poorly crafted exemptions could lead to an
over-classification of information as exempt, leaving Egyptians in the
dark about their government's dealings. Thus, only when information
harms specified interests, such as national security or privacy
interests and such harm outweighs the public's interest in having the
information, should the information be exempted
Without an independent and multi-tiered review process, freedom of
information laws are futile. A three-tier review process contemplates
initial review by a senior official within the agency where the
information is being requested, intermediate review by an independent
oversight body, such as an information commission, and judicial review
to serve as a check against corruption and incompetence within an
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 a track toward a
more equitable and prosperous nation.
For the Egyptian Revolution to succeed, knowledge must trump ignorance.
Sahar Aziz is an Associate Professor of Law at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law where she teaches national security and civil rights. She is the author of From the Oppressed to the Terrorist: American Muslim Women Caught in the Crosshairs of Intersectionality. Ms. Aziz is also a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
This article was published in the Huffington Post on May 23, 2012. Read it here.