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 Center 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.
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 agency.
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 a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy and an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, where she teaches national security and Middle East law. She is also a member of the Egyptian American Rule of Law Association. This article was initially published by the Huffington Post on May 23, 2012.