Friday, June 09, 2006

Waiting for change

Walking along Talat Harb street last Thursday, I saw four large trucks filled with black-clad Egyptian security forces, stuffed maybe 25-30 to a truck, and a fifth filled with plain-clothes security agents. As I walked further along, towards the American University, and later across Tahrir Square, I saw more trucks filled with security forces, all of them parked in the sun, the guys suffering from the sweltering heat.

These security forces were deployed along the outside of Tahrir Square since last month's demonstrations shook the regime. The demonstrations were in support for calls by the Judges Syndicate to restore the independence of the judiciary, after the government began prosecuting two judges for reporting various forms of election rigging in this year’s legislative elections.

Many guys in the security forces have no idea what they are doing when they are sent to break up demonstrations. Many are half-literate peasants plucked from the country-side and dropped in the middle of Cairo. They likely don’t know what the demonstrators are doing or why they are there. But the ones who are ordering them to break up the demonstrations know what is being protested.

“People are angry and disappointed” at the past years failed reform initiatives emanating from Egypt’s ruling party, said one former government official, referring to the country’s educated and intellectual classes. They are tired of rulers who have consistently lead Egypt to underperform, both at home and abroad. Perhaps most of all, they are tired of corruption.

A lot of people took hope that Egypt’s proposed constitutional amendment to begin direct elections of the president, instead of a simple yes or no referendum on the current president, might actually initiate some change. But the amendment was “put in chains” to ensure that the only possible candidate was either the president or his hand-picked successor, says one political analyst here. The unexpectedly vigorous opposition to the president and the growth of the internet has scared guardians of the regime, says another, adding, “Egypt is a security regime, and they feel they are loosing control of the situation.” Their response, he says, “is to crack down harder and more brutally on dissent.”

Despite the very thin veneer of democracy that exists in Egypt, “the country is ruled by a dictator,” said another Egyptian, “a dictator has to rule through corruption to ensure his survival, as those who benefit will always rally around him to save their own position.” “Have you ever seen a cat leave a fish,” is how he summed up the results of the past few decades of political life in Egypt.

There was also disappointment in the United States, again. Many people felt that the constitutional amendment was in large part the result of American pressure on Egypt to show the way towards democratic reform in the region. That, in fact, it did. Weak American criticism of the presidential elections, the later parliamentary elections and the crackdown on demonstrators has shown that, “the US has decided to keep a dictator who can use a heavy hand to keep things stable.” The American democracy debate appears more and more to be just another tool to pressure governments in the region to toe the American line, rather than a real effort to let people chose who is going to rule them and how.

As I walked past the security forces on Thursday some of them smiled and waved to me from inside the metal boxes they had been cooking in for hours. What does democracy and human rights mean to these guys? Do they care about American pressure or criticism of the regime? Do they wake up the day after they’ve beaten the young men and women demonstrating for change and start to think, “enough.” Probably not yet, which is a shame, because it looks like real reform in Egypt won’t happen until they do.


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