Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Deliberalizing Egypt

This is something I wrote back in June but forgot to post. It's about America's role in retarding the growth of secular democracy in the Middle East, primarily in Egypt.

Deliberalizing Egypt

During the 2005 presidential election, 20 year incumbent Hosny Mubarak won by a landslide. This could be interpreted as, given the chance to freely elect their president, a general consensus of Egyptians favor stability and continuity during these uncertain times.

The problem is this was neither a free election nor was there consensus. Only about 20% of those eligible to vote actually turned out on Election Day, and the opposition consisted of little more than a couple of hog-tied competitors. The degree of apathy in regard to the first presidential election in Egypt shows how far the country still has to come to have a serious and active political life.

There is, however, a lot more discussion about politics these days. The run-up to the election saw unprecedented public political activity in Egypt. There was a vocal opposition, demonstrators regularly filled the streets, and many felt a new freedom to openly air their views on both the ruling National Democratic Party and President Mubarak. Neither of the two faired particularly well. So why didn't these parties do better in either the presidential or parliamentary elections that followed them closely

People frequently cite the fact that the only viable opposition to Mubarak is the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. The secular opposition, consisting mostly of socialists and communists, hardly won a seat at all in the parliamentary elections, while the Muslim Brotherhood won almost a quarter of the seats. This is not enough to change any laws, but it will change the nature of parliamentary discussions. What happened to the secular parties in Egypt, the state that was once the vanguard of secular pan-Arab socialist movement?

Secularism has been perhaps one of the biggest victims of the past 30 years of rule first by Anwar Sadat and Hosny Mubarak. Sadat was the first to lift restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood, which was persecuted mercilessly by Gamal Abdel Nasser. Sadat used the Muslim Brotherhood to help weaken the secular parties, especially the Nasserites, and consolidate his hold on power. He called himself the Believer President, and had himself frequently photographed praying. This strategy came back to haunt him, as more extreme Islamic groups ended up assassinating him for signing a peace treaty with Israel.

Mubarak came to power and hit at the Islamic parties with a vengeance, while continuing to whittle away any support to room for maneuver by the secular parties. When faced with a growing popular Islamic resurgence in the country, Mubarak's government soon embraced much of the language of the political Islamist groups. With official government sanction for the primary role of religion in public life, politics thrived in Egypt's mosques and religious institutions, including government television stations, while the secular parties suffered under Mubarak's emergency laws and political restrictions, without any similar recourse to public activity like the Islamic groups had.

Many people I talked to, including a range of political and human rights activists, academics and a few ex-government officials, now see this as a deliberate strategy on the part of the Mubarak regime. Most observers felt that the Egyptian government has consistently thwarted the development of any secular alternative to the ruling NDP, ranging to restrictive laws concerning the establishment of non-governmental organizations to heavy-handed suppression of any public or even private dissent. While religious organizations thrived through the social services they provide and the official and unofficial mosques and religious training institutes, the secular opposition was completely eviscerated.

The logic of this was to leave the government, itself increasingly religious and illiberal, in the position of guardian of Egypt's liberal secular tradition, along with it's ties to the United States. What this meant in the recent elections was that voters and foreign supporters of Egypt, most notably the United States, were left with two real choices: the current ruling party or the largely undefined political and social platform of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This strategy has worked amazing well, according to most of the people I talked to. It is important first to highlight the role that many people give to the United States in Egypt's recent short lived political liberalization. It's amazing how many discussions of reform and democratization in Egypt center on the United States. Most people credit American pressure for both the changes to the law governing the election of the president and the parliamentary elections. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that most people appear to view this American pressure as the primary factor in the recent political opening in Egypt.

But this acknowledgment of the role of American pressure in cracking open political life in Egypt has turned to deep anger and disappointment at America's failure to follow through it's tough words with support for the opposition. In short, when faced with the possibility of significant gains by the Muslim Brotherhood, America got cold feet. The starkest evidence of this was the change in Condoleeza Rice's tone during her past two trips to Egypt.

In the first trip, prior to the presidential election, Rice gave a speech at the American University in Cairo in which she said,

"The Egyptian Government must fulfill the promise it has made to its people -- and to the entire world -- by giving its citizens the freedom to choose. Egypt’s elections, including the Parliamentary elections, must meet objective standards that define every free election. Opposition groups must be free to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media. Voting should occur without violence or intimidation. And international election monitors and observers must have unrestricted access to do their jobs. "

On a return trip Rice called Presdent Mubarak, "a wise man" and "a good friend of the United States." She spoke of "disappointments" and "setbacks" in the Egyptian reform process, but said next to nothing about the violence and intimidation that accompanied the elections, nor the of the brutal crackdown on demonstrations since the elections ended. She said next to nothing about the opposition parties, like al-Ghad, that were not free to assemble and participate in these elections, and were in fact instead targeted with legal actions and ugly smear campaigns in the semi-official press.

What happened to the American project of democracy? A good indicator of what America wants out of the Greater Middle East comes out clearly in the Administration's defense of America's strategic relationship with Egypt.

When Congress threatened to withhold American aid to Egypt in response to it's failure to reform and democratize Assistant Secretary of State David Welch said Cairo was a pivotal American partner, assisting in the American efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, pressuring Hamas and playing a leading role in the Israel-Palestine Issue and providing troops for Sudan's Darfur region. "Their role is irreplaceable and critical in many instances," Welch told a sub-committee of the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations," reported Reuters Alertnet. Alertnet reports that, Senior State Department official Michael Coulter said "military aid, which accounts for more than half of total assistance, had paid "high dividends" in many areas, including Egypt's commitment to trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

In other words, forced to chose between democracies that might stop the high level cooperation on a myriad of American policies in the region and dictatorships that will continue to repress their people in pursuit of American, as opposed to Arab, interests, America will chose the dictatorship.

So goes the process of reform in the Middle East.


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