Wednesday, November 03, 2010

In Egypt, Does Anything Ever Change?

By William Fisher

In the face of police brutality, crackdowns on political parties, closing of media, arrests of citizen journalists, and a host of other violations ahead of Egypt’s Nov 28th parliamentary election, human rights advocates are calling on U.S. President Barack Obama to use American leverage to persuade Egypt to reform its electoral process, allow international monitors to assess the election, and conduct transparent and accountable balloting.

The Egyptian parliamentary election – and the presidential election to follow in September 2011 – will play out against a background of years of police brutality and political corruption, buttressed by a so-called Emergency Law. That law, which has been in effect for three decades, gives police and security services sweeping powers to arrest and detain with little or no due process.

But Administration critics say President Obama and his advisors have become too dependent on Egypt for its help to Israel regarding illegal smuggling from the Egyptian desert into Gaza, and helping maintain Arab neutrality vis a vis the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. While they acknowledge the value of this help, they contend that Egypt is acting in its own self-interest and would provide such help regardless of what the U.S. says about its electoral process.

One of the most vocal critics of President Hosni Mubarak’s regime is Human Rights First, a New York City-based legal advocacy organization. It is urging U.S. President Barack Obama to publicly call on Egyptian authorities stop harassing ruling opposition party figures and open the nation's upcoming parliamentary elections to international monitors.

Neil Hicks, HRF’s International Policy Advisor, says “The Egyptian government is using a 30-year ‘state of emergency’ to make arbitrary arrests and violently repress political activists. In preparation for upcoming elections this November, the government has silenced independent journalists, cracked down on activists and opposition candidates, and refused international election monitors. You need a license in Egypt to send a political text message!”

Hicks added, “The last round of elections in Egypt found policemen beating voters and officials grabbing ballot boxes. We cannot let that happen again.”
The Egyptian Government appears to be doing what it can to disrupt opposition plans to contest the Parliamentary election. For example, the Associated Press reports that Egyptian security detained 65 members of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood while they were hanging election posters. Authorities said the posters violated a new ban on religious expressions. The government has arrested some 250 members of the Brotherhood and 30 remain in jails.

Media suppression has also ratcheted up in the pre-election period. For example, Egypt’s National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA), imposed new restrictions on text-message news services and mobile phone companies, in an apparent attempt to pre-empt possible anti-government activism during the polls. And the Egyptian Ministry of Information now compels satellite channels to obtain licenses before broadcasting an event live or distributing news reports to other television channels.

The anti-media campaign has also included the firing of one of the country’s better-known veteran journalists, who was editor of the main opposition newspaper. He had recently also been fired from his television talk show.

In another media move, authorities closed the religious conservative satellite television network, Al-Badr, for inciting sectarian hatred, and shut down the studios that produced the political talk show “Al-Qahira il-Youm” (”Cairo Today”).

These actions have triggered widespread calls from many for international monitors to supervise the election, and from others a campaign to boycott the balloting altogether.

Mohamed ElBaradei, the retired head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has given up his brief flirt with the idea of opposing Mubarak in the presidential election. Instead he has called for a wholesale boycott. He says this is the “easiest, fastest, the most direct way to delegitimize the regime.”

Political dissident and head of Al-Ghad Party, Ayman Nour, called on the European Union (EU) to oversee parliamentary and presidential elections, requesting that the European Commission “play a greater role” in supporting human rights in Egypt.

Washington has had little to say of current developments. Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, had taken an increasing interest in the need for political reform and human rights improvements inside Egypt, a position associated with his neoconservative vision of America spreading democracy around the world.

But the Bush position caused considerable friction between the two governments, and Obama returned to seeing Egypt as a peace process partner.

The Mubarak regime, however, has made the U.S. position difficult to maintain. For example, President Mubarak had promised to lift the state of emergency, which has been in effect since 1981 and significantly curbs civil liberties inside Egypt. But it chose to renew it instead. That drew a stiff protest from the Obama administration.

President Obama has also dramatically cut funds to promote democracy in Egypt. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that these cuts over the past year - amounting to around 50 percent - have drawn accusations that the Obama administration is easing off reform pressure to ensure Egypt’s support on Mideast policy, including the peace process with Israel.

Egypt has been one of the top recipients of U.S. foreign aid ever since it
became the first Arab country to sign a peace accord with Israel, in 1979. Since the Bush administration, Washington has been reducing the nonmilitary part of the package. This year's aid is $1.55 billion, including $250 million in nonmilitary aid. In 2008, the Bush administration dedicated around $45 million of that to programs for Governing Justly and Democratically.

The Obama Administration’s slash in these pro-democracy programs has drawn a mixed response. Some contend they are ineffective and merely plant seeds of discord between the U.S. and Cairo. Others think they have a place.

Michele Dunne, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the online journal, the Arab Reform Bulletin, told IPS, “I think that the United States should advocate democratization and greater respect for human rights for Egyptians. This does not mean that the U.S. can make these things happen in Egypt, but we should be clear that we are in favor and willing to use the influence we have to promote them.”

She added, “Public comments can make clear to Egyptian citizens where the United States stands on these issues—which has a value in and of itself—but clearly are not enough to have an effect on the calculations of the Egyptian government. That would require a more comprehensive strategy that considers public comment, private diplomacy, assistance programs, and other forms of engagement with the Egyptian government and Egyptian citizens—which is exactly was has been missing from U.S. policy so far.”

As to pro-democracy programs, Dunne told IPS, these “are helpful partly for the resources they offer and even more so from the implied U.S. support for pro-democracy groups in Egypt. But they can only assist and support a pro-democracy movement from Egyptian society itself, not create one from outside.”

“By the way,” she said, “the obvious question is whether the United States can do this and still cooperate with the Egyptian government on the Arab-Israeli peace process and other issues. The track record suggests that the answer is yes. The Egyptian government takes its decisions on Israel and other regional issues for its own national security reasons, not to do a favor for the US.”

Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University, minimizes the importance of the US AID pro-democracy programs. He told IPS:

“The real issue is what (or what not) the White House and State Department are saying publicly (and privately to the Egyptian government) about the upcoming elections.”

He continued: “I have no doubt that the 2010 parliamentary elections will be less competitive than the 2005 balloting. One of the most important reasons for this is the lack of public comment about the issue (e.g., pressure) from the United States. No serious observer of the Egyptian political scene can deny that this public and high profile rhetoric (and the attention it generated) from the President [George W. Bush] and the Secretary of State [Condoleeza Rice] was one of the primary reasons we saw a political liberalization in Egypt in 2005, including more competitive parliamentary elections at the end of 2005.”

“The Obama administration is unfortunately not interested in pushing the sclerotic Mubarak regime (Mubarak is 82, in declining health and without a vice president) to display even mild respect for political freedoms, including free and fair elections,” he said.

Mohamed ElBaradei has also weighed in on the issue of U.S. pressure on Egypt. He said: "Well, it is up to Barack Obama [whether to pressure Egypt on democracy]. It's up to any government to decide how to react to the denial of basic human rights anywhere in the world including Egypt. All I can say is this-those who believe that stability comes with repression are really shortsighted and should not be surprised if the Middle East continues to move toward radicalization."