The November 28 Egyptian parliamentary elections were a farce. The vast majority of Egyptians boycotted the charade. But even those who did try to vote witnessed massive ballot-stuffing, vote-buying, intimidation, multiple voting in pro-government precincts, interminable delays in pro-opposition precincts, and mass arrests of opposition supporters.
When the Mubarak regime forbade any international monitors to watch the polls, opposition parties and civil society activists organized a large network of poll watchers in order to catch anticipated government efforts at rigging the election. They had fielded thousands of monitors for the last parliamentary elections as well for as recent municipal elections, documenting massive fraud. However, the government banned even Egyptians from monitoring this most recent election, thereby allowing officials to engage in widespread ballot-stuffing and other irregularities.
When some modest political liberalization led to an upsurge in protests over the past year, the government decided to engage in a major crackdown on dissent. In the lead-up to last month’s elections, the regime shut down nearly 20 satellite television channels, outlawed media coverage of court cases, dismissed the most prominent critical newspaper columnists, restricted NGO activities, monitored text messages, and arrested nearly 2,000 opposition activists. Said fired columnist Ibrahim Eissa, “The Egyptian government seems to have gotten the green light from the Obama administration to go back to the way they were before.”
Opposition leader Mohammed El-Baradei, winner of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize, called for a boycott of what were clearly going to be fraudulent elections. However, a combination of threats and inducements led a number of opposition parties to participate anyway. Notably, more than three-quarters of Egyptian voters boycotted the polls. In what some opposition activists interpreted as a rebuke of the boycott, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Mike Hammer remarked that “the United States commends those Egyptians who participated in the parliamentary elections on Sunday.”
Hammer did note, however, that the United States was “disappointed with the conduct during and leading up to Egypt’s November 28 legislative elections.” He stressed, “We look forward to continuing to work with the Egyptian Government and Egypt’s vibrant civil society to help Egypt achieve its political, social, and economic aspirations consistent with international standards.” The administration’s willingness to acknowledge Egypt’s burgeoning civil society is encouraging and constitutes a positive shift from the previous administration. However, it is naïve to assume that the current Egyptian regime has any desire to live up to international standards of democracy and transparency.
Republic of Fear
For the entirety of his nearly 30 years in power, Mubarak has ruled under an “Emergency” Law restricting freedom of speech and other civil liberties. It makes gatherings of more than five people illegal, bans participation in elections by any political party not approved by the government, and removes security services from judicial oversight. The token opposition inside the legislature previously was unable to change any laws; their influence will be even less now with their numbers substantially reduced in the stolen election. Prominent Egyptian dissident Ayman Nour, who came in second in the rigged presidential election of 2005, was sentenced to five years in jail. His party’s headquarters was burned down a year ago.
Scores of prominent bloggers have been arrested and given long jail terms on dubious charges in recent months. Last June, security forces beat to death a young businessman and prominent pro-democracy blogger after dragging him out of an Internet café. Massive nationwide protests ensued.
Although the State Department acknowledges that the regime suppresses freedom of the press, association, and religion, the U.S. government – under both Republican and Democratic administrations –annually rewards Mubarak with billions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance. Early into his presidency, Obama dispatched Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to Cairo to affirm continued unconditional aid. Similarly, Secretary of State Clinton declared that there would be no human rights “conditionality” in the close relationship between the United States and Egypt, regarding foreign aid or anything else.
This unconditional aid to the increasingly repressive Mubarak regime was awarded by a Democratic administration with a large Democratic majority in Congress. Chances of getting tough on Egypt’s dictatorship will likely decrease with a Republican majority back in the House.
As senators, both Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Clinton attempted to justify their support for the illegal and disastrous Iraq War on the grounds that “it should be the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove from power the current Iraqi regime and promote the emergence of a democratic government to replace that regime.” Yet their professed support for democracy in Iraq was as phony as their claim that Iraq at that time had “weapons of mass destruction.” If they really cared about advancing democracy in the Middle East, they would not need to advocate a costly invasion, occupation, and bloody counter-insurgency war. They would simply insist on conditioning U.S. aid to Egypt and other Arab regimes to free multiparty elections.
This raises the serious question of whether the United States even wants free multiparty elections, in Egypt or any place else, that would replace a pro-American regime with one more independent-minded. Police states such as Mubarak’s can even be useful, as when the Bush administration outsourced captured Islamist radicals to be tortured in Egypt.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit publicly acknowledged that State Department pronouncements, critical of Egyptian government’s renewal of the state of emergency last spring, were aimed at “calming U.S. human rights groups and media” and that relations between Egypt and the United States would be “unaffected.” Unfortunately, he appears to have been right.
“Nobody gives a damn of what’s going on in Egypt,” says pro-democracy blogger Wael Abbas, summarizing U.S. policy as “Mubarak is a friend, and he’s allowing McDonald’s and Hardees’s and Pizza Hut. To hell with the Egyptian people. If they want democracy, we don’t care.”
Similarly Pakistani-American human rights lawyer Wajahat Ali, writing about Egypt, noted that “the US seems more committed to supporting reliable despots who toe the line than to dealing with democratic parties representative of the people’s desires and values.”
The only time the United States put conditions on aid to Egypt was in 2008, but not over human rights or democracy. Democratic Representatives Nita Lowey (NY), David Obey (WI), and the late Tom Lantos (CA) successfully threatened to withhold $100 million of the $1.7 billion package unless Mubarak more strictly enforced the siege on the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian regime complied, even to the point of beating and detaining international human rights activists, including Americans, who attempted to bring food and medicine to Palestinian civilians in the besieged territory in January 2010.
Prior to becoming president, Barack Obama criticized U.S. support for Mubarak and other Arab dictatorships, declaring “Let’s fight to make sure our so-called allies in the Middle East, the Saudis and the Egyptians, stop oppressing their own people, and suppressing dissent, and tolerating corruption and inequality, and mismanaging their economies so that their youth grow up without education, without prospects, without hope, the ready recruits of terrorist cells.” Unfortunately, as president, he has increased U.S. support for these dictatorships.
ElBaradei warns that U.S. policy toward Egypt risks creating a new generation of Islamist extremists, noting, “Only if you empower the liberals, if you empower the moderate socialists, if you empower all factions of society, only then will extremists be marginalized.” Even the Washington Post has recognized that “Mubarak’s successors will need to acquire political legitimacy; if they cannot do so through democracy they probably will resort to nationalism and anti-Americanism.” Support for repression only breeds anti-Americanism, including Islamist extremists. It is not surprising that the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, Muhammed Atta, was an Egyptian radicalized by the repression and corruption of his U.S.-backed government.
The United States had provided a limited amount of aid to civil society organizations addressing women’s issues, working conditions, human rights, and other pro-democracy efforts. An audit by the U.S. Agency for International Development concluded that economic assistance to these independent civil society organizations was far more effective than aid to government-controlled aid recipients.
On coming to office, however, Obama slashed such funding by 75 percent while maintaining the $1.3 billion in military assistance. Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, observed that, “Members of the administration have made it clear that they did not want economic assistance to irritate the Egyptian government.” Funding now goes into an endowment, which can only allocate to groups approved by the Mubarak regime. According to Safwat Girgis, leader of the Egyptian Centre for Human Rights, Obama’s decision “is in the best interest of the Egyptian government, not the people nor civil society organizations.”
Such “pro-democracy” funding from the U.S. government-backed agencies has been controversial among some opposition groups for fear that dependency on such assistance could make them susceptible to a U.S. political agenda. In addition, providing pro-democracy assistance to civil society groups while providing security assistance to a regime suppressing those very organizations is not unlike the old practice of the U.S. government paying for anti-smoking campaigns while subsidizing the tobacco industry. Still, a number of pro-democracy groups feel abandoned by Obama.
Indeed, U.S. support for Egypt’s armed forces, paramilitary units, and secret police – altogether numbering nearly one million – remains at over $1.3 billion annually. Egypt receives more than any other country, except Israel. The military hardware provided by the United States not only directly contributes to the dictatorship’s ability to crush dissent and remain in power, but costs the Egyptian people billions of dollars in personnel, training, spare parts, and upkeep which could go into badly needed domestic programs.
In addition to growing demands for political freedom, protests for economic justice are also on the rise.
Egypt’s minimum wage of $6 a day hasn’t gone up in more than a quarter century, even though the cost of living has quadrupled. Even by the World’s Bank modest measurements, nearly half of all Egyptians live below the poverty level. Per capita income is barely $1,000 a year. More than 40 percent of young Egyptians cannot afford to rent or purchase an apartment, or even marry. Meanwhile, it’s become increasingly difficult for Egypt to feed its growing population, due in part to U.S. pressure on the country to pursue an export-oriented model of development. More than half of Egypt’s food is imported, much in the form of subsidized U.S. wheat, further escalating dependence on Washington.
For decades, the Egyptian regime has been reversing the socialist initiatives of the popular president Gamal Abdul-Nasser, who ruled from the 1952 revolution until his death in 1970. The result has been increased inequality, with a tiny wealthy elite controlling the majority of the economy and political power with little interest in opening up the political process to the masses.
Mubarak’s U.S.-backed neo-liberal economic agenda has accelerated since the 1990s, privatizing more than half of all public enterprises. This has resulted in weakened job security, fewer benefits, and longer hours. The official government union does little to defend the workers. As a result, workers have taken things into their own hands. More than two million have participated in more than 3,300 strikes, demonstrations, factory occupations, and other mass actions since 1998. A 2007 sit-in by 3,000 municipal workers at the finance ministry ultimately won them higher salaries and the right to form an independent union.
Last spring, thousands of workers staged rotating sit-ins in front of the parliament building despite efforts by police to disperse them by force. Prominent pro-Mubarak parliamentarian Nashaat alQasas called on the government to go beyond the use of water cannons and “shoot them” instead. In response, hundreds of defiant protesters marched carrying placards with targets shouting “shoot us!” As protests grew, the government announced a freeze on further privatization and gave in on a number of other economic demands.
The vast majority of Egyptians are under 30 years of age. They are fed up with the repressive and corrupt U.S.-backed regime that has provided so little promise for their future. While most are observant Muslims, there is not much enthusiasm for the traditional conservative Muslim Brotherhood and its aging leadership, which has dominated the organized opposition. There is virtually no support for Islamist extremists, either. Many of these young Egyptians seem dedicated to making change on their own terms. Smart phones and the Internet are leading to unprecedented access to alternative media and are forming the basis for a growing wave of pro-democracy organizing.
A conference held earlier this year in New York, on the future of democracy in Egypt, concluded that a possible explosion in popular protest could occur in the near future in response to repression and economic injustice. Crushing poverty, increasing human rights abuses, rampant inflation, institutionalized corruption, a deteriorating educational system, and high unemployment have spawned the largest social movement in the country in more than 50 years. Many thousands have protested in Cairo, Alexandria, and other major cities despite brutal police attacks on demonstrators, widespread torture of detainees, and other repressive measures. Indeed, Egypt could very well be where the next unarmed popular pro-democracy insurrection takes place of the kind that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia, and scores of other autocratic regimes in recent decades.
The Obama administration acknowledges that, despite the repression, Egypt has developed “a vibrant civil society.” Unfortunately, says ElBaradei, U.S. policy toward the Middle East “has not been based on dialogue, understanding, supporting civil society and empowering people, but rather it’s been based on supporting authoritarian systems as long as the oil keeps pumping.” The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate also observed, “If you bet on individuals, instead of the people, you are going to fail. And western policy so far has been to bet on individuals, individuals who are not supported by their people and who are being discredited every day.”
Journalist Eissa noted that “Obama is not pressuring Mubarak at all” to end the repression nor is Obama “realizing that society is going to implode on itself and destroy those regimes.” Similarly, Daniel Clingaert of Freedom House observed how the elections now “pose a clear-cut choice for the Obama administration—whether to side with the Egyptian government or with the Egyptian people.”
Egypt is a critically important country. There are 82 million Egyptians, the equivalent of seven times the population of Israel and Palestine combined. Given the level of repression and the long-standing U.S. support of the Mubarak regime, it is disappointing that more Americans haven’t challenged our Egypt policy. Historically, U.S. support for authoritarian regimes does not end until the U.S. public demands it. It is high time, then, to demand that Obama end U.S. support for Mubarak and give the people of Egypt a chance to determine their own future.