Democracy in Egypt

Democracy in Egypt

This afternoon I spoke at a standing room only panel discussion  in the Congressional office buildings about U.S. policy towards Egyptian democracy hosted by the Project on Middle East Democracy.   I don”t think I made any new friends in the Egyptian embassy (although their representative was perfectly friendly afterwards). My assignment was to talk about the Egyptian political scene, not the U.S. policy debate, which is what I did.  I did end up speaking more directly in the discussion period in favor of conditionality on economic and military aid, and other forms of pressure, since the other two panelists were skeptical about their usefulness.   Happy to elaborate on that later, if people are interested, but for now I just want to post the text of my prepared remarks before I head out to teach.

Democracy and Human Rights in Egypt
Remarks prepared for
POMED panel discussion, September 10, 2008
Cannon House Office Building, Room 210, 2:00-3:30 PM

First, I would like to thank the Project on Middle East Democracy and Steve McInerny for organizing this important panel.  With a new administration coming to Washington in a few months, and a new President coming to Egypt at some point in the future – though I suppose it would get me banned in Egypt to say so – now is an important time to take stock.   I have been asked to speak about the trajectory of democracy in Egypt over the last few years, and my fellow panelists will speak to U.S. policy options. 

I would like to begin on December 6, 2003, when I watched a remarkable debate on al-Jazeera between two of the intellectual heavyweights of the Arab world about the American role in promoting democracy.   Fahmy Howeydi, an influential moderate Islamist, argued that the United States could not play a role in helping Arab democracy activists because real Arab democracy would always contradict its interests.   Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the leading Arab democracy activist, responded that Arabs had no choice but to try, because only the United States had the power to make a difference.   Today, Howeydi continues to sit in Cairo writing acerbic essays criticizing American foreign policy and the failures of Arab governments.  Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a dissident in exile, hounded from his home country after being convicted in absentia of “harming Egypt’s reputation”.   The great Arab debate about America’s promotion of democracy, such as it was, has seemingly been resolved in  favor of the skeptics.

The question for this panel is where do we go from here?  Should we abandon our hopes for Arab democracy and accommodate to the realities of friendly dictators and the comfort of useful strategic relationships?  I think not, and I hope not.   The United States must continue to advocate for democratic reform, in the Arab world and beyond.    I would argue for a more realistic approach than could be found in the Bush administration’s evangelism, of bold words with little follow-through,  but one which makes serious demands on our friends, allies, and aid recipients.  The focus should be not primarily on elections but on ‘Bill of Rights freedoms’:  our friends must respect freedom of speech, of assembly, of the press;  free and fair elections; judicial independence and the rule of law;   human rights. Hosni Mubarak will never allow himself to be voted out of office.  But  we can and must demand that our friends live up to minimal standards and norms.   This, I believe, is in their interests as well as ours, and we do the Egyptian government no favors by turning a blind eye to their own self-destructive policies.

The other panelists are to talk about what the U.S. can do.   I have been asked to talk about where Egypt is today.

It is hard to know which vignette best captures Egypt’s condition today.  Is it  the horrifying rock slide which killed 47 Egyptians, demonstrating the crumbling infrastructure and failure of the state to provide the most minimal care for its citizens?  Is it the trial of a well-connected businessman for the murder of a famous Lebanese pop star, which has evolved into a cautious debate about the corruption and ‘protection’ of the core Egyptian elite?  Is it the farcical trial of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, convicted in absentia of  – essentially – being all that America could ask him to be?   Is it the burning down of the elegant, historic Parliament building – Egyptian democracy quite literally going up in flames, generating only a bemused response to a meaningless spectacle which had no meaningful effect on their own lives?  Is it the day in 2005 when the Egyptian security forces were let loose on reporters protestors on live television… and nothing followed?  The choices are as endless as they are depressing.

The story of Egyptian politics over the last few years is one of a tentative, grudging opening followed by a dramatic, severe retrenchment with few serious international consequences.  We all remember the stirring speech made by Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice at the American University of Cairo back in 2005, admitting America’s failures to support Arab democracy in the past and vowing to do better today.   The Egyptian regime, consumed by its own internal struggles over the succession to Hosni Mubarak and unsure of America’s real intentions, responded by scheduling Presidential and Parliamentary elections and promising Constitutional changes.   Many of us thrilled to the efforts of the free-wheeling, internet-based Kefaya movement, which bravely shouted “Enough” as they demanded change, public freedoms, and comprehensive reforms to a stagnant, failing system.    What followed was a series of challenges to the authoritarian system headed by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, each grimly turned back with little international response. 

The Presidential elections in September 2005 went about as one might expect.  With the full power of the state behind him, Hosni Mubarak won re-election in what purported to be multi-party elections.   The main opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, sat it out.  Mubarak’s only serious opponent, Ayman Nour of the liberal al-Ghad Party, was then thrown in jail on trumped up charges, where he languishes to this day with failing health as a signal to all would-be challengers. 

In the Parliamentary elections in November-December 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood swept the first round of elections, provoking a sharp regime crackdown and blatant interventions in the final two rounds in favor of regime candidates.   Nevertheless, the Brotherhood emerged as the largest oppositional bloc in Parliament with 88 seats (out of 444), a position they used to effectively agitate for reform and investigations of corruption allegations.  The regime responded with an unusually brutal crackdown on the Brotherhood, rewarding its democratic participation with fierce repression.  Leaders such as the financier Khairat al-Shater and hundreds of members were imprisoned without charge, tried before illegal military commissions, and sentenced to long terms.   Members of the Brotherhood were harassed, arrested, and tortured – with little international response.   In June 2007 police repression effectively prevented the Brotherhood from winning even a single seat in Shura Council elections.  In the April 2008 municipal elections, blatant gerrymandering was not deemed sufficient:   over 830 potential MB candidates and their supporters were arrested; only 498 out of 5,754 MB candidates were allowed to register to contest the elections, and of those – according to the International Crisis Group – only 10 were eventually accepted due to “incomplete paperwork.”     This crackdown was clearly triggered not by fears of MB violence but by regime fears of its peaceful political participation.  If Islamist violence returns to Egypt, we should look to the choices of the Mubarak regime in this moment for the explanation.

The initiative passed to the judiciary, with similar results. In February 2006, several judges – Hisham Bastawissi and Ahmed Mekki – who had investigated official fraud during the Parliamentary elections were referred to a disciplinary tribunal controlled by the regime for “insulting and defaming the state” and stripped of their judicial immunity.  Over the next few months a series of protests took place, which came to be known as “the judge’s intifada”, as the well-respected judges became the symbols of the regime’s high-handed disregard for the rule of law. State security forces cracked down on the protests forcefully.   Pressure on reformist judges nevertheless continued, and the constitutional amendments of March 2007 stripped them of most of their role in supervising elections.

The regime then pushed through Constitutional amendments in a referendum held in March 2007 which effectively banned the Muslim Brotherhood from forming a political party.  This passed with almost complete abstention from a dispirited and alienated electorate.  In 2008 Mubarak extended the controversial Emergency Law (violating one of his 2005 election campaign pledges), allowing the regime to continue to evade Constitutional bans on arbitrary arrest, search without warrants, and violation of privacy. The rule of law and judicial independence, like elections, were sacrificed in the name of regime survival.

Many of us placed our remaining hope in the new force of bloggers,  internet activists such as the inimitable Wael Abbas, whose distribution of horrific videos of police abuse galvanized Egyptian politics, and the relatively free Egyptian press, which at least allowed critical voices to be heard and sensitive issues to be broached.   

Naturally, the Egyptian regime declared war on the press and the bloggers.   Last September, four independent journalists, representing the core of Egypt”s lively political press –  Ibrahim Eissa, editor of al-Destour, Adel Hammouda, editor of al-Fagr, Wael al-Ibrashi, editor of Sawt al-Umma, and Abdel Halim Qandil, editor of al-Karama – were convicted for harming Egypt”s security by publishing rumors about Hosni Mubarak”s health.  In March, Eissa was sentenced to six months in prison over similar charges, and faces a lengthy docket of complaints.  Abroad, Egypt led the charge to create an inter-Arab covenant imposing political constraints and even censorship on satellite television broadcasters.    In the last few weeks, John Bradley’s critical book on Egyptian politics and Michele’s article on “post-Pharaonic Egypt” were both reportedly banned – a telling sign of the regime’s insecurity about public discussion of the post-Mubarak future. 

As for the bloggers, what chance did they have?   Once their role in pushing forward the democracy agenda made them seem a threat to the Egyptian regime, the crackdown was inevitable.  Alaa Abd al-Fattah, a secular blogger and a key Kefaya organizer, was sent to Tora Prison along with Abdullah Sharkawy and several others; an international campaign demanded his release, which eventually came, but a signal had been sent. The young, reform minded Muslim Brotherhood blogger Abd al-Monem Mahmoud spent 46 days being tortured in Tora prison in June 2007, and many of his peers suffered similar fates.  I will not soon forget the shock of learning of the arrest and extended detention without trial of Khaled Hamza, the mild-mannered editor of the English-language IkhwanWeb and patron of an entire generation of youthful Brotherhood reform-oriented bloggers.   Even a small sample off the list of imprisoned bloggers should be seen only as the most visible tip of the iceberg of repression of activists:    In July of this year, Mohammed Refaat was arrested for “threatening public security.”  In April, Kareem El Beheiry was arrested in connection with the Mahalla strike. Ahmed Maher – one of the founders of the Mahalla strike’s Facebook group, who was arrested, beaten, and tortured.  Mohamed Sharkawy and Esraa Abdul Fattah were arrested over the Mahalla protests; Mahmoud Chachtawi was arrested during a taxi drivers’ strike he was covering in September 2007. Abd al-Kareem Soleyman was imprisoned for his blog posts criticizing Islamists. 

I think that one of our greatest failings – and I include myself here – was to encourage these young activists to take bold steps when we had no ability or intention of protecting them from the consequences.  I am only partly reassured by the fact that several of those bloggers told me after they had been arrested and tortured that they wanted the attention and support, and were willing to pay the costs.  But democracy activism in Egypt today is  a dangerous business, and Americans should think carefully about encouraging these young activists if they will not protect them from the consequences.

Keen observers such as the historian and jurist Tareq al-Bishri write of the impending collapse of the institutions of the Egyptian state.   With the gap between rich and poor growing, the infrastructure crumbling, the incompetence of state institutions ever more apparent, the prices of food and fuel skyrocketing, and the political realm stripped of its meaning, where are Egyptians to go?  In 2007-2008, with the Kefaya movement collapsing, the Muslim Brotherhood on the ropes, and most of Egyptian political society demoralized, a series of industrial riots swept Mahalla and other urban areas.  This kind of anomic, unorganized response may well be the future which the Egyptian regime’s political strategy is purchasing.

The clampdown  by an Egyptian regime divided over the Presidential succession, painfully aware of its own unpopularity, and threatened by these myriad challengers is not hard to understand.   The Egyptian government is itself divided – which is one of the few encouraging signs on the horizon, since the factions within the NDP which do not prevail in the coming leadership struggle may then suddenly discover the virtues of multiparty democracy.   But for now, those are distant hopes indeed.   

Which brings us to the question for American policy about how to respond – a question which I turn over to my fellow panelists.