Democracy’s backlash

Is Washington backtracking on efforts to democratically transform the region or simply confused, asks Amira Howeidy

Returning from his tour of the Gulf last week President Hosni Mubarak told the Egyptian editors-in-chief that had accompanied him that US secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was satisfied with the way reform and democratic transformation is being managed in Egypt.

“She was convinced by the way Egypt is pursuing political reform and implementing democracy,” said Mubarak. “She said that democracy in Arab countries would take a generation.”

Mubarak met Rice two weeks ago during the latter’s regional trip and his recent statements are the first indication of what the two discussed during their closed two- hour meeting. “She was very polite as she listened to Egyptian opinions and points of view,” Mubarak was quoted as saying. “She didn’t bring up difficult issues or ask to change anything or to intervene in political reform as some people claim.”

To reform advocates such statements are among growing signs that the Bush administration’s oft espoused enthusiasm for promoting democracy in the Arab world is waning in the face of more pressing developments in Iran, Iraq and the occupied territories.

The tone of editorials that have appeared in the last week in the American press casting doubts on the pursuit of democracy given the explosive political situation in the region seem to confirm this view. Why support democracy in the Arab world, argued many of the writers, when the “fundamentalists” who win popular support offer a more chaotic alternative than the despotic regimes they seek to replace?

In his 2 March Washington Post article “We can’t force democracy” leading neo-conservative writer Robert D Kaplan suggests that “normality” is better than democracy, which can lead to anarchy in the Arab world. A despotic state, he wrote, “is not necessarily an immoral one.”

“For the average person who just wants to walk the streets without being brutalised or blown up by criminal gangs, a despotic state that can protect him is more moral and far more useful than a democratic one that cannot.”

This sudden bout of revisionism on the part of Washington’s neo-cons, many Egyptian commentators have noted, appears to be linked to the growing climate of government repression and persecution of political dissidents.

In the last week alone security forces arrested 20 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition bloc in parliament. The detained include Mohamed Rashad El-Bayoumi, professor of geology at Cairo University and member of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau and Abdu Moneim Mahmoud, a 26-year-old journalist and MB media activist. In February El-Bayoumi published an article in the MB’s newspaper Afaq Arabia under the title “No Mr Gamal”, a response to an interview Gamal Mubarak, whom many continue to suspect of being groomed to succeed his father, had given to Rose El-Youssef.

An Interior Ministry official said the men had been arrested after they were found in possession of anti-government publications. Then on Tuesday the MB announced the publication licence of Afaq Arabia had been suddenly revoked.

On the same day a Cairo court sentenced Amira Malsh, a reporter with the independent Al-Fagr (Dawn) newspaper, to one year in prison for allegedly libelling a judge in a story she published last year. Only two weeks earlier journalist Abdel-Nasser El-Zuheiri had been sentenced to one year in prison by another court for libelling former housing minister Ibrahim Suleiman. In both cases the reporters were convicted for stories they published on corruption cases allegedly involving affidavits. On Monday 6 March Fathi Khalifa, the government-appointed president of the Court of Cassation, referred two senior judges in Alexandria — Yehia Galal and Assem Abdel-Gabar — for interrogation for allegedly issuing statements “disparaging” the Supreme Judicial Council and harming the “dignity of the judiciary”. The two judges had questioned the transparency and fairness of the November-December parliamentary elections, with Galal publicly backing a female judge who said she had witnessed the falsification of election results in favour of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Some 137 judges supported her written testimony.

Three weeks ago the immunity of four other judges was lifted so that they could be questioned by a state security court over leaks to the press alleging the involvement of their fellow judges in electoral fraud. Their referrals to questioning coincided with a vote on 13 February by the NDP-dominated People’s Assembly to postpone municipal council elections, initially scheduled this year, to 2008. Although the NDP denied it, the move was interpreted as an attempt to prevent the Muslim Brotherhood from making further political gains following their parliamentary election success.

Just 12 months after Mubarak’s surprise decision of 26 February 2005 to amend the constitution to allow for the first multi- candidate presidential elections in Egypt’s history and it seems that the political climate is once again changing, though not in the way outlined in the president’s own presidential campaign. The package of political and constitutional reforms promised during Mubarak’s campaign trail has yet to be implemented, and few people are holding their breath.

“Political dissidence, such as that shown by the judges and others, has become a source of worry for the regime,” Essam El-Erian, a leading member of the MB, told Al-Ahram Weekly. “I think there is [government] fear that the dissidence could spiral out of control which is why we are seeing what we are seeing.”

Political dissent, which seemed to flourish in 2005 with the emergence of the anti- Mubarak Kifaya movement and its breaking of the taboo that the president was above criticism, now looks to be increasingly vulnerable. In the wake of Kifaya’s sudden appearance many more groups were formed, demanding political, economic and social reform, while existing organisations were emboldened to voice their own criticisms, most notably the judges who took a public stand against elections rigging and fraud.

The intensity of dissent in the past year and the unusual tolerance with which it was met only begins to make sense, believe many analysts, in the context of US pressure for democratic change. Following the same logic the recent clampdown on dissent became possible only when the US signalled it had lost faith in democratisation in the region.

While the government and most groups calling for reform would quibble with such an analysis Kifaya activist Wael Khalil concedes that, despite the anti-US sentiments expressed by the reform movement it did benefit from American pressure on the regime.

John Berry, the US Embassy in Cairo’s press attaché, seemed keen to stress that there had been no change in his government’s policy on the issue of democracy. Commenting on Mubarak’s statements on his meeting with Rice, Berry told the Weekly he had “seen nothing from the secretary of state to reduce US commitment to supporting democratic transformation in the Arab world”. Editorials in the American press suggesting the opposite in light of the deteriorating situation in Iraq, heightened tensions with Iran and the rise of Hamas through democratic elections, express no more than the opinions of their writers.

Hisham Qassem, chief executive officer of Al-Masri Al-Yom daily and chairman of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), agrees. Qassem was one of a small group of politicians and activists to meet Rice during her Egyptian trip. He said the Mubarak-Rice meeting was “a closed one so nobody really knows what was discussed”.

Qassem detected no shift in Rice’s views on democratic change in Egypt. “US policy doesn’t change overnight,” he added.

Gamil Mattar, a prominent political analyst and former diplomat, thinks the situation more nuanced. He believes there is a “reassessment” — though not necessarily a “change” — in the Bush administration’s views of democracy in the Arab world.

“The policy seems to be reducing pressure in return for [Egypt’s] support for US foreign policy, which is the more important issue now,” says Mattar.

While this might make the situation increasingly difficult for pro-reform activists it is impossible, argues Khalil, “for the authorities to turn back the clock. They will find it difficult to take back the space we acquired.”