Time to take a stand on Egypt’s democracy

For those who wonder why the Egyptians, in describing their elections, use the Arabic word for “battle” rather than “campaign,” the recent parliamentary elections provided a useful explanation. During the

final round of elections in early December, and facing gains by its foes, the Egyptian regime gave up all pretenses of openness and resorted to brute force. Some towns, particularly Muslim Brotherhood strongholds, were placed under virtual occupation. Everywhere, Egyptians were barred from voting. In Baltim, fisherman Gomaa al-Zeftawi, who had been waiting more than three hours to enter the polling station, vented to reporters: “They have been talking about democracy and the importance of fair elections, and we believed them, only to find out today that it was all lies.” Thirty minutes later Zeftawi was killed, as police shot into the crowd with live bullets.

This is a tragic story but one not new to the Arab world. Threatened by democratic openings, authoritarian regimes armed with an extensive security apparatus, reverse direction and clamp down on opponents. The memories of Algeria’s failed experiment with democracy – and the brutal civil war that followed – remain, haunting reminders of what could have been. In Jordan, similarly, authoritarian reversals have shattered the promise of a country Hisham Sharabi once called “the conscience of the Arab world.” 

Today, though, the world is supposedly a different place. In the ashes of the September 11, 2001 attacks, there emerged a consensus that the authoritarian status quo in the Arab world was untenable. America’s Faustian bargains with friendly, but unsavory, autocrats no longer seemed appropriate. The Bush

administration made clear that democracy promotion would be the centerpiece of its Middle East policy. President George W. Bush declared, “[A]ll who live in tyranny and hopelessness can know: the United States will not ignore your oppression, or excuse your oppressors. When you stand for your liberty, we will stand with you.”

With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak having reneged on his pledge to hold free elections, who will the Bush administration stand with now in Egypt? On December 1, after more than 10 days of election violence and the arrests of more than a thousand Muslim Brotherhood activists, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack insisted that “we have not received, at this point, any indication that the Egyptian government isn’t interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections.” A few days later, after the stark gap between the Bush

administration’s pro-democracy rhetoric and its continued coddling of Mubarak became only too obvious, deputy State Department spokesman Adam Ereli offered some criticisms of the Egyptian regime. It was, as always, too little, too late. The Arab people have grown used to the empty rhetoric of American officials and the Orwellian manipulations of their own leaders. 

The Egyptian Parliament now has an unprecedented 88 Muslim Brotherhood representatives. This fact is a convenient one for a regime, which continues to exist for one reason only: because secular elites and Western powers fear Arab Islamism more than they believe in the promise of Arab democracy.  

As hundreds of imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood activists wait to be released, Egypt is already rife with rumors that Mubarak, unwilling to deal with an unruly opposition, will dissolve Parliament. In the crucial months and years ahead, the polarization between secularists and Islamists will persist regardless. Mubarak will continue to tell his American patrons that he must go slowly on democratic reform lest the Brotherhood acquire too much power. It is about time to call the old autocrat’s bluff.

Critics are right to say that the Islamists who did well in the Egyptian elections are not exactly paragons of liberalism. Their views on women’s rights, the status of minorities, and the implementation of Islamic law leave much to be desired. They have, however, evolved in recent years, focusing less on religious sloganeering and more on the importance of democratic reform. For better or worse, Islamists represent a broad sector of the population. As much as we may disagree with them, their rights as Egypt’s largest opposition grouping must therefore be respected. The democrats’ greatest test, after all, is supporting the rights of those they disagree with. The United States, as the world’s greatest democracy, must live up to this lofty standard if it is to regain credibility in the Arab world. 

At the same time, American policymakers should encourage an open democratic atmosphere where liberal alternatives to both the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood have a chance of competing. We can start with Ayman Nour, the young, dynamic leader of the Al-Ghad party, who 10 days ago was sentenced to five years’ hard labor on bogus charges of forgery. In response, the Bush administration hurriedly released a statement questioning Egypt’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

Hollow gestures, however, will no longer suffice. Up to now U.S. pressure on Egypt has been nearly nonexistent, despite the leverage that $2 billion dollars in military and economic assistance to the Egyptian government provide. Before the parliamentary elections, Bush administration officials said they would take a wait-and-see approach. The elections are over. The U.S. waited and saw: Egypt’s autocrats redoubled their efforts. It is time for the Americans to redouble theirs.

Shadi Hamid was, this past year, a Fulbright Fellow in Amman, Jordan, researching Islamist participation in the democratic process. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

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