Political unrest is brewing in Egypt, a country that strategically is a key part of the United States’ agenda in the Middle East. The recent flashpoint has been the amendments to the Egyptian constitution, ratified by a referendum on a very low turnout amid allegations of corruption. Opponents fear they are merely a vehicle for President Hosni Mubarak to ensure his son, Gamal, succeeds him. Throughout his twenty-six year reign, he has been able to successfully stifle dissent and secure his own power base. This would seem to run contrary to America’s agenda of democracy building within the Middle East. Indeed, their friendly relationship with Egypt would suggest that such rhetoric is hollow to say the least.
Egypt under Mubarak
Ever since Mubarak swept into power following the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Al Sadat, in 1981, the country has slowly moved towards a form of autocracy. The consolidation of his power base has been achieved by a two-fold strategy.
First, the rights of ordinary citizens have gradually been eroded over time. According to Human Rights Watch, there has been a simultaneous attack on the freedom of the press and political assembly. Egypt’s Press Law allows the police to detain journalists who criticise the President or other foreign leaders or who write stories that are ‘liable…to cause harm or damage to the national interest’. This is coupled with more routine detainment and mistreatment. Since 1981 the Emergency Law has remained in effect, allowing police to detain suspects for indefinite periods without charge. A recent report by Amnesty International claims that there are currently around 18,000 people in Egyptian jails, some for as long as a decade. The regime is also accused in the report of being a torture base for numerous countries, including the United States and Great Britain. Although the Egyptian government have consistently denied such allegations, President Mubarak was forced to concede that between 2001 and 2005 around sixty to seventy suspects had been transferred to his country’s custody from American intelligence agencies. The culminative effect, according to Jon Alterman, is the stifling of vibrant political life.
Second, the Mubarak government has sought to justify these draconian measures as necessary to protect Egypt from terrorist groups. In particular, there has been an attempt to cast Islam as a spectre over the country that threatens democracy. It is estimated that between 1989 and 1997 17,000 Muslims were detained, some for participating in peaceful opposition movements and others for engaging in militant activities.
These simmering tensions came to a head with the recent changes to the Egyptian constitution. Since the measures were first proposed last December, they have been met with widespread opposition. In the country’s legislature alone, one hundred MPs boycotted parliamentary discussions on the amendments. However, the dominance of the ruling National Democratic Party in the legislature ensured that these changes were passed. Just one week later, they were put to the Egyptian electorate in a referendum. Amid accusation of ballot rigging, the amendments were passed with 75.9 per cent support but only on a 27 per cent turnout after opposition parties called a boycott.
Despite the reforms being touted by the government as an effort to bolster democracy within Egypt, there is cause for concern. In one amendment, ‘the responsibility of safeguarding security and public order in the face of the dangers of terrorism cannot be hampered by the measures stated in the articles…(about) the private lives of citizens’. This gives the security services the power to monitor people’s communications within their own homes. It is a logical extension of draconian measures that, as we have seen, have accumulated over time, institutionalising the dreaded Emergency Law.
Concurrently, the amendments can also be seen as an attack on those institutions that have undermined the government, most notably the judiciary. Article eighty-eight overrides a ruling made by the Supreme Constitutional Court in 2000 that during an election every ballot box be supervised by a judge. This alone may not seem that controversial and it can even be viewed as a practical measure. This is certainly the line of the government. According to a spokesman, it is simply not practical to have a judge at every ballot box. It also allows elections to be held in one day, thus removing what was seen as a major source of electoral corruption. However, behind this rhetoric their intentions are seemingly more sinister. At best, it can be seen as a naïve move on the part of the regime. Even with judicial scrutiny, there has long been a problem of electoral fraud in Egypt. At its worst, it is a thinly veiled attack on a critical voice within the country. There is no doubt that relations between the Mubarak government and the judiciary are tense after criticisms voiced by judges galvanised opposition movements. It was two members of the judiciary who, during the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2005, uncovered widespread fraud. By curbing their role, the potential for vote fixing inevitably increases.
Political opponents are also a target for these amendments. In particular, it seems there is an effort to ensure the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2005 elections do not reoccur. One amendment simply bans the formation of political parties based upon religious conviction. Thus, Brotherhood members are now forced to stand for election to parliament as independents. Simultaneously, candidates for the presidency now must be part of a recognised political party that commands at least three percent of seats, hence independents are barred from standing. In effect, the Muslim Brotherhood is being denied executive power. Secularists may well welcome this change as a separation of religion from the state. But this is to confuse representation with control. It is not simply a secularisation of Egyptian politics but an attack on the right of an individual to express one’s religious views.
Despite being passed in a referendum, these constitutional amendments have been met with opposition within the country and abroad. According to Amnesty International, they amount to ‘the most serious undermining of human rights safeguards in Egypt since the state of emergency was re-imposed in 1981’. It is certainly the most concerted effort by the Mubarak government to change the political landscape and despite reassurances to the contrary, it does incorporate the Emergency Law into the constitution as a weapon in the war on terrorism. For domestic opponents, these changes are also seen as smoothing the succession of Gamal Mubarak. It certainly strengthens the hold of the NDP on Egyptian politics by weakening the position of other parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The implications of these changes are already being felt. In April, ten members of the Brotherhood were arrested whilst holding a meeting. This has been followed up by further crackdowns on the organisation in the build up to the recent elections to the upper house, where the NDP dominated amongst further allegations of ballot rigging. It is estimated that eight hundred Brotherhood members were arrested leading up to the poll on 11th June while one opposition parliamentarian was beaten by police. In effect, Egypt is a constitutional police state.
The role of the US
A key actor in these developments has been the United States. For a time at least there was hope that America would prove to be a force for democratic change not just in Egypt but the region as a whole. As late as 2005, Condoleeza Rice had strong words of criticism for the Mubarak government and the slow pace of reform. But despite the rhetoric, the response of the US government to the recent constitutional amendments within Egypt has been at best modest, expressing ‘concern’ over the changes. During a speech in the country earlier this year, Rice made no mention of reform. In essence, the US by its muted response is complicit in the denial of rights to the Egyptian people.
The response of democracy activists has been one of disappointment. There is a general feeling that America has abandoned the democratic project in the Middle East for strategic interests. This is partially true. There is certainly a common perception amongst Egyptians that George Bush has been silent on Mubarak’s domestic programme in return for his support in dealing with regional tensions. There is no doubt that the current state of affairs in the Middle East has forced the US to strengthen its relationship with Egypt, one of its few allies within the region. But democracy activists seemingly react to this with surprise, that the Americans have somehow abandoned a project for positive change. This is naïve thinking. The Middle East policy of the Bush administration naturally has had the strategic interests of the US at heart. The promotion of democracy was seen as a way of making America more secure, especially in the light of the 9/11 attacks. But the electoral successes of Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood, all overtly anti-American, combined with escalating violence in Iraq and growing tension with Iran, has changed the political landscape. In a region that is increasingly hostile to American interests, it is natural for the US government to seek allies with strategic importance. This is a pre-requisite Egypt fits.
One need only consider the rhetoric of the United States to see that they view this relationship as strategically valuable. The recently appointed Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, described Egypt as ‘one of America’s most important, even indispensable, partners’. Given its position within the region, this statement certainly has some truth to it as the Egyptian government is playing an important role of interposing the agenda of the United States into middle-eastern affairs.
Palestine, Iraq and Iran
Sharing a border with the Palestinian territories, Egypt has been helping to crackdown on Hamas. This has included imposing travel restrictions on officials of the Islamist organisation whilst tightening their borders to prevent weapons smuggling from Sinai to Gaza. Diplomatically, Cairo has withdrawn its Palestinian envoys in protest at the supposed toppling of Fatah recently. They have also stated publicly that they only recognise a Palestinian government headed by Mahmoud Abbas, backing his newly formed cabinet. The Mubarak government is certainly concerned that Hamas’ victory may galvanize the Muslim Brotherhood given their close ties, hence its active role in seeking a solution. A further factor in their calculations is the increasing flow of Palestinians into the country over the Gaza border that may act as a destabilizing force, with some estimates suggesting nearly 4,000 people have done so during the recent fighting alone. More critically in the long term, Egypt is one of the few middle-eastern countries to be formally at peace with Israel. Further cooperation between the two will serve to strengthen the Jewish state.
As the situation in Iraq deteriorates, America has increasingly turned to Egypt for diplomatic assistance. They are due to host a conference on Iraqi national reconciliation aimed primarily at bringing together various factions within the troubled state for dialogue. Already, the Shiite Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and the Sunni vice-president, Tariq al-Hasemi, have met with the Egyptian government seeking help in stabilizing Iraq, a further indicator of their strategic importance within the region.
Rhetoric from Cairo also tends to suggest that Egypt is also assisting the United States in applying pressure on Iran. America has consistently sought to isolate Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons programme, seeing it as agitating against their interests. Now, Egypt has stepped up its diplomatic rhetoric against the Iranian regime, claiming that its policies ‘encouraged Hamas to do what it did in Gaza’, and thus undermines Egyptian national security.
The pro-democracy activists within Egypt have emerged as one of the biggest losers from the policies of the Bush administration within the Middle East. The strategic importance of the Mubarak government to the United States in subduing the region has meant notions of democratisation have been sidelined.
The irony is that this in large part stems from the project of this US government, especially the neo-conservative elements within it, to actively bring about democratic change within Middle Eastern countries. In pursuing such a policy by military means, what they have actually done is to further radicalise a region already hostile to its interests. In those countries that allow some semblance of free and fair elections, the verdict has been condemnation of US foreign policy. This combined with the NDPs determination to crackdown on dissent may drive many disillusioned Egyptians to engage in militant activities.
What this shows is that the American project for the Middle East in the light of 9/11 has proven to be misguided and unsustainable. There was a genuine belief within powerful elements of the Bush administration that to tackle terrorists there needed to be a transformation of these states into liberal democracies, hence the willingness to invade Afghanistan and Iraq. However, once it became apparent that this project was in fact alienating rather democratising the region, America quickly retreated to a more realist stance, exemplified by its shifting attitudes to Egypt.
Admittedly, there has been a slight shift in American policy. The Democrat controlled House of Representatives recently approved a bill that tied $200 million dollars in military aid to Egypt with conditions that the Mubarak government improve its human rights record. This is undoubtedly an attempt to not only put pressure on Cairo but also President Bush as he seeks a resolution to his disastrous Middle East policy. Also, it maybe implicitly directed at getting Egypt to tighten the Gaza border at the behest of the Israelis. Only time will tell whether the Democrats have the political resolve to see this through and this would become especially dubious should they win the next presidential election in 2008.
Ultimately, the United States cannot be called upon as a reliable ally in any fight to liberate ordinary people in the Middle East. It will only call for democratisation when it is perceived to be within its own interests, and even this we have seen can have disastrous consequences. Pressure on governments can only truly come from below.
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