Friday, May 27, 2005

Democracy On The Move, Or In The Toilet 

On Monday, Laura Bush warned the opposition in Egypt that reform shouldn't be rushed. Well, perhaps I exaggerate: Here's what she said to the Egyptian press:
Q Mrs. Bush, a big focus of the Bush administration has been spreading democracy around the world. President Mubarak has called for new elections this year but essentially rigged the process so a lot of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and other pro-democratic groups cannot participate. Does that --

MRS. BUSH: I would say that President Mubarak has taken a very bold step. He's taking the first step to open up the elections, and I think that's very, very important. As you know, every -- you have to be slow as you do each of these steps. When you look at our country and see how long it took in our country, we had a great document but we still had slavery for 100 years after our founding. You know that each step is a small step, that you can't be quick. It's not always really wise to be, but I'm very, very happy with the idea of an election here in -- a presidential election, and I think he's been very bold and wise to take the first step.
According to the transcript, that exchange ended the press' questions and her "remarks."

Unfortunately, the opposition didn't listen to Mrs. Bush.

Perhaps they believed, with the world's attention on Mrs. Bush's visit there, and considering her husband's stated belief that President's Mubarak's call for an election in which, for the first time, he wouldn't be the only candidate, was an "historic initiative," and part of a wave of democratic reform sweeping across the Middle East, (just as predicted by the grand strategists of the Bush doctrine), that President Mubarak would hesitate to revert to his habitual response to what we in this country usually refer to as "the right to assemble."

Or, perhaps not. According to the LATimes, opposition leaders were infuriated by the first lady's endorsement of President's Mubarak's "bold step" toward democracy. Not surprisingly, considering the not entirely minor detail that Mubarak and his ruling party, added to the regulations concerning who can run against Mubarak.
But the election rules have been a disappointment to democracy advocates. An amendment approved by the ruling-party-dominated parliament in effect banned all independent candidates. Only a handful of top officials in government-approved opposition parties will be allowed to run.
It's hard to believe that Mrs. Bush could have been unaware of this development, and unprepared to handle it in a way consistent with the administration's commitment to democratic reform.
"Mrs. Bush seems to know very little about Egypt and very little about democracy in Egypt," said Gamila Ismail, wife and press advisor to presidential candidate Ayman Nour. "We thought she knew more."
Me too.

Is it even remotely possible that Mrs. Bush was unaware that she was making those remarks, and these, only a day or so before Egyptians would cast their votes in a special referendum that would change the constitution to allow multi-party elections, now guaranteed not to include any genuinely independent candidates, but sure to include some sort of Potemkin candidate, hand-picked by the ruling party, to play the part of the democratic opposition, of whom it will be said that their defeat was an honest expression of democracy?

The opposition had called upon voters to boycott the referendum, and to join in demonstrations across the country instead. Their call was sparsely answered. Here's what happened to those activists who exercised those human rights which our framers posited were aspects of the human condition, and which George W. Bush says God bestowed on all of mankind.
CAIRO; A government-backed referendum Wednesday on whether to hold Egypt's first competitive presidential election provoked an opposition boycott and violence as men shouting pro-regime slogans beat anti-government demonstrators in the capital.

Uniformed policemen looked on, and occasionally joined in, while pro-government supporters kicked and punched demonstrators and journalists covering the protests. The assailants hoisted pictures of longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and shouted vows to sacrifice their blood for him. Lines of riot police and plainclothes security officers cornered demonstrators so they could not escape.

Women were surrounded, groped and had their clothes torn. Some demonstrators were thrown down flights of concrete stairs, dragged by their hair and kicked by swarms of young men.

Egypt's security forces are known for intimidating opposition leaders and torturing prisoners. But although the last several months of pro-democracy street protests have been fraught with arrests and intimidation, they have generally remained peaceful.


The unrest erupted around midday, when a disturbance broke out near the tomb of Saad Zaghloul, a symbol of Egypt's fight for independence. A small knot of demonstrators from the Kifaya, or Enough, opposition movement was taunted, beaten and chased down side streets by about 200 Mubarak supporters.

Asked why policemen were standing by while a crowd of Mubarak loyalists kicked and beat a lone Kifaya demonstrator on a busy roadside, an officer in a white uniform said, "Let his colleagues help him out."

Magdi Allam, a member of the ruling party's policies committee, waded through the crowd in a brown suit and necktie.

"We are assuring everybody that this [amendment] is for the improvement of the political party system," Allam said, breathing heavily in the heat. "We're trying to regain the multiparty system."

In the street, men used signboards displaying a smiling Mubarak to batter protesters about the head. A few stores down, the president's supporters had been kicking a gray-haired woman as she lay pinned against a wall. Asked about the beatings, Allam said that the ruling party was firmly against violence and would investigate any abuses.
I don't know if Julia is still giving out her "Claude Rains Memorial Gambling Awareness Award," but Mr. Allam would surely be a worthy winner.

Of course, our President and his wife would give him some stiff competition.

Was there truly no way for the First Lady to praise Mr. Mubarak and yet not pretend not to know that the coming Eghyptian election is taking the shape of exactly the kind of phony elections of which Saddam was so fond? There had been public warnings from the government that public demonstrations would not be tolerated on the day of the referendum. Would it have been so hard for the Bush administration to issue a statement of concern that the right of an opposition to actually oppose, even by means of public demonstrations, not be compromised by organized violence?

If it had, if Mrs. Bush had expressed, politely, those sentiments, is it not possible that this might not have happened?
Yesterday's disgraceful scenes in Cairo, however, showed only too clearly what the government thinks of democracy - either the Bush or the Mubarak version. The police attacked opposition demonstrators in front of tourists and journalists or stood aside to let pro-Mubarak mobs assault the protesters, watching from the side of the street as Egyptian citizens assaulted Egyptian citizens. Members of the opposition Kifaya movement - it means "Enough!" in English - sought protection from the Cairo police but a senior officer ordered his men to withdraw and leave the protesters to their fate.

When a woman tried to leave the temporary refuge of the press syndicate building in Cairo, she was punched and beaten with batons by pro-Mubarak party men who also tore her clothes. Screaming and vomiting, she collapsed in the street, according to a journalist witness from the Associated Press. Again, the police looked on without interfering. Some plain-clothes police beat, abused and sexually groped women demonstrators.

Only a day earlier, police arrested 17 people from opposition groups, adding to the sense of outrage felt by those Egyptians who regard the referendum as a sham. "The regime is still following the dictatorial and repressive methods towards the Egyptian people and opposition," Mohammed Habib, the deputy leader of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood said. Gameela Ismail, a spokesman for the Ghad "Tomorrow" Party - she is the wife of the party'’s leader, Ayman Noor - condemned Laura Bush for her support for Mubarak. "What she said is really frustrating for most opposition forces in Egypt," she said. "She seems not to know enough about Egypt. I'’m really amazed."

The Kifaya Party's spokesman, Abdul Hamid Qandil, reported that two of his members were hurt. "This is the first time this sort of beating and humiliation has taken place here in Cairo," he said, pointing out that it was a common practice outside Cairo where there were no reporters or television cameras. In the countryside - in areas such as the city of Sohag - many voters said they would suffer "penalties" if they did not vote. In al-Arish on the coast, government-appointed school directors ordered their staff to vote; buses carried government employees into Cairo to participate - and to vote for the "changes".

It isn't the liberal/left who is cycnical about the possibilities for democracy in the Middle East. Everything about what happened this week indicates that there is a real desire for just such reform there, which could be helped by a genuine American commitment to stand by those internal reformers who are ready to speak truth to power, as the President promised in his much-vaunted 2nd Inaugural.

What other conclusion can one come to than that both the President and his ambassador-wife are as cynical about the true meaning of democratic reform as is Hosni Mubarak.

That last quote is from a piece by Robert Fisk; do read the whole thing. See if you can find anywhere in it a speck of cynicism about the need for democratic reform in Egypt.

I wonder how many of those right-wing lovers of democracy will have the nerve to "fisk" this Fisk, or the honesty to be critical of what was said and done in Egypt this week by the government of these United States?

corrente SBL - New Location
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The Washington Chestnut
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