Arab Democracy and Egypt Paradigm

After the liberation of Iraq and along with the Bush's Forward Strategy of Freedom, the Arab region has been witnessing a new kind of political phenomena concerning the political life, democratic rights and human rights. Some scholars call this political phenomenon the Arab spring.

I think that the key point of this phenomenon is the end of stagnancy in the political life, and therefore, the change in the status quo at the political, social and intellectual levels. This status quo is the effect of the political authority, which is mainly backward, ignorant and authoritarian. It intends this status quo and maintains it with stagnancy using the authoritarian violent means to preserve its monopoly of political power whatever the costs are.

This stir is indispensable for the political change and democratization in the region, which did not ever experience but authoritarianism. The entire political system in the authoritarian Arab state rests on violence and stagnancy, the absence of any pillar of these would reshape the political system and put the authority at awkward challenge to cope with that. The regime here may resort to violence to restore its stability in governance. The international environment and the international input into the situation would determine the fate of the regime's pursuit.

We do not have the sufficient expertise and scientific knowledge to predict on the future and processes of the resulted political change and effects. It is indispensable to observe the realities and developments of this Arab political phenomenon for conceiving an insight into political change in the Middle East. I think that Egypt is an important paradigm of the normal and evolutionary political change. We need to observe carefully the developments in Egypt at the domestic and international levels.

I will post two Op-Eds on the democratization question focusing on Egyptian and international affairs including some recommendation for the U.S. policy.

Egyptian Emergency

By Khairi Abaza

National Review Online
May 16, 2006

Once again, the Egyptian regime has responded to violence at home by consolidating the authoritarian structure of the state. On April 30, following two deadly terrorist attacks in the Sinai, President Hosni Mubarak extended the emergency laws that have stifled Egyptian liberties since 1981. Then, just last week, Cairo looked like an army garrison when 10,000 police and security forces cracked down on pro-democracy activists demonstrating to express their support for an independent judiciary.

The Mubarak regime needs to understand that it is the lack of political freedom, transparency, and accountability that has helped breed fanatics willing to perpetrate horrific attacks. Currently, Egyptian civil-society activists are engaged in heated battles for meaningful reforms that will help establish an independent judiciary and a free press—essential pillars of any democracy. If the regime continues to deny these changes, it can expect to face increasing radicalism.

The tension between the regime and the judges and their supporters has increased following calls for reform by Egypt's top judges. Since the 1952 military coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the military-backed authoritarian regime has compromised judicial independence by mandating that the executive branch control judges' budgets, promotions, and bonuses. Consequently, the regime has exerted enormous influence over who becomes a judge and who advances within the system.

Many of Egypt's top judges increased the pressure for more freedoms in 2005 by threatening not to oversee the presidential election, as the Egyptian constitution requires. In response, last February the regime launched an investigation against two of the most obstreperous judges, Hisham al-Bastawisy and Mahmoud Mekky, both from the Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest appeals court. The Judges' Club, an official entity acting as a de facto judges' syndicate, however, created enough of an uproar, through demonstration and mobilization of the opposition, that it hoped the regime would back down. According to Zakaria Abel-Aziz, head of the Judges' Club, Egypt's judges will not settle for less than the true independence of the judiciary. At the time, the regime promised to issue new laws for the judiciary, but it has yet to deliver.

Journalists, for their part, seek to abolish the reprehensible but common Egyptian practice of imprisoning those who publish criticisms of the regime. Though Egypt enjoys a relatively more open press than other Arab countries, it is far from free. According to Law 93, introduced in 1996, journalists can face up to two years in jail for “publication offences,” a vague concept that is manipulated for political ends. Journalists and their syndicate are trying to force the government to abandon prison sentences for publication offences. Recently, two journalists were imprisoned, fueling a heated war of words between the government and the syndicate. Their jailings served as a catalyst for several demonstrations.

The syndicate went as far as to draft a new law that was submitted to the government. Technically, the decision to change the laws that persecute journalists lies in the hands of the parliament, but the ruling National Democratic party delegates will only move if they get instructions form the regime. Two years ago, President Mubarak promised to amend the current law, and the government has pledged issue a new law before the end of the current parliamentary session this spring, but reformers remain skeptical.

Agitation for political change in Egypt is not new. For over a year, nearly all the opposition parties and movements have united under the same banner: to change the outdated, authoritarian, socialist-style constitution; to decrease the power of what is commonly referred to as a “pharoanic” presidency; to increase the authority of a fairly elected parliament and prime minister; to establish a truly independent judiciary and a free press; and to secure the right to create new political parties, demonstrate, and strike without first applying for permission as the emergency laws require.

Mubarak, thus far, has barely flinched. After much internal and external pressure, the Egyptian regime made some cosmetic amendments and permitted the first ever competitive but highly controversial presidential elections in 2005. Large-scale irregularities were reported by judges, civil-society organizations, and the opposition. Before holding free elections, the Egyptian regime should open the political space and allow parties and movements to work in a free and fair environment.

The extension of the emergency laws is a blow to civil liberties and another indication that the regime has no intention of genuinely reforming the political system. No longer satisfied with cosmetic measures aimed at easing American pressure, Egyptians realize that empowering the judiciary and the press could mark the beginning of a true transition to democracy. If the political leadership is genuine about tackling Egypt's security problems at their core, it too will need to recognize that transparency and accountability are the cornerstones of any society that aspires to progress.

—Khairi Abaza is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Stop Coddling Despots

By Max Boot

Los Angeles Times
May 10, 2006

During his first four years in office, President Bush made impressive strides toward achieving the improbable goal laid out in his second inaugural address—“ending tyranny in our world.” American troops liberated 50 million people and midwived representative governments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The United States also provided important support to peaceful uprisings in Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan.

The ripples of those revolutions reverberated throughout the greater Middle East, long the major breeding ground of anti-Western terrorism. At a minimum, tyrants felt compelled to pay lip service to American demands that they curtail support for terrorism and show greater respect for human rights. Syria’s Bashar Assad pulled his occupation army out of Lebanon; Hosni Mubarak promised to hold genuine electoral contests in Egypt; the Saudi royal family deigned to hold elections for municipal councils.

In the last year, however, the global momentum for democratization has palpably slowed and in some places reversed course altogether. Vladimir V. Putin has crushed all competing centers of power in Russia. Belarus, the only other dictatorship left in Europe, held fraudulent elections that confirmed Alexander G. Lukashenko’s death grip on power. The same thing happened in Kazakhstan, where president-for-life Nursultan A. Nazarbayev claimed to have won more than 90% of the vote. Next door in Uzbekistan, security forces gunned down hundreds of unarmed protesters in the city of Andijan and then tried to cover up the massacre.

The same worrisome trend is observable in the Middle East. The Iranian ayatollahs have stepped up their campaign of torturing, jailing and executing dissidents. The Assad regime has arrested more opposition figures at home and continues to intimidate anti-Syrian activists in Lebanon. And, most glaring of all, modern-day pharaoh Mubarak has imprisoned his leading liberal opponent and renewed the draconian “emergency law” that allows indefinite detention of anyone who challenges his rule.

What’s going on? Well, no one—not even Bush—ever said that the course of liberty would be smooth and easy. Entrenched elites have an obvious incentive to resist giving up power, and they now feel free to do so because they think that Bush, a lame-duck president with approval ratings in the low 30s, is too feeble to resist.

The despots reckon, not without reason, that they can simply wait out the current occupant of the White House. They know that the odds of vigorous action from the United States are slim given how many U.S. troops are tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq. The continuing turmoil in Iraq and Hamas’ takeover of the Palestinian Authority—signs of the supposed dangers of too much freedom—provide further pretexts for repression.

In his remaining 986 days in office, Bush has a choice: Either he can sit back and allow the resurgence of the dictators, or he can fight back with the considerable power still at his command. His recent decision to grant a coveted White House reception to Ilham Aliyev isn’t a good sign because the president of oil-rich Azerbaijan blatantly rigged his nation’s parliamentary elections just six months ago. If Bush wants to show that he is still serious about promoting “the expansion of freedom,” he could begin by making an example of Egypt.

Mubarak is reputedly one of Washington’s closest friends in the Arab world, yet he has been among the most brazen in defying Bush’s demands for greater openness while force-feeding his 78 million subjects a steady diet of anti-American and anti-Semitic drivel. His vow to hold multiparty presidential elections produced a suspect ballot last fall in which he secured 88% of a feeble turnout. Afterward, he consigned his chief challenger, Ayman Nour, to five years’ hard labor on trumped-up charges of forging signatures to qualify for the ballot. The subsequent parliamentary election was even more dubious; ruling party goons used violence and fraud to keep the Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group, from winning too many seats. Now Mubarak’s minions are roughing up peaceful demonstrators who support brave judges in their demand for greater independence and less electoral fraud.

Why, oh why, is this repugnant regime still getting $2 billion a year in American subsidies? Take the money away from Mubarak and give it to democracy-promotion programs across the Middle East. That would be a shot heard ’round the world. Failing such a signal, the dictators will become bolder and more brazen in defying what Bush once called “the nonnegotiable demands of human dignity.”

Max Boot Is a Senior Fellow for National Security Studies at The Council on Foreign Relations.

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