November 28, 2010

Cairo Needs U.S. Reality Check

As observed last Monday, the Egyptian opposition shouldn’t be waiting for a response from Washington. The U.S. government employs selective democracy to further its foreign interests and too many policies hinge on an accommodating Cairo, namely containment of Iran and perpetuating the status quo in the Palestinian territories.

Thanksgiving week passed quietly in the State Department.

But Egyptians opposed to the Mubarak regime aren’t helping their cause either. The lackadaisical response to pre-election violence and fraud suggests that Egypt’s opposition might not rise up in mold of Iran’s “Green Movement.” There will be no tidal-wave of Twittering, although the opposition may yet protest the results or attempt to shut down parts of the country.

Many Egyptians haven’t exploited the opportunity to pressure the White House into an Iranian-type response, and voter turnout is thought to be lower than the 25% in 2005. Of course this is hardly their fault. At the macro level, political and religious dissenters are dealt with swiftly through overwhelming force. Political marginalization and apathy after 30 years of Hosni Mubarak runs high.

And on the streets, a heavy security presence around polling stations was reportedly amplified by groups of young men scaring opposition voters away.

As is often the case in suspect elections, the government has staked out a version of reality in direct conflict with the rest of the field. Multiple news organizations and human fights groups reported that independent monitors and candidate representatives were barred entry from polling stations, often leaving government officials in control. News sources and NGOs were further restricted in their own access.

The Associated Press claims that “violations appeared to take place openly,” including ballot stuffing and vote buying (current price: $9).

And the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has been shut down to the best of the government’s ability. In addition to the 1,400+ members and dozens of officials arrested prior to the election, the group alleged that many supporters were denied their vote and that government forces shut down friendly polling stations. Some of their “independent” candidates were beaten and denied medical treatment - or locked inside a hospital.

Scattered fights were reported in many districts.

“They’re not letting our people in to vote,” Mohsen Rady, a Brotherhood lawmaker, said outside a polling station in Banha, an hour outside the capital. “They only get in when I’m here, and the second I leave they start shutting people out again.”

Going in for the kill, the Brotherhood’s websites went offline at 8 a.m. on Sunday and remained down all day. “This is an enormous farce,” said Ahmed Abu Baraka, a spokesman for the Brotherhood. “The previous election at least had the appearance of an election. This election doesn’t even look like an election.”

Washington would be all over this mess in Iran.

There’s no doubting an unavoidable response from the State Department on Monday. If Egyptians are lucky President Barack Obama will address their situation. But that could be all they’ll get. At a press conference after polls closed, Egyptian election commission spokesman Sameh el-Kashef described the roll-call of allegations as "not worthy of comment."

Fraud and violence may not reach the level cataloged by its opposition, but the overt denial of this statement demonstrates the Egyptian government’s need for a wake up call. Cairo pushed back hard when U.S. officials initially requested an international monitoring system, and a weak request at that. Getting a future message through will take far more muscle, but Mubarak needs some tough love right now.

Too bad Washington has no reason to act. Democracy isn’t enough.

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