November 23, 2010

Egypt Getting the Special Treatment

During Iran’s “Green Revolution” in 2009, the Obama administration found itself accused by Democrats and Republicans of not doing enough to support Mir-Hossein Mousavi’s burgeoning opposition movement. Although U.S. interference would have played into senior Iranian leadership and further eroded the slim chance of compromise over their nuclear program, many believe the White House went too easy on Tehran.

More talk than action.

But without negating the fraud or state violence of Iran’s election, Washington’s democratic bias reveals itself the more it isolates those democratic entities it opposes (Hezbollah, Hamas, Muqtada al-Sadr). At least until it stops issuing free passes to vital allies. Though the two events differ significantly in their post-election conflict, Afghan President Hamid Karzai slipped his way into power through the White House’s backdoor, his second term praised as a beacon of hope.

Challenger Abdullah Abdullah, who boycotted the runoff after one fraudulent vote, nevertheless did Karzai a favor by quelling his supporters’ urge to hit the streets in protest. The Obama administration repaid Abdullah by claiming he quit “because he couldn’t win” - when he really quit on the hope of U.S. assistance.

Now, as Egypt nears its own parliamentary election, the same accusation of abandoning the opposition has stuck to the White House. But this time it sticks longer than on Iran. Washington hasn’t kept silent during the volatile run-up - that isn’t how the plan works. Instead, critical statements function as evidence of an attempt to check the government, along with the obligatory, “we continue to encourage them to do everything possible to ensure a free, fair, and impartial election.”

Last week Egypt accused Washington of meddling in its affairs after calling for international monitors.

"We are closely monitoring events that are happening in Egypt, reports of arrests and intimidation, and we have not hesitated to express our concerns directly to... Egyptian leaders," U.S. State spokesman Philip Crowley insisted on Monday.

Crowley was speaking of the estimated 1,200 Muslim Brotherhood members arrested in prior weeks, many from the Sharqia Governorate in the Nile Delta, including a minimum of eight candidates. With the group and its caliphate-inspired slogan “Islam is the solution” still outlawed, over 100 candidates have been barred from participating in the election. 130 members will field themselves as independents.

Dr. Saad El-Katatni is one of them and plans to challenge for the southern city of Minya - if he can survive the final week.

Yesterday el-Katatni’s car was swarmed by a mob wielding knives and metal pipes, who proceeded to slash his tires and injure his driver before spectators intervened. Interior Minister Habib el-Adly responded by accusing the group of provoking confrontations with the police to "implement their agenda, which violates the interests of the state." But el-Katatni accused Egyptian police of onlooking, a natural conclusion given the events at hand.

"The police smashed the Brotherhood in all constituencies all over the country," el-Katatni said.

Today he accused the Interior Ministry point-blank of orchestrating the attack: “Assaults on me by thugs were done with the approval of the Ministry of Interior, despite the strict security surrounding me since the beginning of nominations until the incident that happened yesterday.”

The circumstances surrounding Egypt’s election possess the makings of another “Green Revolution,” the color and objective extending beyond any specific movement into a general Islamic uprising. Like Iran, Egypt’s elections have been marred by fraud and political violence, and their aftermath by political persecution. So it wouldn’t be implausible if Washington privately wished for the Brotherhood to stay home.

Although the group’s participation could scrub the image of Egypt’s democracy and help justify U.S. support, the unlikely result of a “free and fair election” will create one more distraction amid ongoing negotiations between America, Israel, and the Palestinians.

El-Katatni vows there will be no boycott despite internal calls to avoid legitimizing the Mubarak government. Thus bloodshed appears likely. “I will continue to do my campaign rallies," he told reporters today, "and will not stop despite the terrorism and bullying I have suffered."

“The regime is sending a message that there will be no elections," he added... "This is a political and constitutional struggle and the street is with the Brotherhood and we will not let them down.”

The question is whether Washington will let them down. Rebuking enemies is easy. Doing so to friends often degenerates into favoritism rather than the necessary critique from an ally, and U.S. policy is headed in this direction. Crowley issued no statement Tuesday, after el-Katatni’s latest warning of state-sponsored violence.

To be fair Washington enjoys few options to create any significant impact, especially in a state that doesn’t double as a U.S. war-zone. Believing that Cairo’s strict response to low-level U.S. statements indicates weakness, human rights groups insist that a lack of effect shouldn’t deter Washington from spearheading the international observation - which is true. But public protests and world scrutiny do little to aid the Brotherhood and Egypt's wider opposition.

Egypt isn’t a mere matter of friends protecting each other, but of preserving the status quo. America treats democratic subversion far more aggressively when it favors changing the status quo, the true factor in determining U.S. responses to foreign elections. Perhaps an inevitable consequence of realism, this policy nevertheless interferes with the people’s will and tends to create long-term complications. Blackballing Hamas in 2006 adversely affects the region to this day.

It’s easy to see why America prefers a stable Egyptian regime unburdened by the Brotherhood, which has minimized acts of violence but still seeks to replace the government. The White House is reportedly split on what to do after Hosni Mubarak’s rule. Along with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, Egypt remains a key piece of the West’s Iranian umbrella despite its waning influence in the region.

And Israeli policy towards the Palestinians may not be possible without Egyptian support.

It’s completely understandable why Mubarak shuns the responsibility of 1.5 million Gazans trying to escape their prison by overrunning Egypt’s border. This burden isn’t his to bear alone. Less understandable is the lack of pressure on Israel to reach a fair compromise with the PLO. Egypt and America have been instrumental in upholding Israel’s blockade on Gaza, while Egypt and Saudi Arabia refuse to let Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas leave the ring of direct negotiations.

Opposing a formal withdrawal despite the absence of a settlement freeze is one thing, but giving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu room to run has escalated the unfair terms imposed on Abbas.

Even if the Brotherhood manages to improve its position in parliament, where its members currently hold one-fifth of the 508 seats, no increase in support for the Palestinians is guaranteed. Yet America and Israel continue to oppose the Brotherhood gaining ground in Egypt’s government, or stepping up its platform to advocate the Palestinians’ struggle, particularly its offshoot Hamas. U.S. criticism of Egypt’s upcoming election will ultimately ring hollow.

The real test begins if Cairo spills down Tehran’s path.

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