December 4, 2010

Limited Space on West's Freedom Train

Côte d'Ivoire is no featherweight. On its way to 20,000,000 people and their untapped economic potential, the coastal nation’s geopolitical sphere has also entered a battleground over al-Qaeda’s drug running into North Africa and Europe. The West has ample interest in stabilizing the war-torn nation, and that means replacing incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo with the friendlier Alassane Ouattara.

So when Gbagbo, who enjoys the support of most state institutions, reclaimed power from Ouattara after a heated runoff, Washington and the international community naturally decided to push back. Teaming with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.S. President Barack Obama declared, "The international community will hold those who act to thwart the democratic process and the will of the electorate accountable for their actions.”

But why would Gbagbo take his threat seriously after viewing Egypt’s latest excuse for an election?

The short distance and striking dichotomy highlight America and the West’s standard practice of selective democracy. A week has already passed since the Mubarak government set up parliament for next year's presidential race, with accounts growing more disturbing by the day. After a violent and suppressive run-up, human rights groups reported widespread ballot stuffing, vote buying, and closed polls on election day, all enabled by state-sponsored force and intimidation.

Electoral spokesman Sameh el-Kashef issued a particularly jarring statement that the allegations “weren’t worth commenting on." The State Department had no prepared statement on Monday and put out a late reply.

By then it was painfully obvious that Egypt’s election had failed its democratic test but passed the test of U.S interests. And with a populace favoring Israel over the Palestinians and willing to accept an Iranian strike over its nuclear program, the U.S. media had little reason to pressure Washington into a response. The Washington Post waited until the following Saturday to ask, Why is the U.S. afraid of Egypt?

Although it did capture the moment:
“Given those facts, Egyptians and concerned Americans eagerly waited on Monday to learn the reaction of the Obama administration to the electoral travesty. And waited. The State Department failed to produce a statement until 7:20 p.m.; the White House was silent until Tuesday. What finally emerged were two timid and painstakingly balanced comments, attributed not to President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, or even to their principal spokesmen, but to the spokesman of the National Security Council and 'the office of the spokesman' at State.

Other countries watching this exchange will marvel at Washington's weakness. A nominal U.S. ally that receives $1.5 billion in annual aid makes a mockery of democratic rights -- and is answered with mild and low-level expressions of regret and promises to do nothing other than "raise concerns where appropriate." The Obama administration appears to be thoroughly intimidated by Hosni Mubarak - when what it ought to be worried about is who or what will succeed him.”
The Post was referring to National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer, who emerged Tuesday to commend Egyptians for voting.

He then added, "While we are continuing to assess reports from a variety of sources, the numerous reported irregularities at the polls, the lack of international monitors and the many problems encountered by domestic monitors, and the restrictions on the basic freedoms of association, speech and press in the run-up to the elections are worrying.”

On top of Obama’s championing of human rights, another unflattering contrast has intensified the schism between his rhetoric and actions. At first Egypt’s opposition seemed unconcerned about Washington’s timidity, having expected it, but the White House is becoming a target for their dreadful results. The Muslim Brotherhood had captured nearly 20% of the lower parliament in 2005, during the height of George Bush's democratic quest.

Now it's shut out of power along with the Wafd party, and boycotting a runoff designed to legitimize government corruption.

Egypt's opposition didn't expect much and didn't need much, making a non-response even more inexcusable. What they couldn't tolerate was nothing. Unfortunately WikiLeaks cables indicate that Washington gave up on democracy in Egypt (as if this wasn't evident), leading Mubarak to believe he could get away with more. Egyptian officials attributed the opposition boycott to conceding defeat. Democracy is being strangled under Obama's nose.

Fortunately for Côte d'Ivoire’s opposition, they happen to enjoy the opposite scenario. Gbagbo isn’t as useful as Mubarak and has interrupted the UN’s elections, making the current stalemate a can’t-miss opportunity to remove him. Western officials recognized Ouattara soon after Côte d'Ivoire’s constitution ruled in his favor, but it helps that Ouattara is an IMF technocrat. Gbagbo accuses Ouattara of being a foreign agent and he can make a case.

After the UN recognized Ouattara as president, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said from Brussels, "I am not qualified to take sides on the internal situation of Ivory Coast, but what is certain is that the practice of the IMF is to work with recognized governments, that is, recognized by the United Nations.”

Both, of course, are heavily influenced by America, and Ouattara’s plight was enough to squeeze a message out of Obama. Still no comment on Egypt.

While the practice of selective democracy is, on the one hand, political realism, it’s also short-sighted and extremely volatile. The Middle East partially stands as it is because Washington distorts the entire region's social fabric, bowing to Mubarak’s totalitarian measures - and to aid in Israel's suppression of the Palestinians at that - while condemning the same measures in Iran. A free pass to Hamid Karzai demonstrates how quickly the West compromises democracy for its own interests. Refusing to acknowledge the legitimate political power won by Hezbollah, Hamas, and Muqtada al-Sadr has resulted in further gridlock.

Horrific tales have emerged 500 miles away from the Niger delta, along with a muted U.S. reaction. What else to expect in a primary oil source? Corruption. Obama is right, "The international community will hold those who act to thwart the democratic process." If they don’t serve any use to the West.

If they do, the international community is liable to thwart that democratic process.


  1. The Freedom Train stops at Bullshit City (all change at Heartbreak Junction).