Category Archives: Democracy

What Americans should learn from Egypt

I have a new piece up on GOOD magazine about what Americans can learn about democracy from Egypt, namely that protests are a useful tool to push for change. You can read it here.

I initially wrote this a while ago, while the both the Tahrir sit-in and the US debate over the debt ceiling were going on. (Also before the London riots, which I think is a tangentially related issue.) The essay was also (very understandably) cut down to a more manageable size for publication, but I’m posting the whole thing here because I think it deals with a lot of other interesting issues about how democracy is practiced in the United States that I couldn’t get to in the GOOD piece. Also, you can do stuff like that when you have a blog. Read it after the jump.

And with that, I make yet another attempt to revive this blog. Hope I’ll be back soon. Bizarre to think that the last time I posted was on January 26

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#Jan25

I wasn’t in Egypt yesterday because I’m in Turkey, but I have been glued to Twitter, Facebook, my Gmail contacts list, and the media reports, trying to get a grasp on the situation and getting inspired by everything I’ve seen and read.

The most exciting aspect of yesterday’s demonstrations is the sheer scale. Accurate crowd estimates are difficult to ascertain, but even the Ministry of the Interior put the number of protesters in Cairo at 10,000, which makes me suspect that the real number is much higher. Some activists suggested that there were over 100,000 people there, which seems a bit dubious. No matter what, though, the number is clearly the biggest in a long while, perhaps since the bread riots of 1977, though maybe comparable to the demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But there are important differences between the 2003 protests and yesterday’s: First, in 2003, Egyptians were demonstrating against an external issue, even if it is one tangentially related to their US-backed dictator. Second, those protests were almost exclusively in Cairo, whereas yesterday demonstrations took place throughout the country.

Related to the size and geographic diversity of the protests is that they were a decentralized movement. Much of the organization and mobilization may have taken place on Facebook via the We Are All Khaled Said group (through which 90,000 people said they planned to attend demonstrations), but the turnout seems like it was much more diverse than the usual web-savvy crowd. I’ve been to a number of pro-democracy demonstrations in Cairo and it’s typical to see the same handful of activists at each. Yesterday seemed to attract a different crowd.

A friend in Cairo who was in Tahrir Square yesterday, the site of the main protest, put it this way in a Gchat conversation: “you can find cooperation between youth with beard and girls wearing foreign clothes.” Check out the video below from Al Jazeera English at around 2:05, where a older, middle-class-looking woman goes on a rant about the government. She’s not the typical Cairo protestor.

The question now is what will happen next. Can Egyptians, inspired by Tunisia, sustain a month-long rebellion and bring down their dictator? Everyone I have talked to is taking a very wait-and-see approach. An activist friend in Cairo wrote to me:

I think this is a ripe moment to call for a nation-wide strike so that no one goes to work and more people empty into the streets – but I somehow doubt that will happen. It is much easier for people to go to a mass protest/rally than to miss a day of work – a nation-wide strike really assumes certain privileges that most people (including most of the people that were out yesterday!) do not have. That’s why 6th April and 5th May and all those movements never really got anywhere.

It is still early in the day in Egypt as I write this. Demonstrations may pick up again after school and work get out. On the other hand, I’ve heard people say they fear that Egyptians will now sit back, satisfied that they made their point yesterday and unwilling to continue. Moreover, I think that after yesterday the regime will want to clamp down quickly. Mubarak, I fear, has learned from Ben Ali’s mistakes. (Good thing the New York Times was willing to give him advice!)

Yesterday’s protests were, without a doubt, violent. See this video of the police evacuating Tahrir Square with tear gas and rubber bullets for evidence. But they weren’t nearly as violent as they could have been or, for that matter, as violent as I would have expected. But the Ministry of the Interior has already stated that they will not allow more protests and if the day of anger turns into a week of anger or a month of anger, I think the government will be more heavy handed as they try to prevent a Tunisia situation. I’m afraid the future could hold lot more beatings, arrests and maybe even live fire than we saw yesterday, when three people died.

For now we have to wait and see. I’ll be sitting at my perch in Istanbul, aching to be in downtown Cairo as I watch videos of the much-hated Central Security Forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets at crowds that include my friends.

Photo by Sarah Carr from Flickr

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Filed under Democracy, Egypt, Human Rights

Egypt’s Elections: The View From Washington

The best line of the afternoon came from Mahmoud Ali Mohamed of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development. “When we look at Egyptian political theater,” Mohamed said, riffing off an earlier statement by one of his co-panelists, “there is only one director. There is only one person who opens and closes the curtain.” Unfortunately, that important premise, which was essentially embraced by all three participants, got lost in the shuffle of talk about election monitors and voting — props in Hosni Mubarak’s farcical democratic theatrics.

I went to see a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday about Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections: “boycott, campaigns, and monitors.” The participants were Wael Nawara, a leading member of the prominent-but-small opposition party el-Ghad; the aforementioned Mohamed of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development (a group I’ve never heard of before despite a pretty decent knowledge of Egypt’s pro-democracy movement); and Andrew Albertson, the requisite American from a DC-based think tank, in this case the Project on Middle East Democracy.

The Egyptian parliamentary elections are scheduled for November 29 and they are being watched closely by observers inside Egypt and around the world, in large part because of what they could portend for the next year’s presidential election. The fate of that election remains up in the air and many are concerned that President Hosni Mubarak will use the opportunity to install his son in power. But the panel’s focus on elections glosses over the other important challenges that Egypt faces, from a fractured opposition to a mismanaged economy to a brutally repressive police state.

Nawara asserted at the beginning of his talk that it was the first time the Egyptian opposition had an opportunity to address Washington. I doubt that considering Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s repeated (and much celebrated) visits to DC, but that’s besides the point. It’s important that the Egyptian opposition gets its voice heard by people who make, or at least influence, decisions in Washington. But if this is a rare opportunity for the anti-Mubarak voice to be heard here, it’s too bad that it had to be focused on elections, when that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of Egypt’s lack of democracy.

When Egyptians don’t have freedom of speech, class mobility, or a viable opposition, why should anyone worry about filling out ballots for parliamentarians? Nawara commented on this, saying that the “emphasis on election technicalities may be counterproductive.” But then the matter was dropped.

But even if there were systems in place to facilitate electoral democracy in Egypt, the opposition political parties don’t seem ready for it. The panelists at the Carnegie Endowment’s series are a case in point. Nawara comes from el-Ghad Party, the group best known for its media-loving head Ayman Nour who has been resistant to standing with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has been, at least to a certain extent, shaking up elections in Egypt. Ghad ended up deciding to join ElBaradei’s call to boycott the election, but the front that the groups presented was far from a united one. Mohamed, the other Egyptian participant, represented the Wafd Party, a state-sanctioned opposition group that is widely considered co-opted by the ruling regime. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organized and most-visible opposition movement declared less than two weeks ago its intention to contest 30 percent of seats in parliament, going against the opposition’s election boycott. In return, more than 150 Brotherhood members have been arrested.

With or without political parties or international election monitors, Egypt is a brutal police state, the kind of place where cops can beat a 28 year old to death in an Internet cafe in the second biggest city in the country in broad daylight; the kind of place where torture is par for the course in police stations and prisons; the kind of place where migrants (and yes, I know, they wouldn’t be voting anyway) are shot to death for trying to cross borders. Protests in Cairo are regularly met with vicious violence on the part of the state security apparatus.

And while the Egyptian economy may be “liberal,” it is far from democratic. Since the Mubarak government signed on to an IMF structural adjustment program in the early 1990s, the majority of Egyptians have continued to get poorer. The widespread privatization of state-owned factories and businesses have benefited only a small business class, one that operates hand-in-hand with the ruling party. As the Egyptian economist Galal Amin has said, “Those who continue to preach the trickle-down theory are likely to be the ones who do not really care whether anything trickles down at all.” A system as top-heavy as Egypt’s capitalism does not lay the foundation for a democratic society.

Of course, it’s possible that free and fair elections for the parliament would turn around the injustice governing contemporary Egypt. Indeed, the problems that plague Egypt are cyclical: Civil society is constricted by the police state, which is in power to protect the elite’s economic interests. Democracy is complicated and Albertson, in his brief remarks yesterday, pointed out that democratic elections are about creating accountable governments. Perhaps local and international election monitors could help change that. But when the majority of the opposition is boycotting the election anyway, that seems like a pointless course.

If I sound critical of the Carnegie Endowment for putting the panel together I don’t mean to. It’s great to see a room full of people in Washington thinking about the lack of democracy in Egypt. I just hope that in the future they can see beyond elections to the deeper problems that afflict the country.

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Mubarak scared of texting

I’m sure there’s an easy way around this.

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New Israeli crackdown

Israel seems to be changing tactics when it comes to the occupation.

AP ran a story about the trend yesterday:

In the most high-profile case yet, Jerusalem police detained the leader of a leading Israeli human rights group during a vigil against the eviction of Palestinian families whose homes were taken by Jewish settlers.

Since the summer, dozens of Palestinian and Israeli activists have been picked up, including those organizing weekly protests against Israel’s West Bank separation barrier as well as others advocating international boycotts of Israeli goods.

Some of the Palestinians were released without charge only after weeks and months of questioning.

This morning, Haaretz had another news item with similar implications:

The Interior Ministry has stopped granting work permits to foreign nationals working in most international nongovernmental organizations operating in the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, Haaretz has learned.

In an apparent overhaul of regulations that have been in place since 1967, the ministry is now granting the NGO employees tourist visas only, which bar them from working.

Organizations affected by the apparent policy change include Oxfam, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Terre des Hommes, Handicap International and the Religious Society of Friends (a Quaker organization).

So you’ve got Israel arresting non-violent activists and impeding development workers, and furthermore forcing Jared Malsin, an American editor at the Palestinian t Ma’an News Agency, out of the country. Altogether, this is starting to look like a trend.

What gives? Why is Israel suddenly going after non-violent action against the occupation so heavily? I have a theory: Israel is worried about losing its legitimacy and non-violent activists, nosy journalists, and European do-gooders are not going to help its case.

I think the Israel-as-South-Africa-narrative is picking up steam. To prevent that, Israel is trying to stop people from knowing what’s going on there. Unlike a lot of other human rights absusers, Israel is fairly transparent. (I also believe this is part of what keeps it in the news so much. Hardly anyone thinks about, for example, North Korea, which is one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.)

Then again, if you want to be the Only Democracy in the Middle East, you can’t go around arresting journalists and aid workers.

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Hillary pushes for Arab democracy, kind of

It turns out that the United States hasn’t completely given up on efforts to promote democracy in the Arab world. The Christian Science Monitor reports that Secretary of State Hillary was in Morocco today to meet with the Arab league about democracy.

Apparently, Hillary thinks that Morocco is a model:

Clinton kicked off the day with opening remarks that held up Morocco as an example for positive reform in the region. She recalled a visit to the country 10 years earlier, when she met an illiterate father who had supported his daughter’s aspirations of becoming a doctor. She also spoke of “devout women” who had gone on to become human rights advocates.

“Examples like these remind us there (is) much in Morocco’s experience that we can look to to guide our efforts today,” she said.

Michael Posner, assistant US secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said on Monday that the Obama administration would use “principled engagement” to encourage regional governments to adopt democratic reforms – “both to provide security and at the same time to build democratic institutions that protect their own people.” Posner said that change “occurs from within society” and is “very hard to impose from outside.”

Hicham Houdaifa, a commentator with Moroccan magazine Le Journal that recently had its bank account frozen by Moroccan officials, says he was “disappointed” that Clinton did not address the issue of press freedom. In the lead-up to the forum in Morocco Reporters Without Borders sought to draw attention to a recent crackdown on the Kingdom’s press, but was prevented from holding a press conference by Moroccan officials.

Freedom House gives Morocco, which is a hereditary monarchy, middling grades on freedom and transparency. But I guess that makes it better than, you know, Syria.

Meanwhile, a recent internal audit of USAID funding to Egypt says that it is, for the most part, ineffective. USA Today reports:

More than $180 million in U.S. foreign aid to promote democracy in Egypt over the past four years has produced few measurable results, in part because the Egyptian government has stymied the effort, a newly released government audit says.

The “impact of (American-funded) democracy and governance programs was unnoticeable” in Egypt, said the report by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s inspector general. USAID auditors based their conclusions on international indexes of press freedom, corruption, civil liberties and political rights.

Then again, the US can’t afford to piss off crucial, albeit authoritarian, allies like Egypt. And Jordan. And Morocco, for that matter. So when the Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor says (quoted in CS Monitor story) that the US needs to use “principled engagement” and that democracy is “very hard to impose from the outside,” what he really means is it can’t be too much of a priority.

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The Nobel Committee’s big mistake

I cried when Barack Obama got elected. I went door to door trying to convince rural Ohioans to vote for the guy. I proudly self-identify as an American liberal. I want a public option in the health care system. I support global nuclear disarmament and an emphasis on engagement in international relations.

I think that the Nobel committee’s decision to award President Obama with the Nobel Peace Prize was seriously ill advised. In fact, I think it was totally crazy.

Obama hasn’t gotten the US out of Iraq. He is contemplating sending more troops to Afghanistan. He has yet to get Israelis and Palestinians to sit down together. (In fact, Israel’s Foreign Minister is trying to dispel any hope for a comprehensive peace plan.) Obama hasn’t gotten a real agreement to reduce the world’s supply of nuclear weapons or made any substantive changes to international regulations related to global warming.

What has Obama possibly done that would warrant a Nobel Peace Prize?  He gave a pretty good speech in Germany. He gave another pretty good speech in Cairo. He… Actually, those are the only things I can think of.

So why did he get the prize? I think that the primary reason is because he succeeded George W. Bush, the worst American president ever and the greatest threat to international peace of the last thousand years. Some people (the Nobel committee, apparently) think that’s a big enough achievement to deserve a prize. I do not.

If President Obama is smart he’ll turn down the prize. He’ll say, “This is a great honor, but let’s revisit it in a few years. I have a lot of work left to do.” And then he’ll get some credibility for being humble and realistic. And Obama is smart. He’s very smart. But I doubt that his ego is going to allow him to turn down one of the most prestigious awards in the world. And so he will raise expectations for his accomplishments to unreasonable heights.

I’m not saying I don’t want Obama to deserve the Nobel Peace Prize. I hope that by the end of his first term he will achieve an equitable settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians. I hope that he will rid the world of nuclear weapons. I hope that he will stop global warming. Then he can get a prize.

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Filed under American Politics, Democracy