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Egypt: Freedom On The March?

WILLisms.com noted late last month that Egypt is showing signs of real democratization, as part of a greater wave of liberty splashing over the Middle East following successful elections in Iraq (and the U.S., for that matter).

Earlier this week, The Washington Post ran a piece noting that, while progress is being made, Mubarak is largely making symbolic and hollow gestures, and therefore the Bush administration must turn up the pressure on Mubarak to follow through with promised reforms.

One important and thoroughly significant gesture was the release of pro-freedom dissident Ayman Nour, head of Egypt's Tomorrow Party, following criticism from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for his unjust imprisonment:


The Washington Post:

AYMAN NOUR, the Egyptian opposition leader jailed in January while campaigning for democratic reform, is free on bail. Having angered President Hosni Mubarak by calling for a democratic presidential election this year, Mr. Nour can now launch his own candidacy under a constitutional reform the 76-year-old autocrat abruptly announced two weeks ago. It's too early, however, to anticipate a Cairo Spring. Mr. Mubarak's proposed reform, like his release of Mr. Nour, is an act of minimalism intended to deflect domestic and international pressure. The Bush administration, which played an important role in obtaining Mr. Nour's freedom, should join the Egyptian democrats who are telling the regime that its concessions aren't sufficient.

"Enough," or "kifaya" in Arabic, has become the slogan and informal moniker of the Egyptian Movement for Change, which has been holding groundbreaking demonstrations in Cairo. The word is an all-purpose message to Mr. Mubarak: enough of dictatorship; enough of a presidency that has endured 24 years and that would be extended by six if Mr. Mubarak chooses to present himself for reelection; enough of the president's maneuvering to place his son Gamal in position to succeed him. The opposition coalition, which includes Mr. Nour's Tomorrow Party as well as nationalist and Islamist groups, offers a moderate list of demands, including the lifting of emergency laws that prevent free assembly, liberalization of restrictions on the formation of political parties and newspapers, and the release of the thousands of political prisoners Mr. Mubarak still holds.

So far, however, Mr. Mubarak's concessions are limited to his election plan, which resembles the sham balloting familiar from other dictatorships. Only candidates from the handful of officially approved political parties will be eligible to take part; others will need the signatures of 762 public officials, most of them members of Mr. Mubarak's own party. There is no provision for international or independent judicial monitoring of the vote, even though past Egyptian elections have been discredited by reports of fraud. Mr. Nour himself might not, in the end, get on the ballot: The bogus criminal case against him still proceeds, and one of the president's longtime associates, Osama Baz, told The Post's Daniel Williams that Mr. Nour would be indicted.

Salah Montasser, writing in Al-Ahram Weekly, a Cairo-based publication, is more optimistic, however:

I have talked to many of the new generation in our schools and universities and was surprised to discover that not one of them dreams of ever becoming president. When I asked them about their future plans they talked about being doctors or engineers, or working in the media or in cinema. Apparently, there is an invisible barrier holding the young from even thinking of running the country.

This was undoubtedly one of the reasons some people were enthusiastic about Gamal Mubarak becoming the country's next president. President Mubarak denied more than once any intention to bequeath power to his son along the lines of the North Korean and Syrian examples....

The most significant thing about President Mubarak's sudden decision to amend the constitution and establish multi-candidate elections is that it spread the belief that the military's monopoly on power is over....

Unlike presidents, countries do not retire or die. This country has to stay young, and will draw its youth and vigour from the new faces that are bound to come to power.

When Ayman Nour was first released from his political incarceration earlier this week, he declared to a lively crowd of supporters his candidacy to become Egyptian president:

We are here to spread freedom.

Freedom is on the march across the Middle East. There will undoubtedly be set-backs, but ultimately the journey will succeed because of people like Ayman Nour, and because of America's solidarity with the forces of liberty.

Why, then are we seeing the subtle-but-sure winds of change in places like Egypt?

1. The Bush Doctrine.
Specifically, the removal of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and the subsequent free elections there is proving that freedom can and will overcome tyranny and terror. The success of the Iraqi elections also proved to the cynical European and Arab world that President Bush is sincere in his drive for the liberation of a long-shackled people. The war in Iraq was not about oil or empire; it was about promoting modernity and liberty, democracy and prosperity.

Also, the President has shifted U.S. policy away from coddling dictators automatically (because "he's our S.O.B.") to linking, slowly-but-surely, how the U.S. views and interacts with regimes, with how those regimes treat their citizens.

The United States has also begun to promote and support dissidents within countries like Egypt, perhaps not always officially or brashly, but it is certainly happening. When the President speaks, the world generally listens, and he has been increasingly vocal in his support for peaceful opposition groups in fear societies like Egypt.

2. The Arab world is getting younger.

There was a sort of baby boom in the Arab world about 20-30 years ago, and it is culminating today in a demographic bulge. Younger Arabs want freedom.

3. Changes in how Arabs get their information.

The internet and satellites have begun to slowly erode the monopolies tyrannical regimes have on the flow of information within their borders. The Arab world is infamous for the way information travels via rumormongering and inflammatory hyperbole. While the internet and satellites do not put an end to that (indeed, they may assist certain radical groups to an extent), it is harder and harder for Arab governments to control the images their citizens see, the words they read and hear, and the ideas they come across. When Iraqis went to the polls, Arabs saw it. They want a piece of that freedom. As the Lebanese people continue to assert their sovereignty from Syrian occupation, the Arab world is taking note. There is less and less Hosni Mubarak can do to stop Egyptians from seeing what freedom is about, and once they see it, there is no way to keep them from wanting it.

The Egyptian-controlled media is getting more desperate, more frantic, because they can see the writing on the wall. The Middle East Media Research Institute notes:

Egyptian diplomatic sources said that Egypt had expressed concerns about the "frivolous discussion in the [American] media" of Egypt's domestic affairs, which, according to them, is not appropriate in relations between two allied nations.

Freedom is not frivolous, and a nation's status as America's ally is increasingly dependent upon the level of freedom in that country. Egypt has received over $50,000,000,000 (that's 50 billion) in U.S. aid. The U.S. is expected to continue shoveling vast sums of assistance Egypt's way in the near future, but not without something in return.

In the foreign aid equation between the United States and Egypt, America is the oblivious parent who doles out a substantial allowance over the years to his teenager. Meanwhile, the teenager stops doing his chores and becomes increasingly antagonistic and hostile toward the parent. The money just keeps flowing without anything demanded in return, until one day the son, drunk and high and stupid, crashes his car through the front of the house. Suddenly, the parent "gets it" and begins demanding something in return from the son, beginning with simple respect. The son throws tantrums, talking about "privacy" and how "unfair" it is that he now has to do some chores and get his grades up in order to keep his car. If anything, the parent is still too lenient, but because of the long history of spoiling the teenager, the parent cannot lean too hard.

It will be hard to break the spoiled Egyptian diplomats from their conception of foreign aid entitlement, but the United States must continue to lean on Egypt, ignoring its absurd whining and demanding tangible results in exchange for continued support. America's support for Egypt must be contingent upon that support aiding free Egyptians achieve prosperity.

But in some ways, it seems like the message is getting through to the Egyptians, and in other ways, not at all. The release of Ayman Nour and the progress toward free and fair elections are steps in the right direction.

On the other hand, images like these have appeared in recent days in official Egyptian media outlets, such as Al-Akhbar:



With images like this the rule and not the exception, it is no wonder Egyptian attitudes toward the U.S. are so paranoid and resentful.

It's time for the U.S. to ratchet up the pressure on Mubarak, demanding real reforms, not empty promises and token gestures. No longer can the United States afford to allow our allies to incite extremist anti-Americanism. The festering boil of hatred in the Middle East must be removed, replaced by freedom and democracy. It will not be a quick or easy process, but it is a noble and necessary one.

Posted by Will Franklin · 18 March 2005 09:52 AM