The Abrams appointment

Sigh. I think Praktike said it all. I'd like to add a little context from my personal archives, which some people not familiar with who Abrams is mind find useful. I remember when I first found out about Abrams -- he was visiting Cairo as head of a controversial US delegation of US religious freedom, I broke the story about his past in the Cairo Times and it was subsequently picked up by a lot of Arabic press including Al Hayat (Abrams had been in political exile until then, and therefore would not be known to most non-American journalists, especially those who don't report from the US.) This is what I wrote then: Let bygones be bygones
Commissioner Elliot Abrams of the US Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) has had his share of bashing from the Egyptian press for his stances towards Palestinians and his praise of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In an explanation of their boycott of USCIRF, Egypt's leading human rights organizations list his heading of the delegation as one of the grounds for boycott. Abrams, they say, "has expressed his general contempt for Arab peoples and is support of the Israeli hostilities towards the Palestinians."
But if Abrams' current track record does not bode well for his attitude towards Arabs, his history puts even more into question his position at the head of USCIRF. Abrams was one of the major US government figures involved in the Iran-Contra scandal that rocked the Reagan administration during the 1980s. Named in 1985 assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs (ARA), Abrams was given the delicate task of continuing to provide Nicaragua'a anti-communist contra rebels with covert assistance, contravening US congressional guidelines. His participation in the affair included raising money to help the contras through illegal sales of weapons to Iran with the aid of Israel, and soliciting funds from Saudi Arabia and Brunei. The report of independent counselor Lawrence Walsh, who investigated into Iran-Contra, puts Abrams in the center of the affair. "Independent Counsel was prepared to present a multi-count felony indictment against Abrams to the Grand Jury for its consideration in early October 1991," the report says. "Abrams, through his counsel, was invited to consider a plea of guilty. Before an indictment was presented, Abrams entered into a plea agreement on 7 October 1991, and pleaded guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress."
Later, Abrams was appointed as national security advisor. This is part of my story on that appointment: The right-wing man for the job
He covered up for Latin American terrorists, was convicted for lying to Congress about it, thinks Jews should embrace Christian fundamentalists as fellow supporters of Israel, and is a stout admirer of Ariel Sharon. Now, Eliot Abrams is also US President George W. Bush's top adviser on the Arab world and the peace process.
Although he began his Washington career as a Democrat, the Harvard-educated Abrams switched over to the Republicans under the Reagan administration. He eventually became involved in the Iran-Contra scandal as one of the State Department's key advocates of a policy supporting right-wing dictators against leftist (and potentially pro-Soviet) movements in Latin America.
Nicaragua's Contras--essentially a right-wing terrorist group--were supplied, with Abrams and other Reagan administration officials' as well as Israeli help, with funds obtained from the illegal sale of weapons to Iran. He pleaded guilty to charges of lying to Congress over the affair in 1987, but was pardoned by President George Bush senior in 1992.
More recently, he has served as the director of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a right-wing think tank that aims to "clarify and reinforce the bond between the Judeo-Christian moral tradition," from which he wrote editorials that, among other things, compared Ariel Sharon to the wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. He also encouraged Jews not to marry non-Jews in his book Faith or Fear: How Jews Can Survive in Christian America, in which he also advocates closer relations between Jews and evangelical Christians, particularly over Israel.
So these are the people who are going to win the "hearts and minds" of Arabs? Update: See what Islam Online has to say about it.
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Egypt democracy roundup

Human Rights Watch has published an open letter to President Mubarak stating its concerns over recent crackdowns:
We are therefore extremely dismayed by the radical intolerance of your government towards peaceful political dissent, as evidenced the repressive measures taken over the past several days. We urge you in the strongest terms to ensure the immediate release from custody of those wrongfully arrested for exercising the rights guaranteed to them by international human rights law and the Egyptian Constitution. We also call on you to call on the Minister of Interior to cease harassment of peaceful critics by security forces.
HRW has probably conducted the most thorough reviews of "generic" human rights violations in Egypt -- such as the way people are routinely treated in prisons and so on -- as well as the most in-depth research on specific campaigns, such as the one against gays. (See their Egypt page.) Also today, as predicted, the planned demonstration by the kefaya movement at the Cairo International Book Fair was disrupted. I wasn't there, but a friend reports that a couple of dozens of activists were surrounded and pushed back into a bus shelter by several layers of amn al markazi troops (Central Security, the standard riot police) and plainclothes baltagui, who are street thugs who are hired to beat up protesters during certain types of security operations (they were used a lot during the 2000 elections and the various demonstrations against the Iraq war.) The New York Times also came out with an editorial linking Egypt's democratization and President Bush's State of the Union speech. It's short, so here it is in full:
President Bush was right in exhorting Egypt, in his State of the Union address on Wednesday night, to be a country that could "show the way toward democracy in the Middle East." The helpful role of Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, as a peace broker between Israelis and Palestinians should not earn him immunity from criticism of his self-perpetuating dictatorship. After nearly 24 years in power, he appears ready to add 6 more in a single-candidate referendum this fall, all the while grooming his son Gamal for an eventual Pharaonic succession. American taxpayers have bankrolled this regime to the tune of tens of billions of dollars over the years. It is about time that Washington woke up to the explosive powder keg that has been building up under Mr. Mubarak's despotic rule.
But for America to provide useful help to Egyptian democrats, it will have to tread nimbly. A few days ago, Mr. Mubarak's police arrested Ayman Nour, an opposition party leader who had been calling for fully democratic presidential elections. Mr. Nour was charged with forging signatures on the petitions that secured legal status for his party last fall. His real offense was acting like a real opposition party leader in a real democracy. The State Department responded with diplomatically phrased words of protest. Some Egyptian democrats called for stronger American pressure, but most worried that too close an embrace of Mr. Nour by the United States would make it easier for Mr. Mubarak to discredit him in Egyptian eyes.
Washington must go beyond raising its voice for select democrats at opportune moments. It must confront Mr. Mubarak and other regional autocrats with consistent calls for political freedom and open multiparty elections.
Not long ago America was automatically equated with freedom and democracy in the minds of most of the world's oppressed and colonized peoples. Over the years, that reputation has been squandered for shortsighted reasons. This would be a fine moment to begin earning it back.
It seems a lot of people think that the issue of the "kiss of death" -- that any effort by the US to promote democracy will be rejected because of dislike of US policy in the region -- is becoming a major dilemma. This is why the blindly pro-Israeli attitude of the US is ultimately extremely damaging to US interests, especially if you believe that spreading democracy in the Middle East is a national security issue. Ultimately, the neo-cons are utterly incoherent on this one.
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Next week's summit

As most of you probably know by know, Hosni Mubarak has invited Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas to meet in Sharm Al Sheikh next Tuesday. From an Egyptian perspective, the pro-active Middle East peacemaking continues, and it is essential not only for intrinsic reasons -- after all Israel and Palestine are neighbors -- but also for domestic purposes and purposes of standing with the Egyptian regime's main supporter, the United States. I was rather puzzled to read the following paragraph in the New York Times:
Mr. Sharon could hardly refuse the invitation of Mr. Mubarak, who has publicly praised him and warned the Palestinians that he is the best Israeli peace partner they are likely to get. The Egyptians have also been putting pressure on Palestinian militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad to agree to a long-term cease-fire, which the groups' Damascus-based leaders discussed with Egyptian intelligence officials in Cairo on Tuesday.
Well, actually, Sharon can very well refuse what he bloody likes. Sure, Mubarak has been pandering to him, calling him the Palestinians' "best hope for peace" (the victims of Shabra and Shatila must be rolling in their graves), signing gas and trade deals, releasing spies and has also been busily been trying to get the various Palestinian factions to agree to a common agenda. But that doesn't mean that everything is not still in Sharon's hands, and that the meeting will be largely driven by the question of "security" vs. advancing the peace process -- in other words, that a definitive solution will be postponed yet again. I'm willing to bet that will happen even if, as announced, Mahmoud Abbas declares a complete ceasefire (one that he is powerless to enforce in any case.) I assume that means that Hamas and Islamic Jihad are onboard, but the question is for how long and in exchange for what?
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Joel Benin weighs in

The following email from Stanford University Middle East History Professor Joel Benin was just forwarded to me. (Aida Seif El-Dawla is an activist and Human Rights Watch Award winner who is a member of several human rights NGOs in Cairo and a leader of the Kiffaya movement). Interesting speculation about the cause of Nour's arrest as well other info...
Dear friends,
Some of you will already have received a message from Aida Seif El-Dawla informing us that on Friday, January 28, three socialist activists – Baho Bakhsh (a Saudi national and a business student at the American University in Cairo), Marwa Faruq (a lawyer), and Ibrahim el-Sahar (a journalist) were arrested at the Cairo International Book Fair.  They were distributing leaflets publicizing a demonstration to be held on February 4 which will call on Husni Mubarak not to run for a fifth term in the September presidential election and opposing the possible (according to many, likely) inheritance of the presidency by Gamal Mubarak, the son of the incumbent.  The three have been given 14 day renewable jail sentences for “incitement against public order.�
I have nothing to add to Aida’s information about these arrests.  But I’d like to place them into a broader political context which underscores the gravity of this case and related developments in the several weeks.
The day after the arrest of the three, security forces raided the booth of Dar Mirit at the Book Fair.  Mirit is a politically independent, private sector enterprise and a leading publisher of serious and innovative books.  All the literature of the Socialist Studies Center was removed from Merit’s booth.  Both the Center and its publications are legal.  The raid seems to be due to the regime’s suspicion that the three arrested activists are affiliated with the Center and the Popular Committee for Change in which it is a major force.
On December 11, 2004 the Popular Committee for Change participated in a legal public demonstration against Husni Mubarak’s run for a fifth presidential term and the inheritance of the presidency by Gamal Mubarak.  The Popular Committee for Change is a coalition of eleven political groups and more than 2,000 individuals.  In addition to opposing a fifth presidential term for Husni Mubarak and the inheritance of the office by his son, it calls for a change in the constitution to allow direct competitive elections for the presidency, reduction in presidential powers and the lifting of the state of emergency, which has been in effect since 1981. 
The December 11 demonstration was an unprecedented political event.  Despite the small number of participants in the demonstration (perhaps 200 by a rough eyewitness count), it targeted Husni Mubarak personally.  This has previously been a taboo in Egyptian politics.  Violating it has virtually guaranteed arrest and often torture.  Since then, Mubarak has become visibly panic-stricken by the specter of a popular movement against his continued rule. 
Days after the demonstration, security forces massed in front of the office of the Socialist Studies Center.  Those inside expected a raid.  But there was none.  This was apparently an attempt to intimidate the affiliates of the Center.  But the regime has gone far beyond these efforts to intimidate its most radical opponents.
Mohamed el-Sayed Said, deputy director of the prestigious, semi-governmental think tank, the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, was banned from appearing at the panel discussions on contemporary cultural and political events which are one of the most important features of the Book Fair.  His offense, apparently, was to have publicly told Husni Mubarak during a meeting with a large number of intellectuals that Mubarak, as the head of the National Democratic Party, ought to appear in person to participate in the national political dialogue that the regime began conducting on January 31 with the legal opposition parties (i.e., not with the Muslim Brothers, the moderate Islamist Center Party, or the three Marxist trends: the Communist Party, The Revolutionary People’s Party, and the Revolutionary Socialists).
Even more outrageously, Ayman Nur, leader of the Ghad (Tomorrow) Party, which recently split from the Wafd, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in less than a day (this usually takes months) and arrested for forty-five days on charges of forging signatures on the petition to establish the party.  Nur is a wealthy lawyer.  He is no revolutionary and poses no threat whatsoever to the regime.
Some say that Nur’s arrest was a retaliation for his meeting with former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who has been visiting the Middle East.  According to this version of events, Albright has been sent by the Bush administration to tell its Arab allies that it is serious about democratic reform and that moderate Islamic forces must be brought into the political process.  Nothing could terrify Mubarak and the kleptocratic old guard that surrounds him more.
It is more likely that Nur was arrested as a favor to the Wafd.  The Wafd has joined with other opposition parties – most notably the National Progressive Union (Tagammu`) and the Nasserist Arab Party – to form a coalition known as the National Consensus.  Before the start of the national political dialogue, the National Consensus endorsed the common demands of all the opposition forces: opposition to a fifth presidential term for Husni Mubarak and the inheritance of the office by Gamal Mubarak, changing the constitution to allow direct, competitive election of the president, and lifting of the state of emergency.  Shortly before the dialogue began, the National Consensus began to back away from these demands. Suspicion is that the ruling National Democratic Party promised the Consensus parties that they would be allowed to win a certain number of seats in the upcoming parliamentary elections in exchange for dropping their opposition to Mubarak’s presidential candidacy and the demand to amend the constitution.  According to this version of events, Ayman Nur’s arrest was a sweetener to the deal.
These developments all indicate that the regime is becoming more repressive and less tolerant in the face of a continuing economic crises and growing public calls for Mubarak to step down from the presidency and permit a free election for his successor.  This is not yet a mass movement.  But insofar as there is a popular force for democracy in Egypt, this is its leading demand, and it deserves to be supported, especially by citizens and residents of the superpower which claims to be bringing democracy to the Middle East by force of arms. 
Joel Beinin
February 1, 2005
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"Clamor for a constitution"

Mona el-Ghobashy has a new MERIP piece which follows on the thread of her previous MERIP article (in the print version) about the growing constitutionalist movement in Egypt. Mona is an extremely learned and passionate advocate of reform in Egypt, and she has a particular knack for finding parallels between historic events (especially during Egypt's "liberal age") and the current situation. I think her piece tackles some of the arguments (including on this site) that the opposition is pushing for too much too fast and risking a backlash (well, perhaps the backlash is happening now.) An excerpt, from the end:
Lectured for decades on the imperatives of delaying democracy, Egyptians today are being sent an updated version of the same message. Instead of young modernizing officers in khakis bent on reforming the rottenness of palace politics in 1952, today it is “young” modernizing technophiles in trim suits telling Egyptians to wait until the economy is liberalized and the population is safely democratic before embarking on any political experiments. Yet it appears that citizens will have no further truck with dilatory arguments. Pollster Gamal Abd al-Gawad of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies reports that an April 2004 survey of 2,400 Egyptians aged 15-24 found that 63.3 percent believe democracy is a good form of government, compared to 24.5 percent who think it is inappropriate for some peoples and 12.3 percent who think it is a poor form of government.
On the popular level, participatory politics is alive and inching forward, particularly in the new phenomenon of consumer protection organizations resisting the rapid privatization of public services and arbitrary imposition of outlandish service fees. Two cases in point are the Popular Association for the Protection of the Citizen from Taxes and Corruption, headed by veteran activists Muhammad al-Ashqar and Karima al-Hefnawy, and the Citizens’ Rights Committee headed by journalists Farida al-Shubashi and Ahmad Taha. Cyber-activists have created new forums trafficking in everything from political jokes and rumors to a dizzying array of petition drives, consumer boycott initiatives and alternative constitutional models.
Activists are unearthing a persistent constitutionalist tradition in Egyptian history against an equally powerful presidential inheritance. “Giving Egyptians the right to choose their president will itself change citizens’ ideas about the domineering institution of the presidency, regardless of the occupant,” says opposition parliamentarian Hamdeen Sabahy. While Egyptians have long sanctified or loathed the persons of their presidents, it is only during Mubarak’s tenure that specific demands to trim presidential powers have migrated from the pages of law journals into everyday conversation. The next few years in Egyptian politics will witness contests between the two traditions and two logics: the logic of political deferral at the level of government and the logic of political movement at the level of society.
Egypt’s rulers have always feared and loathed popular constitutionalism. Exasperated by contentious Egyptian students in 1908, Lord Cromer’s successor Sir Eldon Gorst sniffed, “During the last few months, they have assiduously seized every opportunity in season and out of season to clamor for a constitution, and if their methods of procedure have not had any effect in advancing the cause which they have at heart, they have at any rate added to the labors of the Cairo police in keeping order in the streets.”
Read it all.
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Who was and wasn't at Egypt's National Dialogue.

One of criticisms and suggestions Ayman Nor made before his arrest was that since opposition party presidents and secretary-generals had to meet with the National Democratic Party during Egypt's ongoing National Dialogue discussions that the same should apply to the ruling party. Instead the NDP sends its S-G Safwat al-Sherif and Membership head Kimal al-Shazli. The president of the NDP is, naturally, also president of the republic. You could practically hear al-Sherif scoff at the thought of president Mubarak forced to waste his precious time with these troublesome oppositon parties when Nor made such a request. Nevertheless, based off of this picture published in today's al-Misri al-Yom, an argument could be made that the president attended. Head of the Table
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Activists Arrested in Cairo

While Ayman Nor's arrest was the most prominent of the past week, it is not the only one. Three activists - Baho Bakhsh (a Saudi national and a business student at the American University in Cairo), Marwa Faruq (a lawyer), and Ibrahim el-Sahar (a journalist) were arrested at the Cairo's annual Bookfair. The Popular Committee for Change issued a press release, dated January 30. Some of it is excerpted here: "Friday the 28th of January 2005, Egyptian security forces arrested three colleagues from the Cairo International Book Fair and charged them of distributing leaflets that oppose a new mandate for Mubarak and the inheritance of the presidency in Egypt, in addition to a call for a protest rally on the 4th of February at the Book Fair. The latter is the rally that has been called upon by the Popular Committee for Change, which demands a change in the constitution to the effect that Egyptians can elect their president from among more than one candidate, reduction of the authorities of the president, lifting of the emergency state and release of the detainees and prisoners of conscience. The demands have been endorsed by 11 political groups, 15 popular committees and organizations and more than 2000 individuals among whom are public figures, university professors, journalists, writers, artists, trade unionists, lawyers, engineers, and students. The state security prosecution has decided this evening to extend the imprisonment of the three activists for 15 days!!! Security pressures to silence voices of the opposition had started since the first day of the launching of our campaigns and are escalating with the approach of the soap opera that will extend the presidency of Mubarak for a fifth term and our determination to continue our campaign no matter what the price we shall have to pay. At present preparations are under way to nominate Mubarak a single candidate for president followed by a free referendum under judicial supervision, after ensuring that all members of the opposition are held in prison! The charges facing our three colleagues, the charge of opposing an extension for Mubarak into a fifth mandate and calling for a constitutional change that would grant the Egyptian people their violated right of choosing their rulers and hold them accountable" _____________________ Election years in Egypt are characterized by the government's tightening of the societal noose. The work to sure-up favorable electoral results is being done now. This is not a case straightforward electoral fruad (which will also happen in individual cases). These activists were mobilizing for a demo on February 4th to protest extending the current president's mandate. The fact that such a demo happened on 12 December but is not allowed now is an incremental shift that needs noted. Ayman Nor's detention is important, but complementary arrests are further obscuring the democratization that we were told is coming from Washington.
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Egyptian NGOs unite around Nour

I just received the following statement:
Egyptian party leader and activist arrested and pilloried in the press
A message to other Egyptian political parties
Signatory civil society groups to this statement express their anger at the lifting of Ayman Nour’s parliamentary immunity. The speed with which Nour, a member of the People’s Assembly and leader of the Ghad political party, was arrested, the timing of the arrest and its illegality under the People’s Assembly internal regulations all raise strong suspicion. Increasing this suspicion is the fact that he was arrested, his home and office searched and Nour himself insulted in circumstances which clearly indicate that the charges laid against him - of falsifying the signatures of founder members of the party - are unfounded.
Signatory groups also express their fear that this strange arrest may represent a message to other political parties, especially since it comes before the start of the ‘national dialogue’ scheduled to begin on Monday 31st 2005. Nour’s arrest is on the eve of the Egyptian presidential elections at a time when all sections of Egyptian society – including the ruling party – are calling for political and democratic reform. Political parties are being prevented from performing their role and exercising their constitutional rights.
Increasing doubts and suspicion, in the face of the interest which the Ghad leader has aroused and the motive for his arrest, is that the decision to lift his parliamentary immunity was taken on the basis of state security and public funds investigations forces investigations into a complaint consisting of statements which do not satisfy the standard of proof necessary to justify lifting the immunity of a political party leader. The demand that Nour’s immunity be lifted was not accompanied by case papers as required by the People’s Assembly internal regulations in order to ensure that the Assembly can take a sound decision which does not violate the constitutional rights of its members.
Confirming this suspicion is the fact that the state security prosecution office searched Nour’s office and home - despite the fact that the allegedly forged signatures were located in the Shura Council – before the decision was taken to lift his immunity, a flagrant violation of the Egyptian Constitution.
These events constitute a message directed to other political parties and their leaders. Nour was arrested in a manner demonstrating that the security forces deliberately intended to humiliate him. The Ghad Party leader was assaulted in Qasr el Aini Street and arrested in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
Lawyers present during public prosecution office investigations remarked that news of Nour’s arrest was published in Egyptian papers on the evening of the 29th January 2005 which plainly indicates a desire to prejudice opinion by spreading news of the case.
The signatory groups to this statement strongly protest Ayman Nour’s treatment, especially given that he is enduring extremely bad physical and psychological conditions. He has been the victim of a flagrant violation of the rights enjoyed by People’s Assembly members. The signatories are confident that the Egyptian judiciary will quickly reinstate his lawful rights.
The signatories express their solidarity with the Ghad leader, and urge international and regional organisations to expose what Nour has been subject to public opinion with impartiality and transparency.
Signatory organisations to this statement:
1.      The Arab Program for Human Rights Activists
2.      The Egyptian Association Against Torture
3.      The Hisham Mubarak Law Center
4.      The Land Center for Human Rights
5.      The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights
6.      Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies
It's worth noting that many of these organizations are considerably to the left of Nour politically.
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Food for thought

An interesting tidbit from Dan Williams' article in WaPo on Ayman Nour's arrest and the presidential non-elections:
Even though opposition leaders expect little from President Bush directly, they say his stand against "tyranny" at least provides a small opening for them. [Mohammed Farid] Hassanin conjectured that the presence of a foreign television crew at his sports club speech kept police from breaking up the rally. "At least they know outsiders are interested in Egypt," he said of the government.
Others point out that Bush could take small, symbolic steps. "No one expects Bush to turn off the money to Egypt or break relations," said [Saad Eddin] Ibrahim, referring to the $2 billion in U.S. aid provided annually to Egypt. "But how about not inviting Mubarak to the White House? That would be a start."
Mubarak is scheduled to see Bush in April. I don't think the meeting can be cancelled -- the Israel-Palestine process is resting too much on Egypt for that to happen now. (Just see today's announcement that Mubarak will host a summit with Sharon and Abbas in Sharm Al Sheikh next week.) But it's interesting that Ibrahim is advocating it.
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Chairman Kim’s dissolving kingdom

With all this focus on democracy in the Arab world -- or the lack thereof -- let's not forget that there are much, much worse places. This rare insight into life in North Korea [cached here] is a must-read, one that puts things in perspective and reminds us how selective the West can be about spreading democracy. It's not so much North Korea that I'm thinking of -- the discourse on that country is clearly negative -- but China, a country from which the West (and the rest of the world) buys so much with little thought about their democratic values or the fact that they still run slave labor camps and concentration camps. And they're the ones protecting the North Korean regime and harassing the lucky few North Koreans who manage to escape. If what this Times story says is true and the North Korean regime is dissolving, there will be a much bigger proliferation problem on our hands than anything Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qadhaffi would have produced. We already know it was North Korea that sold uranium to Libya. Imagine the kind of chaos the place will descend into if it really is falling apart, and where other WMD components might end up.
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A note on the Iraqi elections

The Iraqi elections are over, and I'll refrain from making any detailed comments until the situation gets clearer. The 70%-plus turnout is great news, but I'd like to see how that is calculated. Overall, it looks like a step in the right direction, although the problems of the occupation and the role Sunnis will play are obviously going to be key in the next few months. I'd like to give you my own account of seeing Iraqis vote in Cairo last Friday. The community in Egypt is fairly small, no more than several thousands. Egypt is not on the list of countries where Iraqi expats can vote, due to a decision of the Iraqi electoral commission and the International Organization for Migration. This meant that Iraqis would have had to fly to Jordan or another country where voting is allowed to make their voices heard. But four Iraqis living in Cairo were not happy with that. They formed their own electoral commission for Egypt, and last week organized (entirely at their own expense -- it only cost some $500, which makes you wonder why a little bit of the $300 million spent on elections worldwide couldn't have gone here) a symbolic vote at the Iraqi embassy. A buffet was laid out, the stereo played traditional Iraqi songs, and people hung around after they voted to chat. They also kept trying to lobby the relevant authorities to have the ballots transferred to Jordan to be counted. In short, some 200-300 people came to vote last Friday knowing full well that there was only a 10% chance that it would actually count. But, talking to the people there, they were all convinced that it was important to participate in the elections. The strange thing is that although most of these people were relatively wealthy and sheltered from what is happening in Iraq, they were fairly negative about the situation. Almost everyone described the current situation as a "disaster" and most were also doubtful about how democratic these elections were -- many said that the results were largely pre-determined because there are only a limited range of acceptable outcomes for Americans. They railed against the Pentagon crowd, Wolfowitz especially, for comparing Ahmed Chalabi to Charles de Gaulle. One said that he thinks President Bush "believes in democracy, but is surrounded by a bunch of crooks." They said that levels of corruption are ten times worse than under Saddam. Yet they were enthusiastic about elections and tried their best to do everything by the book -- one of the organizers told me that it was about the spirit of having elections, that even if this time they are flawed hopefully next time they will be better -- but that people have to believe in elections "otherwise we are opening the door to another Saddam." They even forced the Iraqi ambassador to go back home and get a second ID because the one he presented was not valid. Even for this cynic, it was all very moving. One more thing: the outcome of the vote was very divided. There I met Islamists of various shades, secularists, independents, monarchists, socialists and more -- even a niece of Ahmed Chalabi ("We're so proud of him".) There were Sunnis, Shias, Christians, and Kurds. If Iraq is going to be anything like this, we may have months of complicated coalition-building.
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State on Nour's arrest

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher took questions yesterday from journalists on the arrest of Ayman Nour:
QUESTION: Richard, a prominent Egyptian opposition politician has been arrested, charged with forging documents and held in custody rather than being freed on bail. It's the Ghad party leader, Ayman Nour, whose wife and whose lawyers say that the charges of fabricated documents are trumped up, false. Any comment on that?
MR. BOUCHER: Yeah. We are following the situation. We are concerned by the signal that the arrest sends. Mr. Nour, we understand, was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and arrested on January 29th. He is one of Egypt's most prominent opposition leaders and the arrest in Amman raises questions about the outlook for democratic process in Egypt.
This is the beginning of an election year in Egypt. We're on the eve of a long-planned national dialogue between opposition parties, including Nour's and the ruling National Democratic Party. That is a dialogue that we feel is very valuable and we would -- we find this arrest at this moment incongruous with proceeding with that dialogue.
We're also concerned about reports that he's been roughly treated. We note he's a diabetic who needs regular medical attention and we would hope that he would first make sure that he's properly -- that the Egyptian Government would make sure that he's properly treated and that they would reexamine the issue, given that he is an opposition member of Parliament, and finally encourage the Egyptian Government to provide him with immediate and transparent access to counsel and appropriate legal recourse.
QUESTION: Reexamine what issue?
MR. BOUCHER: The issue of his arrest at this time.
QUESTION: How do you -- I don't think you said in all of that whether or not you have raised this directly with the Egyptians, unless I missed it. Have you raised it with the Egyptians?
MR. BOUCHER: We are making clear our concerns to the Government of Egypt, so frankly, I'm not sure if it's been done today or not.
QUESTION: He was arrested two days ago?
MR. BOUCHER: 29th, I guess it is. Yeah, I don't know if they did it, if we've quite done it yet, but I'll check and see when we have.
I spoke to a few diplomats last night who monitor these issues (not Americans) and they are saying that the US embassy wants to follow this up closely. They also say that they are rather astounded that the arrest happened at all -- from their perspective it is unusually impulsive and doesn't quite make sense. The consensus is that this is probably not about Nour's popularity or power but rather a message saying, "ok, you've had your fun, now get back in line." There are a couple of other issues that come to mind. First, if the US makes a big deal out of this, there is the risk of a nationalist response in Egypt that will discredit Nour by associating him with America. This is in part what happened to Saad Eddin Ibrahim. Secondly, it might prolong Nour's ordeal because the Egyptians might not want to be seen backing down because of US pressure. Remember it took two and a half years before the case against Ibrahim was dismissed by an independent court because of the lack of evidence. The case against Nour seems similarly weak (for now) but they can certainly drag him through the courts for a long time. Finally, things could get worse: I wonder if Nour's arrest could give pretext for the Higher Political Parties Council, the body that regulates party life in Egypt, to freeze the Al Ghad party. This has happened many times before because of "leadership struggles" in opposition parties -- the Islamist-socialist Labor party is a case in point. It could mean the party could not run in this fall's elections. A conviction against Nour could also mean that he would become ineligible to run again in his Bab Al Sharqeya district in Cairo, where he seems genuinely popular, considerably reducing his political standing.
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