That never-ending path to democracy

That never-ending path to democracy

Yesterday, as a who's-who of Egyptian activists and human rights workers was harassed and detained for peacefully protesting, I thought back to US Secretary of State John Kerry's remarks when he visited Egypt earlier this month. Kerry glibly subscribed to the version of events of a government that -- on the official state information service web site no less -- compares Morsi to Hitler and claims Egypt has "saved the world from terrorism," and spoke of progress and challenges and Egypt's oh-so-promising roadmap. I couldn't help annotating part of his joint statement with Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy:

Nothing will help bring the people of Egypt together more or provide more economic stability or provide more confidence in the future than an Egypt that is participating in a democratically elected government that is brought about through inclusive, free, and fair elections [There is a very strong chance the Muslim Brotherhood will be excluded from the upcoming elections and from political life generally. April 6, one of the country’s most respected grassroots youth groups, has been denied permission to monitor the elections]. And we will support the interim government and the Egyptian people in that end.

Minister Fahmy and I agreed on the need to ensure that Egyptians are afforded due process with fair and transparent trials, civilians tried in a civilian court [The constitutional assembly has approved an article in the new Egyptian constitution that allows military trials for civilians]. And we discussed the need for all violence to end. All acts of terror in Egypt must come to an end – all acts – for Egyptians to be able to exercise restraint and the need for accountability for those acts of violence.

I mentioned to the Minister that, obviously, part of the roadmap and part of the process of strengthening Egypt’s linkages to the rest of the world will be measured in the way in which the people of Egypt are sustained in their ability to have the right to assemble, the right to express themselves [a new law aggressively restricting the right to protest was issued Monday]. But even as they do that, we also agreed no one should be allowed to practice violence with impunity [Does that include police violence for which no one has been held accountable yet?].

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The speech ElBaradei could have made after meeting Kerry

Much has been made about the refusal by National Salvation Front leaders, aside Amr "I never miss an opportunity to show I'm a big shot" Moussa, to meet incoming US Secretary of State John Kerry. I'm not sure not meeting him was that much of a missed opportunity, because I'm still not sure what the NSF exactly has to say for itself. Beyond, that is, describing Washington's urging for the opposition to compete in the upcoming elections as a form of foreign interference, thus echoing both the Mubarak regime and SCAF's (and the Brotherhood regime's) hysterical accusations and hyperventilation every time someone outside the country suggests something.

Imagine ElBaradei (or Sabahi, or whoever) coming out of a meeting with Kerry and, at the press conference, making a speech that begins along these lines:

We just had an honest and forceful exchange of views with John Kerry, whom we welcome to Egypt and wish good luck as he begins his tenure as Secretary of State. The United States has a long history of relations with Egypt — not always good relations, it is true, but relations that have nonetheless been pivotal to the region and its future. I told Secretary Kerry that as he begins a new job, and the Obama administration begins a second term, many Egyptians will be watching him for what direction America takes.

Under the Mubarak regime, many of us felt that the US had made the wrong choice in backing a president and a regime that grew more authoritarian and unjust over the years. We hoped such a mistake would not be repeated again, and were optimistic to see President Obama speak of the need for democracy in the region in 2011. But, more recently, some of us have been sorely disappointed.

We have a hard time understanding how the country of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and John Adams — a country whose people, perhaps more than any other in the world, takes great pride in its founders' framing of its constitution — stayed silent when a new constitution was shoved down the throats of Egyptians. We wonder whether Americans would find it acceptable that the majority party of the day rush the approval of their nation's covenant in less than 24 hours. Or that their Supreme Court be fettered by an all-powerful president. 

We do not believe that the Egyptian people deserve any less a constitution than the American people. And we were puzzled to hear Washington call for consensus only after the recent referendum, precisely after the opportunity to create a wide consensus had evaporated.

We hear Secretary Kerry's calls to focus on our foundering economy, and could not agree more: it has been terribly mismanaged by an administration that decided to sacrifice Egypt's economic and social well-being for short-term political gain. But we ask Secretary Kerry: was Egypt ever likely to be able to tackle its challenges and take painful decisions for the sake of reform without establishing a genuine consensus? Where was America's advice in December, when the decisions that have led to the current economic crisis were taken?

Secretary Kerry, a long time ago you fought against your president's decision to prolong an unnecessary war in Vietnam, and more recently you had the wisdom to speak out against another president's policies in Iraq. Some called you unpatriotic, but history proved you right. When Egyptians denounce their president today, they do not do so out of spite — they do so out of concern for their country and their future. We believe history will prove us right — but fear the costs we will have to pay in the meantime.

Secretary Kerry, we will not take part in the next elections not because we are afraid of losing, but precisely because we do not think the consensus that is necessary to set Egypt on the right path politically, economically, and socially has been created. We will not legitimize an administration that believes winning one or two elections gives it the right to single-handedly write the rules of the game and treat other parts of our great nation in an arrogant and humiliating way. We know this might be a risky proposition — but we must stand by our principles. And we ask: what are America's principles?

. . .

The point is not the content of the speech, in which I echo what I see as potential NSF talking points rather than my own opinion. The point is, as an opposition leader, why not leverage such an occasion to make a speech that might send a strong message to the US, play to concerns of some American groups (some in Congress, parts of the media, civil society, elements of public opinion, etc.) that can put pressure on the Obama administration? That also sends a message to a domestic audience that it has leaders that are able to stand next to an American Secretary of State and sound both statesmanlike and defiant — but without being petulant? Why not take every opportunity to score political points?