One city, two newspapers

Ever since the Washington Post started its campaign against the Mubarak regime three years ago, it has been the leading critic of Cairo and of Washington's stance towards Cairo. Strange that its erstwhile rival, the Washington Times (once a bastion of conservative critics of Egypt), has turned into a Mubarak defender. Just see the two articles below:

Washington Post op-ed editorial: Constitutional Autocracy

The administration's weakness has emboldened the aging autocrat. In late December he unveiled a series of constitutional amendments that purport to follow through on his 2005 promise but in fact do the opposite. Last Monday they were rubber-stamped by the parliament; the next day Mr. Mubarak abruptly announced that the referendum needed to ratify them would be held six days later. No one believes that tomorrow's vote will be free or fair, and opposition parties have announced a boycott.

The package essentially will make the "emergency laws" that have underpinned Mr. Mubarak's regime a permanent part of Egypt's political order. One amendment would write into the constitution the authority of police to carry out arrests, search homes, conduct wiretaps and open mail without a warrant and would give the president the authority to order civilians tried by military courts, where they have limited rights.

Other amendments would ban independent political candidates as well as parties based on religion, which would eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood from parliament. Only parties with parliamentary representation would be able to nominate presidential candidates; since the government has refused to register most opposition parties and rigged parliamentary elections, there would be no alternative to the ruling party's choice.

The opposition and outside groups such as Amnesty International and Freedom House have rightly described the amendments as the greatest setback to freedom in Egypt in a quarter-century. Yet the Bush administration has barely reacted. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is visiting Egypt this weekend, said Friday that "it's disappointing" that Egypt hasn't proved to be a leader of liberalization. But the State Department is downplaying the constitutional amendments. While acknowledging some "concerns," a spokesman said last week that "a process of political reform has begun in Egypt" and that "you have to put this in the wider context."

Here's the wider context: The Bush administration used its considerable leverage over Egypt to force some initial steps toward democratic change two years ago. Then it slowly reversed itself and now has come full circle, once again embracing a corrupt autocracy. It's a shameful record, and one that Egyptians -- who, then as now, mostly despise their government -- won't quickly forget.
Washington Times op-ed by Egyptian ambassador to US Nabil Fahmy: A more plural Egypt

Today, Egyptians will vote on the most far-reaching package of constitutional amendments since the adoption of Egypt's current constitution in 1971. This will constitute a defining moment in the course of our nation's history, an endeavor that will provide a greater clarity to Egypt's vision of itself and its framework of governance.

. . .

Egypt's reformers know well the backdrop to this effort. A system of single-district majority representation has favored individual candidates at the expense of political parties, and local issues over national politics. The result is the current bipolar standoff in parliament between the ruling party and the independents with only a minimal representation for the secular parties, many of which have enjoyed a long and rich tradition in Egypt's history. By moving toward some form of proportional representation system, as well as lowering the threshold for candidates from political parties to compete in presidential elections, the balance will be restored in favor of greater representation for political parties that will compete on the basis of national agendas that can address Egypt's many challenges.

Taken together, these amendments will institutionalize a more plural and competitive political process in Egypt, while strengthening the system of checks and balances necessary for good governance. In short, it is a constitution that will chart a transition for Egypt's future, which is precisely why it is engendering such intense debate. Significant as it is, it is by no means the culmination of Egypt's reform. Needless to say, it is a process that will be confronted with obstacles and resistance, even setbacks. Yet because it realizes their aspirations for a more open, democratic polity, it is a course that Egyptians are determined to pursue.
One interesting in the language coming out of Egyptian officials is this recognition that "there will be setbacks," that things are not perfect but it's a process that will eventually lead to democracy. Sounds remarkably like the Middle East peace process, in fact: the point is not getting there but staying in the process.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.