Anger in Egypt as Condoleezza Rice lectures on democracy but backs Mubarak

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In a transparently doctored policy speech setting out the US government’s vision for the Middle East, Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, said in Cairo on June 20 that Washington will no longer tolerate oppression in the region as it has done for 60 years. She stressed that democracy is "inevitable" and that "the fear of free choice can no longer justify the denial theory". Delivering her speech before an invited audience of government officials, academics and other guests at the American University in Cairo, she even told Egypt to hold "free and fair elections" and to give up intimidating pro-democracy activists. She made several references to her background (she is a Black American), as if to underline how ‘democratic’ the Bush administration has shown itself to be by appointing (for the first time) a black woman as secretary of state.

But her admission -” though, in a sense, a fresh contribution -” that her country resisted the introduction of democracy in the Middle East for 60 years, serves only to confirm what most Arabs, and indeed Muslims, continue to believe: how desperate she is to change the poor reputation of the US government in the region. Her references to her background succeeded largely in raising in people’s minds the question of why an intelligent black American should serve without reservations a leader and an administration that are controlled by racist neocons. Indeed, her devotion to her boss is reminiscent of the servile manner in which politicians serve the despotic rulers in the Middle East whom she is urging to free their own people. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that some people wonder why she is not campaigning in her own country to bring democratic rights to her own people -” rights to which they have little or no access, despite the provisions of the US constitution.

In explaining why the US is switching its Middle East policy to supporting democracy, Rice said: "For 60 years my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people." But the secretary of state knows that most people in the region, including its rulers, believe that Washington does not want to see free and fair elections introduced there, because that would hand power to Islamic groups. Consequently she had to come down strongly on the Egyptian regime of Husni Mubarak -” one of the most devoted and valued allies of the US in the region -” to give credibility to the alleged switch to a new pro-democracy policy.

She told Egypt that there was no turning back. "President Mubarak has unlocked the door for change, but now the Egyptian government must put its faith in its own people," she said. "We are all concerned for the future of Egypt’s reforms when peaceful supporters of democracy -“men and women -” are not free from violence," she added. "The day must come when the rule of law replaces emergency decrees." Rice also called on Cairo to ensure that the elections would be "free and fair" and to give unrestricted access to "international observers". The Egyptian regime, which must have resented the directness of her statements, did not, however, see her stance as threatening, but said that it would comply. "Who would object to fair and transparent elections?" Ahmad Abul Gheith, Egypt’s foreign minister, asked rhetorically; "It will be so, I assure you."

The regime’s public assurance, while good enough for Washington, was naturally dismissed by the main opposition groups, who had refused to meet Rice or had not been invited to do so in the first place (the Ikhwan, for instance). Kefaya ("Enough" or "Sufficiency"), the main secular opposition group, refused to meet her, insisting that it would not deal with the Bush administration. The Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood), the largest opposition party and oldest Islamic organisation in Egypt, which is still banned, would definitely have refused to meet her, too, if it had been invited. The Ikhwan is, after all, one of the Islamic groups Washington is determined to keep away from political power. This explains why Rice never mentioned its name and the fact that it is banned, despite her ostensibly called for free and fair elections. In fact, when asked during a public meeting about Washington’s attitude to the Ikhwan, Rice said that the US would not hold talks with it. A day earlier, Muhammad Mursi of the Brotherhood had said, "Mr Bush is not serious about democracy; he doesn’t want real democracy."

Yet, despite the undoubted opposition of the Ikhwan to the Mubarak regime and to Washington’s role in the entire Muslim world’s affairs, some of those close to Egypt’s government make absurd assertions that the Ikhwan is being backed and financed by the US -” a charge that both Washington and the Ikhwan deny. To take only one example, Emad-aldine Adeeb, a prominent television journalist, claims that the US would prefer to see the Ikhwan in power. If that is indeed so, why Rice is not pressing the regime to legalise it and free the thousands of its supporters who are in detention, to take part in the free elections she claims to be seeking, neither he nor other supporters explain.

Similar charges are also made against members of the Kefaya Party, which, as its name clearly shows, believes that the Egyptian people have had enough of Mubarak, his son Jamal and this government. The party has in recent months organised unprecedented demonstrations throughout the country and refuses to reach any compromising deals with the government. One weakness of the Kefaya Party, however, is that as a secular organisation united only by its opposition to the regime, its cooperation with Islamic organisations will vanish as soon as Mubarak and his supporters have been removed from power. Certainly its members will be tempted to block any acquisition of power by "Islamists".

President Bush made his first call on Egypt to "democratise" in his state of the union address in February, saying that he expected Cairo to set a democratic example for the region. This and other symbolic pressures designed to enhance the Bush administration’s image in the region persuaded Mubarak to allow the presidential election to be contested. But the Bush administration knows that Mubarak (who is standing for a fifth term) will win, as the election will be neither free nor fair, and the largest and most popular opposition group is not allowed to field a candidate. As a result of its backing for Israel, its war on Islam and its invasion of Iraq (these three things in particular), the US is detested, and it is not surprising that its belated and false call for "democratisation" is not taken seriously by the people of the Middle East.

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