In five days Egypt is scheduled to hold a national referendum on changes to its Constitution. Even veteran Egyptian opposition figures, well versed in the regime's authoritarian ways, have expressed shock at the choice of March 26 for the referendum. This is a travesty, a crude mockery of promises of political reform, and something which deserves widespread international mockery and condemnation. Here's why:
- The actual language of those changes was only finalized in a marathon Parliamentary session two days ago, giving the Egyptian citizenry less than a week to learn about the changes and make up their minds. Does anybody really think that voters could conceivably come to terms with the complex and varied changes on offer in such a short time? Of course not. That's the point. As al-Masry al-Youm bluntly reports, giving less than a week means that there will be no chance for any kind of real protest movement to take shape.
- The changes were passed almost exclusively by the ruling party. Over 100 opposition deputies - not only Muslim Brotherhood deputies, as has been widely reported - boycotted the final vote and demonstrated outside the Parliament during the proceedings. NDP deputies quite appropriatedly celebrated its "victory" by launching into the Baathist chant "With spirit, with blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, oh Mubarak." This is what America's support for Egyptian "reform" has brought: Baathism on the Nile.
- The changes are blatantly, almost absurdly, authoritarian and antidemocratic. Judicial oversight of elections will be eliminated; even NDP strategist Ali al-Din Hilal admits that this makes cheating much easier (which of course is the point). Contested Presidential elections will be virtually impossible, since candidates must come from a licensed party with so much representation in all elected bodies that in practice only the NDP will ever get over the bar. Parties based on religion would be explicitly banned, making it impossible for the Muslim Brotherhood to form a political party and participate openly in the political process. But it isn't just the MB: the regime, under NDP control, will retain an iron grip on the licensing of political parties, and judging by past practice will use this control to exclude not only the Muslim Brotherhood but any other promising political party. "Counter-terrorism" provisions will render a whole range of highly controversial, intrusive security practices Constitutional, making the de facto security state into a de jure security state.
- The NDP majority which passed the reforms was itself achieved through blatant electoral falsifications and fraud. The most famous case is that of Gamal Heshmat, a popular Muslim Brotherhood Deputy, whose sweeping victory over NDP bigwig Mustafa al-Fiqi simply disappeared in the counting room; a whistleblower article by Noha al-Zeini, the supervising judge, uncovered the fraud everyone suspected but nobody had yet been able to prove. But the Heshmat case is only the tip of the iceberg. After the Muslim Brotherhood successes in the first (of three) rounds of voting, the regime cracked down sharply, arresting large numbers of Brotherhood members, harrassing voters and journalists, blockading voting stations, and - yes - cheating.
- The Constitutional reforms and referendum are taking place in an atmosphere of rather intense repression of activists, bloggers, protestors, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The regime is taking no chances. I hope everyone reads these accounts of how state security goons are treating political activists, liberals and Islamists alike. I suspect that the crackdown on bloggers may have a lot to do with their successful project of "citizen monitoring" of the Parliamentary elections, where ordinary people with camera phones documented all kinds of electoral abuses to the regime's embarrassment. This time, no chances. The judges appear to be planning to monitor the referendum - we'll see if they get the chance to do so honestly.
Amnesty International has described the changes as "the biggest threat to Egyptian democracy since emergency laws passed after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat by Islamist extremists in 1981." That's exactly right. Except these aren't emergency laws: this revises the Constitution itself. I said this on Friday, but let me say it again, slowly. Mubarak is about to do exactly what he always accuses Islamists of secretly planning: win an election and then use his majority to abolish democracy.
The opposition, from the MB to Kefaya, has been placed in an impossible position. Participating in the referendum will legitimize the results, particularly since nobody doubts for an instant that the regime will falsify the results if they go badly. The most extreme option, a collective resignation from Parliament, seems to have been taken off the table: even the MB seems to feel that this would be going too far, and that this would only please the government which would be able to replace the troublesome MB deputies with more accomodating deputies. That leaves only boycott, which will not in the end have much impact - as above, even if only 10% turn out and vote, the regime will happily claim 70%.
The best and only real option: mobilize sustained, critical
international media attention to stigmatize and embarrass the Egyptian
regime. Al-Jazeera has been giving full voice to the Egyptian opposition, but the Saudi press is mostly ignoring it, probably because the Saudis don't really like democratic reforms and they are currently comfortably aligned with Cairo and Washington against Iran. Al-Arabiya currently does not have a single front page story about the Egyptian crisis (though this may change over the course of the day, of course), while between al-Hayat and al-Sharq al-Awsat there is exactly one story, a scathing opinion piece by Fahmy Howeydi, who can write whatever he wants to write because he's Fahmy Howeydi... except in Egypt, where al-Ahram refused to run this highly critical piece in his usual weekly column spot. Some Egyptian papers, like al-Masry al-Youm, are doing a good job, but it's often been noted that they have this margin of freedom precisely because of their relatively limited influence and reach.
At the end of the day, there's only one opinion which Mubarak and the NDP really care about: the United States. The Constitutional crisis has not been front page news here, and even where it has been covered, the criticism has been tepid. The State Department's spokesman took some questions about this yesterday. To his credit, he said that some of the changes "raised questions," and that Egypt didn't seem to be meeting its own benchmarks for reform - the statements which al-Jazeera chose to highlight - but he went out of his way to praise Egypt's general commitment to political reform and its progress to date. He even rather absurdly suggested that a week might be plenty of time for Egypt's citizens to become fully informed and vote. But he did make sure to say the magic words for which Mubarak's people were waiting: "I frankly don't want to insert the United States Government in the middle of what should be a domestic political event in Egypt."
So there you go. The United States no longer considers Egyptian or Arab political reform to be any of its business. As long as the
United States refuses to put any real teeth into international
dissatisfaction, its "reservations" can be safely ignored. In response to Amnesty International, Egypt's Foreign Minister declared that "It is not the right of non-Egyptians to
comment or simply pass an opinion on a purely internal question, that
is, on the constitution [of Egypt] and its national laws." The United States agrees. This isn't a surprise any more, but I suppose it's good to have the clarity.