After a weeklong campaign to focus attention on this Monday's Egyptian constitutional referendum, I'm delighted to report some results, as Condoleeza Rice expressed serious disappointment in the constitutional changes during a press appearance, saying she was "seriously concerned" about "a really disappointing outcome". The Egyptian government is furious over this "rare public criticism", which is all to the good. I'm just going to reproduce most of today's Washington Times story by David Sands because of the fun bit at the end:
Under pressure from human rights groups and democracy activists, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday stepped up criticism of Egypt's plans to hold a referendum on constitutional amendments critics say will enhance the control of longtime President Hosni Mubarak.
"The changes will stifle meaningful political participation in Egypt and encroach more on Egyptians' personal freedoms and rule of law in the country," said Jennifer Windsor, executive director of the Washington-based Freedom House.
Miss Rice, who visits with Mr. Mubarak in Aswan, Egypt, today at the start of a new round of regional talks on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, told reporters at the State Department before leaving yesterday she was "really concerned" about the constitutional changes. "This is a really disappointing outcome," she said. "We will talk about it and hopefully it will turn out better than expected." "As the Middle East moves towards greater openness and greater pluralism and greater democratization, Egypt has got to be in the lead," she said.
Egyptian democracy activists roundly criticized the State Department's initial reaction to the referendum. A spokesman Tuesday expressed concern over the amendments, but added the vote was a domestic Egyptian affair.
It was in Cairo in June 2005 that Miss Rice gave a widely noted speech on the need for democracy and greater political reform in the Arab Middle East, with some pointed passages aimed at Egypt, a key U.S. ally. Analysts say the Bush administration's commitment to the cause has withered as the need for allies in the Iraq war and Iranian nuclear showdown has increased.
The initial "tepid" U.S. reaction "is the latest evidence that the Bush administration has all but abandoned the policy of democracy promotion articulated by [Miss Rice] in Cairo in June 2005," Andrew Exum and Zack Snyder, researchers at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in a new analysis.
But the referendum comes just seven days after the Mubarak-dominated parliament approved the constitutional changes. Secular and leftist parties have joined the Muslim Brotherhood in boycotting the vote.
Marc Lynch, a political scientist at William College and author of the influential "Abu Aardvark" blog on Middle Eastern politics, www.abuaardvark.typepad.com, called the referendum "a crude mockery of promises of political reform."
"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," Mr. Lynch wrote.
This humbly influential blog on Middle East politics sends much more credit the way of Freedom
House, Amnesty International, the Carnegie Endowment for International
Peace, and the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy (sorry if I missed anyone) for focusing attention on the referendum and preventing Mubarak's constitutional power grab to go unnoticed. It's now being noticed, thanks to Rice's remarks and the Egyptian Foreign Minister's angry response. There are hundreds of stories now on Google News, compared to virtually none the last few days - the wave of negative international media coverage predicted by Scott MacLeod the other day has now materialized, including this scathing editorial in the Washington Post.
While Rice's public criticism of the Constitutional changes is very welcome, and something I'm delighted to have played whatever small part in facilitating, the next question is whether this increased international scrutiny will matter. In that regard, her statement is not encouraging. Here is her entire exchange with reporters over the Egyptian referendum:
QUESTION: Since we're headed for Egypt, I just wanted to ask you, Freedom House today put out a report where they said that this referendum that's taking place on Monday is a sham and actually sets back the cause of democracy in Egypt. What do you make of this referendum?
SECRETARY RICE: I'm really concerned about it. You know, the Egyptians set certain expectations themselves about what this referendum would achieve. And we -- the hope that it would be a process that gave voice to all Egyptians, you know, I think there's some danger that that hopes not going to be met. And the abbreviated timetable is a problem, and we will see what ultimately comes out of it. But, you know, I've said many times that we continued -- and by the way, I will talk about it when I'm there, meet with the leadership and with my colleagues because Egypt is an extremely important country in the Middle East; one of the key countries in the Middle East. And as the Middle East moves toward greater openness and greater pluralism and greater democratization, Egypt ought to be in the lead of that. And it's disappointing that this has not happened. Now some good things have happened. The contested presidential elections suggests to me that you will never have a presidential election in Egypt like the old elections. That is something that will never go back, and so we have to remember that there are ups and downs in these things; ebb and flow. But yeah, this is a really a disappointing outcome and we will talk about it and hopefully it will turn out better than is expected. But right now I'm concerned that it won't.
Hope is famously not a plan. If it doesn't "turn out better than is expected", will there be any further consequences or actions on the part of the United States to express its disappointment? Or will the administration just feel kind of rotten about it?