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Is Egypt about to become another Algeria?

January 25, 2014 at 4:02 am

Democracy, to paraphrase writer and comedian Alexei Sayle, allows you to march up and down the street and elect new dictators every few years. Here in the West, we see this played out regularly as our “elected dictators” ignore mass demonstrations and insist that we can remove them through the ballot box if we don’t like their policies. Party manifestos go out of the window with alarming regularity as incumbents ignore pre-election promises and carry on regardless. New governments and their shadowy advisers more often reflect a change of management than a change of ownership, so entrenched are the “national interests” and those whose task in life is to promote and defend them.

These are the democratic values that we have watched being pushed onto countries around the world to the exclusion of all other forms of government. For observers of what has been happening in the Middle East over many years, this has led to words like hypocrisy and double-standards being devalued, their weight and shock value diminished by overuse. But what else can describe adequately “democratic” attitudes towards Israel and the Palestinians. The allegedly “only democracy” in the region breaks international laws and conventions with murderous regularity and contempt for the rest of us who abide by them, encouraged in its criminal activities by democratically elected governments intent on putting so-called national interests before human rights and the rule of law.

This hypocrisy – what other word describes it so well? – meant that when the people of Palestine voted six years ago, in elections described by international monitors as exceptionally free and fair, for a government run by Islamists, the new government was subjected to a boycott and siege. The results of this illegal collective punishment of people for voting the wrong way (according to “our” skewed notions of democracy) are clear for all to see. The democrats just don’t get it, though, and continue to insist on the victims of Israel’s criminality making massive concessions and giving up their legal rights to suit “the only democracy in the Middle East” and it’s racist agenda. This is unparalleled in history, but the democratic governments of the West, pro-Israel to a fault, can’t see that they are being manipulated to back a very undemocratic political ideology in the heart of the Arab world.

The boycott of the Hamas government in Palestine, reduced to a rump statelet in blockaded Gaza, is not the first time that the prospect of Islamists winning a democratic election has prompted Western democracies to act against their self-proclaimed values. In 1991, the first round of the election in Algeria was won by the Islamic Salvation Front, but this was overturned swiftly by the country’s military, backed by the international community, leading to a long and bloody civil war. Algeria is still feeling the non-democratic effects of that brush with democratic values. The presence of vast oil and gas reserves are the West’s “national interests” used to justify support for overturning the democratic process in 1991, leaving Algeria and its citizens to the mercies of an authoritarian regime.

Since the start of the Arab Spring more than a year ago, the democracies of the West, and their puppet-masters in Israel, have watched with alarm as Islamists have taken control in Tunisia and look set to run Egypt. Suddenly, democracy for the Arabs has become less attractive; the corrupt regimes of the dictators propped up by Western bribes in the form of military aid have served US, European and Israeli interests so well that the thought of the people of the region actually opting for democracy and then voting “the wrong way”, as the Palestinians did, is causing nightmares in Washington and European capitals.

Thus, we have seen endless media attacks, by an endlessly compliant media, on the Muslim Brotherhood, which won the election for the Egyptian parliament and whose candidate, US-educated Mohammed Morsi, appears to have won the first round of the presidential election. The main focus of the efforts to discredit the Islamist group has not been their plans for reform of Egyptian politics and the revival of the economy, but how each presidential candidate is going to deal with Israel. The two countries signed a peace treaty at Camp David in 1978 and Egypt under its US-financed dictatorship has played its part in defending Israel’s southern flank ever since.

It is in this context that alarm bells are beginning to ring about the transparency of Egypt’s first attempt at real democracy. While it was widely predicted that Mohammed Morsi would probably fight the second round of the presidential contest with ex-head of the Arab League Amr Moussa, the results with 90 per cent of the votes counted show that Ahmed Shafik has come from the back into second place. Is he just another non-Islamist around whom the liberally-secularist Egyptian elite can rally? Well, yes and no. He is very definitely not an Islamist, that’s for certain, but is he liberal? As the last prime minister of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, Shafik is to all intents and purposes the representative of the repressive old guard trying to get back into the corridors of power.

However, as the votes are still being counted, there are already rumours that “millions” of voters have appeared from nowhere; some, it is alleged, are actually “deceased”, a ghost electorate in every sense. Could this be the democracies’ last throw of the dice to ensure that a non-Islamist sits on Egypt’s presidential throne? In Israel, which has been open in its opposition to democracy for the people of Egypt, the word is that having an Islamist president and an Islamist-controlled parliament somehow negates democracy. This is a criticism that we have never heard when a US president operates with a Congress controlled by his own party. On the contrary, it is regarded as a sign of strength, with a president able to drive his policies through a supportive legislature. That this should be mentioned at all suggests that the anti-Islamists, who are in this case also anti-democrats, are desperate; in addition, it highlights the strategic importance of Egypt.

All the more reason, therefore, for the people of Egypt to get out and vote for real change post-revolution and not be content to see the discredited Mubarak regime get back into power by the front door. Although commentators have pointed to a “high turnout” for the first round of the presidential election, officials put the figure at around 40 per cent. That’s on a par with British General Elections but nowhere near good enough for anyone to claim that they have an overwhelming mandate from the people.

There is still much to do if the Muslim Brotherhood wants to be in a position to restore Egypt to its lead role in the Middle East and North Africa. This includes convincing voters that the group can rule effectively beyond faith-based rhetoric as well as trying to ensure complete transparency in the election process. Given that the army and intelligence services are backing Shafik, this may not be easy. And that is where the international community has a role to play. Any accusations of electoral fraud must be treated seriously, and Western politicians must make it absolutely clear that any candidate so tarnished will not be tolerated. For the sake of the people, it is vital that Egypt is not allowed to become another Algeria.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.