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The EU and Middle East democracy

May 5, 2014 at 4:36 pm

Is there any difference between the forthcoming presidential elections in Egypt and Syria? The Europe Union apparently believes that there is. While the EU has dismissed the Syrian process as a “parody of democracy”, the European High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, conveyed an entirely different outlook on the election in Egypt during her last visit to Cairo. “The EU hopes that the next phase of life in Egypt is going to be very positive,” she stated. That said, the policy of isolating the Syrian regime on the one hand and rehabilitating the Egyptian junta on the other defies all logic because their records on human rights are equally awful.

Appalling human rights records aside, the Assad and Al-Sisi regimes share another fundamental trait. They both represent the Middle Eastern norm of democracy by selection rather than election.

In the case of Assad, his rapid rise to power in Syria was literally accidental, coming about after the death of his elder brother in a car accident in 1994. As fate would have it, he returned to Syria to attend the funeral only to find that in less than five years he was fast-tracked through the ranks of the military and the Baath Party to become the president by a special referendum in 2000 after his father’s death.

From his obscure position as a trainee ophthalmologist Bashar was promoted to the position of tank battalion commander in November 1994. In January 1995, he was made a major in the Presidential Guard and in July 1997 he was promoted again to the rank of lieutenant-colonel and named commander-in-chief of the Republican Guards. The rest, as they say, is now history.

In Egypt, the scenario is different, but only marginally so. After toppling the elected civilian government last year General Al-Sisi promoted himself to the rank of Field Marshall. Now with less than a week to go to the deadline for the final submission of documents by presidential candidates, Al-Sisi remains the sole contestant. His nearest rival is Hamdeen Sabahi, who has only managed to secure 17,000 out of the required 25,000 signatures to support his candidature. If things remain as they are, Al-Sisi will emerge as president by default.

To his supporters at home and abroad it matters little how the president-in-waiting comes to office; what is important is that he gets there, by any means necessary, even if he has to deny others the right to contest the election. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Alexandria Court for Urgent Matters ruled this week that no current member of the Muslim Brotherhood or defector would be allowed to stand in the presidential and parliamentary elections.

The former minister of defence who claimed that he had a mandate from the majority of Egyptians has suddenly become afraid of facing his political adversaries in free and fair elections. Even if the Muslim Brotherhood chooses to boycott the elections, which they might as well, the right of citizens to vote is a core feature of the democratic tradition. For this reason, several constitutional judges in Egypt, as well as human right organisations, have denounced the Alexandria court ruling. One constitutional judge, Thawrat Badawi, pointed out that no court, from the lowest Court of Urgent Matters to the highest Court of Appeal has the right to issue such a ruling.

To justify their support for the junta in Cairo, European politicians and officials, notably the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, claim that the aim of Islamists across the region is to exploit the democratic process to gain power; once that is achieved, it is claimed, they would resort to dictatorship. Blair et al still support the generals who seized power in 2013, as if they have ever embraced democracy! The fact is that they deposed Mohamed Morsi because they wanted to restore their six-decade military rule which was interrupted by the January 25 Revolution.

Of course, the Sisi camp will argue that the Muslim Brotherhood is a “terrorist organisation” and that disqualifies its members from standing for public office. Notwithstanding that none of its senior leaders have ever been convicted of such serious charges in a legitimate court of law, even if they had, it should not constitute a reason for their disqualification.

Just one day after the coup in Egypt, on 4 July 2013, the European Court of Human Rights passed a judgement in the case of two prisoners (Gladkov and Anchugov) against Russia. The men had complained that their disenfranchisement had violated their right to vote and had prevented them from participating in a number of elections. The Court ruled that there had been a violation of Article 3 (right to free elections) of Protocol No. 1 to the Human Rights Convention. It noted in particular “that the applicants had been deprived of their right to vote in parliamentary elections regardless of the length of their sentence, of the nature or gravity of their offence or of their individual circumstances.”

Surely it would be an act of gross hypocrisy for European officials to support the denial of these democratic rights for Muslim Brotherhood members who were not even convicted when such rights are guaranteed in Europe. Do they believe that the principles of human rights are not universal but instead vary from one continent to another?

European support for Middle Eastern dictatorships has, historically, been premised on the assumption that they would deliver security and stability. Not in their wildest dreams should they now expect either to be achieved in Egypt by supporting a regime that is so similar to the brutal dictatorship in Syria. Just as the EU has condemned the “parody of democracy” in Syria, so too should it now do likewise in the case of Egypt. Failure to do so will expose even further Europe’s hypocrisy and double standards when it comes to human rights abuses and democracy in the Middle East.