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Egypt's rehabilitation suffers a major setback

October 18, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Supporters of Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi had much to celebrate after his maiden appearance at the UN General Assembly last month. For them, it was a turning point that completed his transformation from military general to international statesman. The former army chief was so assured of his apparent arrival that he even used his UN speech to announce that Egypt was seeking a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. This confidence was clearly misplaced and premature.

Amid growing reports of Egyptian military involvement in Libya it was no wonder the bid was unsuccessful. This, however, was not the only setback for Egypt’s new rulers. September’s hubris has all but evaporated with the announcement this week that the Carter Centre is closing its office in Egypt and will not send a mission to observe this year’s parliamentary elections.

If nothing else, the move has confirmed the ongoing international dissatisfaction with what the organisation founded by ex-US President Jimmy Carter described as Cairo’s “crackdown on dissidents, opposition groups, and critical journalists, together with heightened restrictions on core freedoms”. It is the Carter Centre’s aim to “to fight disease, hunger, poverty, conflict and oppression around the world”; clearly, what is happening in Egypt does not sit well with such objectives.

Simultaneously, the decision was also an indictment of the Obama administration, which chose to deliver a new consignment of Apache helicopters to the Egyptian military and ignore the plight of US citizen Mohamad Soltan, 26, who is fighting for his life after spending the past 263 days in prison on hunger strike. He is accused by the military-backed regime in Cairo of “spreading false information” to the media.

The delivery of the American helicopters coincided with a new security crackdown against students, political dissidents and opposition forces in Egypt. Scores of students have been wounded and detained on campuses across the country.

Under the Leahy amendment which was first introduced in 1997, both the US State Department and the Department of Defence are prohibited from providing military assistance to foreign armed forces which violate human rights with impunity. The appalling human rights record of Al-Sisi’s government has been well documented and called into question by several national and international organisations.

While Egyptian officials have tried to put on a brave face in response to the closure of the Carter Centre, they cannot pretend that it is business as usual. There is no doubt that the decision not to monitor the elections will reinforce concerns about Egypt’s commitment to a genuinely inclusive democracy.

For the time being, Al-Sisi may appear to be ensconced safely in the presidential palace, but there are still obstacles ahead. For one thing, he desperately needs the support of a functioning parliament and government; he has to be sure that they will pose no threat to his tenuous authority, or opposition to his policies.

In order to ensure that this is the case, Al-Sisi has tailored electoral law to fit. It grants the president the right to appoint 27 members of parliament (five per cent) and that 420 (77.8 per cent) must come from single member districts contested by individual candidates, with 120 (22.2 per cent) from party lists.

Already a number of former army officers have thrown their hats into the ring. They include the failed presidential candidate General Ahmed Shafiq; Major General Murad Muwafi; former Chief of Staff General Sami Anan Sami; and former Egyptian Intelligence Agency official General Hossam Khairallah.

Although no date has yet been set for the polls, real concerns about the process have already emerged. The changes in the electoral law stipulate that the votes will not be counted in the secondary committees but only in the main committees. This has given rise to questions about transparency.

As Egypt inches toward its proposed elections, the similarities with Hong Kong have not gone unnoticed. Just as the Chinese leadership has set out limits on who can run in 2017for the role of chief executive, Hong Kong’s top position, so too in Egypt has the former army chief Al-Sisi taken all the steps necessary to determine the composition of the next parliament.

Given the carefully choreographed nature of the process, the Carter Centre had no choice but to withdraw. Its credibility is sure to have been at stake were it to endorse a process that is so manifestly selective rather than elective.

To some, whether the centre monitors the elections or not may all seem rather academic. However, the reality is very different. President Al-Sisi has spent tens of millions of dollars on public relations initiatives to gain acceptance and respect abroad. The last thing he wants, or needs, is a damning report or snub by a prestigious institution such as the Carter Centre.

The closure of its office in Egypt will not bring about an immediate end to support for Al-Sisi and his government, nor will it stop the election parody from taking place. It does, however, set back Egypt’s efforts to be rehabilitated and gain acceptance among the family of democratic nations. As for the Obama administration, its calls for universal suffrage in Hong Kong will continue to ring hollow when deference is shown to the sham that passes for democracy in Egypt.

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