By David Faris
International attention remains focused on the recent spate of gruesome shark attacks in Egypt. But the real threat is not from wandering Makos in the glittering alternate tourist universes of the Sinai, but rather from the sharks of the regime — the ones who just finished dismembering what was left of Egypt’s sham democracy. Alas, there will be no choreographed hunt for those sharks, who operate freely in global capitalist waters with the full cooperation of the United States.
The open rigging of last month’s parliamentary elections completes a plan hatched immediately after the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 seats in the 2005 elections. As soon as the Bush Administration backed away from its democratization rhetoric, the suddenly-threatened elites in Cairo set about making sure that they would never again have to contend with an actual parliamentary opposition.
America’s total capitulation to this brazen affront to democratic values is ironic, since Cairo was only last year the site of US President Barack Obama’s address to the Muslim world, which has since been predictably exposed as the meaningless rhetoric its skeptics suspected it to be. If America really wanted to repair its relationship with Muslims, it would change its relationship to countries like Egypt.
Fake elections to fake parliaments have become so routine across the region that political scientists have stumbled over one another to create the appropriate descriptive categories — competitive authoritarianism, semi-democracy, illiberal democracy. No one with a pulse and reasoning capabilities, however, will ever mistake Egypt for even half a democracy.
The rigging of last month’s elections was done with American acquiescence, if not approval, since the United States long since abdicated any sense that democracy is an important goal of US foreign policy. The horrorshow in Iraq has convinced the neorealists in the Obama Administration that the administration you know in Cairo is better than unleashing the chaos of actual democracy in the Middle East.
American submission to the arguments and agendas of autocrats constitutes one final shopping spree at the big box store of colonialism. For at its heart, the argument for continued dictatorship is a rejection of the capabilities of the people of the region — unable to govern themselves, not to be trusted with the reigns of power, too fanatical to see reason, carried away with primitive or “backward” notions of society. It is a renewal of long-discredited arguments that Middle Easterners are somehow “exceptional” in their need to be governed by the children of their eternal rulers.
Complicity with Egypt’s bankrupt rulers is premised still on the fears of Islamist takeover, what the diplomat Edward Djerijian once famously termed “One person, one vote, one time.” Those fears are irreconcilable with any nuanced reading of Egypt’s Islamist opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood which, whatever its failings, certainly couldn’t govern any more brutally than the regime’s enforcers.
Instead American diplomats continue to write checks and look the other way as people are tortured and killed with a randomness reminiscent of totalitarianism. Take for instance, the case of Khaled Saeid, who was dragged out of an internet café by regime hooligans and beaten to death in full view of horrified onlookers this past summer. The government has rather predictably used the protests on Saeid’s behalf as yet another opportunity to beat the fuul out of people for no apparent reason.
There are still other crimes against the citizens of Egypt that people in the West will rarely if ever read about, because they are carried out against proponents of political Islam, or against labor activists fighting for a more just economic order. Such individuals are completely invisible, both to the international community, and to the corrupt ruling class of Egypt itself.
America’s ongoing and indefensible collusion with this will one day carry a price, for the practice of authoritarianism is increasingly incompatible with the reality of global democracy and empowerment. Every day, millions of Arabs log onto the internet, post articles to Facebook, and watch videos on YouTube that demonstrate precisely what they are missing, and which document, often graphically, the violence carried out against them.
They do not want the American government to bomb their regimes out of existence, but neither do they want their regimes to use American aid to fund militaries and secret police forces to prolong their torment. What they want is to be allowed — after 150 years of mandates, colonialism, Cold War compromises and now finally the War on Terror — to choose their leaders and their policies for themselves, through representative government unfettered by killings, manipulations, fraud and coercion.
While Egypt will continue to rig elections — next up is the sure-to-be-a-cliffhanger presidential election — one can only hope that its efforts will eventually fail, since no authoritarian regime has figured out how to prevent intrepid individuals from seeking and using information.
In the meantime, anyone courageous enough to continue fighting for democracy will do so in the bloody, shark-infested waters of Egypt’s hapless tyranny. Here’s to hoping America does more than issue a press release the next time bodies start washing ashore.
David Faris is an American political commentator and holds a Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania for which he did extensive research in Cairo. He teaches at Roosevelt University in Chicago.