Backsliding on democracy in Egypt

When Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak approved multi-candidate elections last February, I wrote that “[o]f course it’s not yet the dawn of democracy in Egypt.”

It appears I was understating the case.

The Associated Press reports:

Police and plainclothes security men beat and arrested demonstrators calling for a boycott of Wednesday’s government-backed referendum on constitutional changes that would clear the way for Egypt’s first multicandidate presidential election.

Opponents say the referendum does not go far enough in advancing democracy, contending the rules being laid down ensure that President Hosni Mubarak will have no serious challengers and that his ruling National Democratic Party will keep its grip on power.
Scattered anti-Mubarak demonstrations took place in defiance of warnings, some on the margins of pro-Mubarak street rallies, with scattered reports of violence. Many gatherings were broken up by force.

In one, more than a dozen members of the anti-Mubarak movement Kifaya, or “Enough,” were beaten by pro-Mubarak gangs in Cairo. The protesters sought police protection but a high-ranking officer ordered lawmen to withdraw and allowed the attackers to set upon the demonstrators.

Elsewhere in the capital, 150 pro-Mubarak protesters attacked Kifaya members, belting them with wooden sticks use to hold Mubarak banners. Demonstrators scattered, with some taking refuge inside the press syndicate building.

One woman trying to leave the building was pounced upon by Mubarak loyalists who punched and pummeled her with batons and tore her clothes. As police looked on, the woman screamed, then vomited and fainted.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the only way supporters of opposition candidate Ayman Nour could hold a demonstration was to buy tickets to a movie and stand outside the theater shouting slogans. The police quickly put an end to that.

Much more than with the regimes in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the US has some real leverage with the Mubarak government– the kind of leverage provided by $2 billion a year in military and civilian aid.

In February Secretary of State Rice sent a message to Egypt’s rulers by postponing a planned visit to the country– which probably helped prod Mubarak’s election announcement.

But this week, Reuters reports:

[First Lady] Laura Bush adopted the Egyptian official line when she said on Monday, on a visit to the Giza pyramids, that Mubarak’s proposal to introduce direct presidential elections was bold and wise and political reform must happen slowly.

“What she said is really frustrating for most opposition forces in Egypt,” said Gameela Ismail, Ayman Nour’s wife and a spokeswoman for his Ghad (Tomorrow) Party.

Update: An editorial in Thursday’s Washington Post says exactly what needs to be said, including this:

…Mrs. Bush sided squarely with Mr. Mubarak, who frequently condemned the U.S. democracy initiative in the Middle East before abruptly announcing elections on his own terms. “President Mubarak has taken a very bold step,” Mrs. Bush repeated on numerous occasions. Echoing the dictator’s most common refrain, she added, “You know that each step is a small step, that you can’t be quick.” When reporters told her the Egyptian opposition was dismayed by this endorsement, she went further: “To act like you can just go from here to there overnight is naive . . . we know that’s not easy and we know that it’s, in many cases, not even possible.” Really? We wonder if the Iraqis who turned out to vote Jan. 30, or their newly elected leaders, would support that view.