Far too early to give support to Egypt’s leaders

29 January 2014

Far too early to give support to Egypt’s leaders

The US and the EU appear to have abandoned their tough attitude to Egypt. This sends the wrong signal to the military, who have trampled on democracy.

Harry van Bommel and Cherif Osman

Last weekend saw the publication of the result of the referendum on Egypt’s new constitution. The turnout was lower than expected, but the result was overwhelming: 98.1% of those who did turn up voted yes. The adopted constitution lays the ground for presidential and parliamentary elections. These developments could create the impression that after July’s military coup the situation in Egypt has been normalised, but nothing could be further from the truth.

The circumstances surrounding the referendum were such that there is no possibility that this was a fair and honest plebiscite. Campaigning against the constitution was made impossible by, amongst other things, the arrest of activists who took to the streets.

Observers also draw attention to objectionable practices in the polling booths, such as multiple voting, and intimidation by security officers. Furthermore, the referendum was boycotted by the Muslim Brotherhood, various youth movements and others. The absurdly high percentage who supported the proposal, that reminds one of the period under the dictator Mubarak, also raises questions that need to be asked.

There are in addition a number of justifiable criticisms of the contents of the constitution itself. Human rights organisations do, it’s true, note that on important points it represents a step forward; on the other hand, this must be set against the fact that the army’s powers have been greatly enlarged. The army is already exceptionally influential in Egypt, partly due to its extensive possessions, but thanks to the constitution the military will also have the right for the next eight years to appoint the Minister of Defence. Politics is in this way in part subordinated to the army, rather than the other way round. As well, no end has been put to trials of civilians in military courts.

That the situation in Egypt has not been in any sense normalised is shown also by the harsh repression by the security forces of any form of political opposition. Since the coup against President Morsi in the summer, more than a thousand demonstrating supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood have been killed in cold blood. Thousands more have been arrested. The elected parliament has been suspended and MPs arrested. Recently the Muslim Brotherhood has even been branded a terrorist organisation. This excludes a considerable part of the population from politics.

Other groups are increasingly becoming victims of the repression. An example is the 6th April Movement, which was in at the very inception of the uprising against Mubarak in 2011. To make this repression possible, one repressive measure after repressive measure has been introduced. Room to freely express one’s opinions has been narrowed in rapid tempo.

When in the summer the military put an end to the young experiment in democracy in Egypt, justified measures were taken by western powers. The EU took the decision to suspend the export of goods which could be used for internal repression and to limit exports of military materiel. Egypt receives an annual $1.5 billion from the US, most of it in military support, but the Americans at that time suspended this aid. In recent weeks, however, it appears increasingly likely that these measures will be reversed. Within the EU this is being openly discussed, while the US is seriously considering giving Egypt a billion dollars in military aid.

It’s true that the Muslim Brothers made a mess of things when they governed Egypt for a year and that the military won considerable support for their seizure of power, but as a result of the continuing repression it should for the time being mean no return to business as usual with Egypt. As long as democracy isn’t restored and opposition is answered with gunfire, any move to change course will send the wrong signal.

Harry van Bommel is a Member of Parliament for the SP. Cherif Osman is originally from Egypt and is a member of the 6th April Movement, a secular and civil movement which was one of the groups which played a major role in the uprising of 2011.

This article first appeared, in the original Dutch, on 25th January 2014 in a number of regional dailies in the Netherlands.

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