Democracy Rising


In mid-June 2005, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a speech at Cairo’s American University. She said that her country’s pursuit of Middle East ‘stability’ had actually led to a democracy-deficit in the region. ‘Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people,’ she said.

Rice’s ambitious rhetoric appeared to signal a significant shift in US foreign policy. Alas, two years later, it is clear that nothing has changed except perhaps that there’s even greater cynicism about Washington’s true goals among many democracy-starved Arab people.

My time in Egypt has revealed a hatred of the US Government that is at once familiar and new focusing on the Iraqi cataclysm, Washington’s unyielding support for Israeli brutality in Palestine; its whole-hearted support for a puppet government in Lebanon, and its backing of autocratic regimes across the region . Furthermore, the ongoing crackdowns on opposition Parties, bloggers and activists under President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic regime (funded by the US, like Israel, to the tune of billions of dollars annually) ‘signals that the future of this country is not as predictable as it was.

Wael Abbas is a Cairo-based journalist and blogger. He represents the relatively new, brazen attitude taken by a growing number of young Egyptians. In a recent article for the Washington Post , Abbas stated:

Last Thursday, I returned to my country, Egypt, after several weeks in the United States on a Freedom House fellowship. I came home full of anxiety. I feared that the authorities would arrest me as soon as I set foot on Egyptian soil.

That didn’t happen. But as I went through the airport arrival procedures, I felt that I was being closely watched and followed. Men using walkie-talkies observed me from a distance. When I joined my family members outside the terminal, they, too, told me that they had been watched while waiting for me.

I could still be arrested. And if I am, it will be because I dared to speak the truth about President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, which continues to receive billions in foreign aid from the US Government including funds ostensibly intended to support democracy. It will be because I dared to expose the actions that have made Mubarak’s Administration one of the world’s foremost violators of human rights, according to human rights organisations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.

I am an Egyptian blogger. And the Mubarak regime is out to get me and others like me.

In person, Abbas is a quietly-spoken 32-year-old who is not blind to the West’s deficiencies during a recent stint at Slate Magazine in Washington DC, he noted that the quality of life in the US was akin to working in a machine, where robots shuffle to and from work every day, with little time for rest or relaxation but also seems determined to outsmart the Egyptian security services.

He started his blog [in 2004 as a way to discuss issues that were being ignored by the State-run media, such as police torture and brutality, sexual harassment, foreign policy, internet freedom, opposition Parties and labour rights. Initially, Abbas found a willing audience of mainly young people keen to engage, but he also attracted the attention of the Government. At first, they little understood how the internet worked, but they did appreciate the need to silence anti-regime voices.

Thanks to Sharyn Raggett

Abbas was just one of the many bloggers, democracy activists and opposition figures I met in Egypt in the last few weeks. Of course, Abbas is part of a tiny elite here, and could not claim to represent the vast majority of Egyptians. However, his views are growing in popularity, from the grassroots to the upper echelons of society.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood is banned, they represent the single largest Opposition Party in the country. Their image in the West is one of extremism, terrorism and irrationality, but they are desperately trying to change this. Their English language website makes for interesting reading.

Ibrahim el-Houdaiby  is a Brotherhood spokesperson, writer and blogger. Only 23 years old, he is urbane, well-traveled, moderate and passionate about the Brotherhood. The group uses the web highly effectively, providing blogs for families who have members in jail. These blogs document the difficulties of life in prison and the daily struggles of missing a brother, father or husband.

Houdaiby told me that the Brotherhood wants to impose Sharia law in Egypt, using not Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran as a model, but Turkey. When I pointed out that Turkey claims to be a secular nation, he agreed, and argued that this proved the Brotherhood was about respecting all religions. Like all Egyptians one meets, Houdaiby supports the resistance in Iraq and Palestine. For him, killing Western occupiers of Arab land is not only logical, it’s a simple moral equation.

Spending time in Egypt, I came to appreciate the contradictory nature of its political system. While the Mubarak regime struggles to maintain the fiction that free and fair elections are now a regular feature of the parliamentary calendar, I was struck by how many Egyptians, both rich and poor, felt highly dissatisfied with the country’s current path. What to do about it, of course, was a matter of endless conjecture.

Like so much in an Arab world woefully misunderstood by the West, women are taking a growing role in political change. Dalia Ziada is a blogger, translator and activist. Her work has been targeted by the authorities for allegedly offending Islam. In a blog post,) she writes:

The Judge Abdul Fattah Murad wants to block my blog because of this poem [I wrote in support of imprisoned blogger Kareem Amer]. What do you think? He is accusing me of contempting Islam. I am a Muslim and I am proud of this.

She started her blog for two main reasons. First, to campaign against female circumcision a practice still regularly carried out in Egypt. Secondly, to promote freedom of speech in a country that has long known one-Party rule. Ziada wears a hijab and looks devout, yet spending time with her proves she is highly suspicious of the Muslim Brotherhood and their extreme interpretation of the Koran. Her ideal vision of Egypt is based on tolerance for all.

During a major opposition protest in Cairo on 26 May, I saw first-hand the increasing brazenness of anti-Government forces. Around 200 activists and bloggers assembled outside the main press office and chanted against Mubarak. One older man held a sign that featured a picture of the President under labeled, in both English and Arabic, ‘The Dictator.’ Hundreds of police surrounded the rally and many more plain-clothed officials occupied the area. Unlike last year, when a number of activists were arrested, kidnapped and even raped, no violence was dished out this time only attempts at intimidation.

It was an encouraging sig
n that the US’s nefarious role in Egypt is unlikely to last too many more years. Nobody I met wanted any financial, moral or political assistance from the US to help bring democracy to the country. For them, Washington is poison personified.

The future here, according to Wael Abbas, could bring a military coup, democratic elections, a Muslim Brotherhood take-over or a Mubarak succession to his son. Abbas hopes it will be a people’s revolution.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.