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Ahmed Shihab-Eldin Headshot

Lacking Credibility, Egypt Tests American Hegemony

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Dejavu. An election in the Middle East marred by voter intimidation, fraud, and a series of sobering violent incidents - except this time, this isn't an enemy state but rather the United States' closest ally in the region, Egypt.

With a 9.4 percent unemployment rate, inflation in the double digits, and a stagnant government masquerading as a democracy, the country is quietly moving towards collapse, an eventuality that would be extremely dangerous for the region and U.S. interests.

In an attempt to secure Egypt's support of U.S. policy in the region, in particular regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the U.S. sends more than $1.3 billion annually in military aid to the autocratic state while turning a blind eye to the government's pervasive corruption, human rights violations, and decades of election rigging.

But Egypt's parliamentary elections, held earlier this month, call into question the essence of American hegemony, particularly their military and monetary meddling in Middle Eastern affairs to promote democracy, while also protecting Israel's security.

The U.S. Agency for International Development has also provided over $28 billion in economic and development assistance to the country since 1975. So worried is the U.S. about any destabilization in the region, it continues this funding despite Egypt's abysmal track record internally and externally including opposing U.S. efforts to dethrone Saddam Hussein and frequently siding with Arab allies against the U.S. such as supporting an attempt by the UAE to lift sanctions on Iraq.

Egypt's current political situation began in 1981 with the assassination of Anwar Sadat. Since then Hosni Mubarak has been Egypt's president and leader of the National Democratic Party - a misleading name, as the party neither espouses nor tolerates democracy. Any hope during that time of his potential for bringing political liberalization is noticeably absent today.

While Mubarak has taken superficial steps such as ordering the reform of the presidential election law in 2005 to allow for multi-candidate elections (claiming the move came "out of my full conviction of the need to consolidate efforts for more freedom and democracy"), in reality he has done the opposite, masterfully manipulating the masses and his U.S. allies.

By crushing nearly all signs of secular opposition while simultaneously allowing the Muslim Brotherhood (a political party he officially banned) to nominate a few select candidates, he has cleverly offered the populace and the U.S. government the fruitless choice between supporting his regime, or supporting what is often referred to as the region's foremost rising Islamic extremist power, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even so, Mubarak's unchallenged reign may be faltering as moderates are fed up with living in a police state and the growing numbers living on less than $100 a month are abandoning his party.

Egypt is also failing in its role in the eternal and indisputably-political affair closest to the hearts and minds of the majority of Muslims and Arabs the world over, the question of a sovereign Palestinian state.

There are those who believe that Egypt will always remain the region's most reputable peace broker, a reputation Egypt reinforces in theory but rarely in action.

Meanwhile, new players such as Qatar, are beginning to prove more effective than Egypt within diplomatic circles.

But according to a cable distributed through Wikileaks, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani told Senator John Kerry that "Egypt has a vested interest in dragging out Palestinian reconciliation talks for as long as possible. Egypt has no end game; serving as broker of the talks is Egypt's only business interest with the U.S."

Al Thani likened the situation to a physician who has only one patient to treat in the hospital. If that is your only business, "the physician is going to keep the patient alive but in the hospital for as long as possible."

In another cable that dates back to February 2009, just weeks after Israel's assault on Gaza, Margaret Scobey, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo reports to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that, "Mubarak hates Hamas and considers them the same as Egypt's own Muslim Brotherhood, which he sees as his own most dangerous political threat."

Mubarak's regime has never been less popular, a trend that was highlighted on the eve of Israel's latest offensive on Gaza in 2009 when Mubarak met with Israel's former foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, sparking speculation of the government's interests, and by extrapolation, its loyalties. The incident even prompted several leading student newspapers in Iran to feature advertisements offering million dollar rewards for Mubarak's head.

Iran, like Egypt, held a corrupt and fraudulent election last year. But while critics of Iran might argue that the country is also governed under a perpetual "state of emergency," its progress is far more functional, its future far more promising for its citizens, and its relationship with the U.S., far more forlorn.

While Egypt has received fighter jets, tanks, armored personnel carriers, Apache helicopters, antiaircraft missile batteries, aerial surveillance aircraft and even conducts joint military exercises with the U.S. - including Operation Bright Star, a multilateral military exercise - the largest military exercise in the region.

The U.S. government, by executive decree, as well as congressional law, prohibits trade with Iran.

Naturally, there are many reasons why the U.S. has such opposing policies with the two respective regional powers, but the U.S. cannot afford to continue bankrolling a regime that continues to oppress its citizens and defy democratic ideals, especially if it is serious about bringing peace to the Middle East.

In a country where public displays of dissidence are banned under martial laws that have remained in place for decades, the dozens of protesters that have remained camped outside the parliament for weeks at a time in recent months suggest that perhaps the premiere slogan of democracy, "power to the people" might be genuinely catching on.

Recognizing this trend, Mohamed El Baradei left his Vienna-based position as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to return to Egypt with hopes of building a grass-roots movement powerful enough to challenge Mubarak's iron-fist rule, including attempting to increase the minimum wage which has been set at 35 Egyptian Pounds (less than 7 U.S. dollars per month) since 1984.

When CNN's Christiane Amanpour asked El Baradei why he planned to run for the presidency in a televised interview earlier this year, he answered that this was not his primary goal. "My primary goal is to see my country, Egypt, a country where I grew up, making a genuine shift towards democracy," El Baradei said.

When she pressed him further on what it would take for him to run, he answered, "A free and fair election, judicial supervision, international supervision, an independent commission to look after the election to make sure the election is not rigged as it used to be."

Egypt's constitution is crafted in such a way that only a handful of people are able to run for the presidency. According to El Baradei, "Democracy is no longer part of the Egyptian lifestyle; it has been like this for over 50 years."

While he is working to send the government a clear message that they need to change the constitution and join the rest of the world in becoming a democracy, it is unlikely he will run this year, especially judging by the lack of consequences for this year's rigged parliamentary elections.

In addition to the damage the sham elections have caused to the Egyptian people and to the country's reputation, the dissemination of multiple cables, containing fiery speech from multiple parties, through Wikileaks, has greatly increased the likelihood of a regional conflict as they have held up to the light the real divisions that exist in the region. Given the U.S. presence and investment there, the U.S. would have no choice but to intervene.

Qatar is worried, HBJ said to Kerry in the leaked cable, about Egypt and its people, who are increasingly impatient.

Mubarak, continued HBJ, says Al Jazeera is the source of Egypt's problems. This is an excuse. HBJ had told Mubarak "we would stop Al Jazeera for a year" if he agreed in that span of time to deliver a lasting settlement for the Palestinians. Mubarak said nothing in response, according to HBJ.

HBJ also told Kerry that Iran views the U.S. as "overstretched country" facing epic challenges and went so far as to tell Kerry that "a Western attack against Iran for Ahmadinejad would be good politics, because it would allow him to take out his opposition using the war as a pretext."

When Senator Kerry asked for clarification of whether these were words directly from Ahmadinejad's mouth, HBJ replied that Ahmadinejad had told him, "We beat the Americans in Iraq; the final battle will be in Iran."

The time has come for some soft power on the part of the Obama administration. The U.S. might do well to admit, if not to the world, than to itself: the U.S. cannot afford another major player in the region to fall to chaos.

If El Baradei continues to rally the people and hold protests such the several thousand strong one through the streets of Alexandria to protest police brutality and the death of a 28-year old man at the hands of Egyptian police, then the balance may just shift early enough to spare the country widespread bloodshed and chaos.

While El Baradei is a real agent of change, and a man of hope for swaths of the Egyptian people, he is not able to have a proper headquarters, or to raise funds by law. Still, with legions of volunteers canvassing for change and providing the vision of an improved social and economic situation for the people, there is hope.

Clearly the Mubarak regime has become a frightening joke both with the country's people and its neighbors. That the Obama administration had no response to November's laughable election charade other than to say it was "worrying" suggests a failure to seize at an optimum moment to both correct the dreadful economic and human rights situation and to shore up a relationship with a country ready to transform itself into a genuine ally.

Speaking at Cairo University, in front of 2,500 guests immediately after his inauguration, Obama said democracy and human rights were a major issue of tension between the U.S. and Islam, placing some of the blame on Bush's using freedom and democracy to justify the Iraq war.

"Those are not just American ideas, they are human rights, and that is why we will support them everywhere." Obama stressed that the US would "respect the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them" and "welcome all elected, peaceful governments - provided they govern with respect for all their people," in a not so masked reference of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In another speech earlier this year, Mubarak said "There is no place at this critical stage for those who can't distinguish between change and chaos."

In this particular case, Mubarak has got it right. And El Baradei, may very well be just the man who is able to make the distinction.

"I'm ready to go all the way to make sure that this country, who has been the beacon of modernity, moderation of the Arab world, and change of Egypt will have major impact on the rest of the Arab world," he said to Amanpour at the end of his interview.
"I'm ready to do all the way, because I think the Egyptians deserve much better than what they have today."

Obama should not overlook the need for him to embolden El Baradei, since in doing so, he would be securing at the very least the promise that democracy can offer. And the transition to democracy, as has been proven throughout history, time and again, is best done when it comes from within.