Will the US Back Real Democracy in Egypt?

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Eric Margolis

Will the US Back Real Democracy in Egypt?

Last Monday, Egyptians celebrated the first anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the 30-year Mubarak regime.

By contrast, America’s reaction this historic event was tellingly muted.

Egypt contains a quarter of the Arab world’s people. In Egypt, the US had a golden opportunity to encourage genuine democracy. Instead, it long opposed demands by Egyptians for real democracy and an end to Mubarak’s police state.

Egyptians know this. I recently stood among crowds of demonstrators in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, watching growing anger against the United States.

In the recent elections, Egypt’s venerable Muslim Brotherhood won some 48% of the parliamentary vote, confirming it as the primary voice of 81 million Egyptians. In North America, the Brotherhood has long been wrongly branded an extremist, even terrorist organization by partisans of Israel.

The Muslim Brotherhood is primarily composed of middle class, middle-aged doctors, engineers, lawyers. It is seriously stodgy and conservative. Many younger Egyptians derided it as “your grandfather’s party.” It sits squarely in the middle of Egypt’s political spectrum.

The Brotherhood’s political arm, its new Freedom and Justice Party, was patterned on Turkey’s highly successful, Islamic-lite AK Party of Prime Minister Recep Erdogan. Like Turkey’s AK, the Muslim Brotherhood is primarily concerned with fighting corruption, education, health and welfare - areas badly neglected by the former regime.

So far, the Brotherhood has not challenged the United States or Europe except for calling for justice for the Palestinians. But this, of course, was the primary reason why the US kept dictator Husni Mubarak in power for thirty years: he secretly colluded with Israel, and opposed US foes Iran and Syria.

Interestingly, the Brotherhood has been in close contact with Egypt’s military to work out a power-sharing deal. An accord between the two power centers is possible, provided the military ends its repression and cedes some important powers to parliament.

Egypt’s fundamentalist Salafists won a quarter of the seats in the new assembly. Relying on rural support, the Salafists want the nation run under Koranic Sharia law, a view opposed by most urban Egyptians and the nations nine million Coptic Christians.

The Salafists and their Nour Party are also focused on local issues. They may be unable to compromise with the more moderate Brotherhood, and even become antagonistic.

The rest of the seats were won by the venerable, liberal Wafd Party, and some young, western-oriented independents. Their influence will be minimal.

Egypt’s new parliament must now face the difficult task of naming a 100-member panel to draft a new constitution to then be validated by a national referendum.

Even if parliament achieves this goal, it will then confront Egypt’s 500,000-man military and equally numerous internal security forces. So far, Egypt’s military, which is financed, armed and sustained by Washington, threw dictator Mubarak to the wolves to appease popular anger but has barely given an inch on other key issues.

A year after the Tahrir Square revolution, Egypt remains a brutal police state where regime critics disappear, are tortured, and jailed in the thousands. The old guard still control much of the nation’s media, academia, courts and industry: Mubarakism without Mubarak.

The US-backed generals own between a third and two thirds of Egypt’s key businesses or real estate and enjoy lavish perks.

The military’s senior military officers have been trained by the US, vetted by CIA, and are joined at the hip to the Pentagon in much the same manner as were Latin America’s generals in the 60’s and 70’s.

Washington gives Egypt’s military $1.3 billion annually, controls its flow of weapons and spare parts, and provides tens of millions in “black payments” to the military, security forces, and intelligence service, the “Mukhabarat.”

Accordingly, it’s difficult to see Egypt’s plutocratic military easily giving up all of its political and economic power to a rowdy civilian parliament, particularly when the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia, France, and Israel are all quietly backing the military regime.

If the military cracks down on parliamentary forces, it risks driving the opposition underground and more violence. Egypt’s military may split, as younger, Nasserite-officers try to seize power, or face bloody urban guerrilla war.

Washington would be wise to press its allies in the military to quickly cede power to a responsible civilian government.

Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis

Eric Margolis is a columnist, author and a veteran of many conflicts in the Middle East. Margolis recently was featured in a special appearance on Britain’s Sky News TV as “the man who got it right” in his predictions about the dangerous risks and entanglements the US would face in Iraq. His latest book is American Raj: Liberation or Domination?: Resolving the Conflict Between the West and the Muslim World.

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