Egypt next for “regime change”?

In recent weeks, we’ve been following Washington’s current regime change offensive, in which the White House is seeking to encourage–and, presumably, co-opt–opposition activists in countries which really are unhappily authoritarian, but (more to the point) insufficiently compliant with US interests. Now there are signs that even Egypt, a top global recipient of US aid, could be next.

A constitutional amendment introducing the first direct and contested presidential elections in Egypt won 82.9% approval in a referendum, Interior Minister Habib el-Adli announced May 26. But opposition denounced the results as “black comedy” and “total farce.” Despite boycott calls by six opposition groups, including the popular Muslim Brotherhood, the Interior Ministry said in its statement that 54 percent of Egypt’s 32 million registered voters—about 16.4 million Egyptians—had participated. The Ministry said the figure was higher than in recent parliamentary elections. There was no independent, outside monitoring of the election results or turnout estimate.

“The voting masses have realized that political participation within the framework of constitutional legitimacy is the safe path towards the future, and that everyone is responsible for rejecting calls of sedition and division,” Adly said in a statement on Egyptian TV.

Opposition spokesmen said the government exaggerated the turnout in the referendum. “This rate of attendance is just impossibly high. It seems the number has been multiplied by five,” said Gameela Ismail, spokeswoman for the opposition Ghad (Tomorrow) Party.

Mohammad Habib, deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, which joined the boycott call, said: “I don’t believe this number is possible. We know not more than 5 or 10 percent of people go to vote. I have many doubts about this number.”

Abdel-Halim Qandil, spokesman of Kefaya (Enough), the largely secular anti-Mubarak movement, described the results as “black humor” saying that the referendum results were “fabricated, including those who said no.” He added: “Any objective observer of the referendum would have noticed the low turnout, despite the mobilization and forcing the state employees to vote.”

The results came as, in Washington, President George W. Bush condemned attacks by Egyptian police on demonstrators during the referendum voting the day before. “The idea of people expressing themselves and opposition to the government and getting a beating is not our view of how a democracy ought to work. It’s not the way that you have a free election.”

Plainclothes government agents beat protesters May 25, then watched as supporters of Mubarak roughed up other demonstrators, in violence that cast a pall over a referendum the 24-year ruler has called a crucial step toward democracy.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the Bush administration believes Mubarak’s initiative to put in place competitive presidential elections is an important step. “We think that should be accompanied by international election monitors and a real campaign,” McClellan said. “It must be free and fair in order for it to have the broadest possible support from the people of Egypt and the international community.” (Lebanon Daily Star, May 27)

Mubarak has ruled out monitors for the election (while conceding the possibility of “obervers”). President Mubarak has led Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. He has been reinstalled every six years since then in single-candidate referenda, now abolished. President Mubarak has not formally announced he will run again this year, but is widely expected to do so. (VOA, May 27)

But Washington may have a hard time finding proxies among the Egyptian opposition. An analysis for the Qatar-based Islam Online, has this to say about Kefaya, the most secular of the opposition groups:

The Egyptian Movement for Change, better known as Kefaya (Arabic for “enough”), is the name of the increasingly vocal political movement denouncing the NDP’s political monopoly, calling for a separation of powers, an end to corruption and nepotism, and rejecting all attempts aimed at grooming Mubarak’s son, Gamal, for office. Kefaya’s founding document was presented in October 2004 by highly respected ex-judge Tariq al-Bishri, who called upon Egyptians to withdraw their “long-abused consent to be governed” and to engage in civil disobedience (El-Ghobashy). The movement can be regarded as an umbrella organization hosting a variety of Islamist, Socialist, and Arab Nationalist parties.

Ironically, it is the harsh crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups over the past decade which has provided much of the impetus for change in Egypt. As we noted in our last blog post on Egypt, a new wave of terror attacks has brought ominous memories of the bloodshed in Egypt in the 1990s.

Bush should realize that given the political atmosphere in Egypt, the last thing the democratic opposition there needs is the US president speaking on its behalf. But then again, maybe this is precisely the point.