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Decorating authoritarian rule

The sight of Algeria’s 77-year-old leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika casting his ballot from a wheelchair in the presidential election that could bring him to a fourth term in power is a reminder that elections alone are not an indicator of democratic rule.

This has been proven time and again by numerous elections held in countries that are neither democratic nor undergoing a real democratization process, such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.

If Algeria is mired in corruption and dominated by an authoritarian political elite, Egypt is suffering from similar woes — and furthermore, it has an appalling human rights situation.

Since July 3, 2013, more than 1,000 protesters have been killed and at least 16,000 arrested, according to Human Rights Watch.

At the same time, the military’s powers are growing to a scale that clearly contradicts the basic tenets of democracy and the rule of law. Since the Armed Forces ousted Former President Mohamed Morsi from power on July 3, the military-appointed interim president and the Cabinet have issued a number of laws widening the military’s political and legal privileges and strengthening its economic empire, which reportedly comprises at least one third of the Egyptian economy.

For instance, President Adly Mansour recently issued a new law preventing third parties from challenging contracts made with the state. In recent years, a number of government deals have been challenged in courts, with the government often accused of selling public property too cheaply to investors, or purchasing goods and services at prices higher than market rates.

In this sense, the prevalent, deeply-rooted corruption that marred former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule is being re-institutionalized.

Securing its interests and special status even further, the military has given its blessing to the candidacy of former Defense Minister Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. In January, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) promoted Sisi from general to field marshal, and issued a statement describing his presidential run as “a mandate and an obligation.”

Despite this context, the international community seems to be betting on the upcoming presidential election, which Sisi is widely expected to win. A few weeks after Sisi declared he would enter the race, the European Union announced that it will send an official delegation to monitor the election. The EU’s High Representative Catherine Ashton paid Egypt a visit in which she met with Sisi, and a few days later, she reiterated the EU’s support for the elections.

“We want the people of Egypt to move forward. We do want these elections to herald the beginning of the next phase of life in Egypt,” she said.

At some level, the EU does realize the gravity of the context in which the election will be held. Ashton qualified her remarks by adding, “We are growing in our concern for what is happening in some aspects of Egypt.” Nonetheless, Europe is granting its stamp of legitimacy to a highly contested political process.

The United States seems to be less resolute in its support for the Egyptian regime. Congress imposed a partial freeze on its annual US$1.3 billion assistance to Egypt’s military in 2013 in response to the bloody dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in that protested Morsi’s ouster.  

However, the US has not broken with the international community’s apparent fixation on cosmetic measures that give the appearance of democracy. On April 22, the Obama administration announced a release of half of the aid, resuming the delivery of Apache helicopters to Egypt, because it has upheld its obligations under the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

The withheld remainder of the aid will be released after Secretary of State John Kerry certifies to Congress that Egypt is “taking steps to support a democratic transition … including by conducting free, fair and transparent elections,” according to a transcript of Kerry’s recent call with Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, published on the State Department’s website.

The 2012 presidential election that brought Morsi to power was also largely free and fair. But elections alone are no evidence that a country is undergoing a democratic transition.

The 2012 election was conducted in a flawed context, in the absence of a constitution that would specify the president’s powers vis-à-vis other state institutions. Similarly, the upcoming election will be held while thousands are in political detention, including many on an extrajudicial basis. Arrests of pro-democracy activists continue unabated, the deaths of several hundred protesters have gone unpunished, and a considerable segment of Egyptian society is alienated and isolated from the political process because they are accused of being terrorists or supportive of terrorists.

The message disseminated by Egyptian state-run media and privately-owned media is clear: Support the military and Sisi, or else you are a terrorist, a traitor and part of the “Fifth Column,” as the main headline of the state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram newspaper read on November 15.

Egyptian citizens have numerous questions about how and by whom their country is run. Is Adly Mansour really playing his role as interim president, or is he only a puppet in the hands of a military that rules from behind the scenes? What is the exact size of the military’s financial assets and economic projects? What are the salaries of Armed Forces’ leaders, including Sisi when he was defense minister? Who is responsible for killing hundreds of protesters over the past three years? 

Held under these circumstances, the upcoming presidential election will mean nothing for democracy and democratization, even if the election is monitored by an EU mission and supported by the Obama administration.

The inconsistency of the US and EU’s positions on Egypt’s elections serve to feed the prevalent assumption that the world’s super powers do not really care about democracy.

Rather, they bless superficial procedures such as elections — even when they are conducted in contexts that are far from democratic. They support undemocratic regimes when these regimes would serve the interests of those world powers, and when they show that they can prevail over their rivals, whether through democratic means or by crushing dissidence.

In the end, the international community is often willing to decorate authoritarian rule by cheering for the ballot boxes.

American and European politicians might think that elections will bring about stability in Egypt and secure a favorable balance of power in the region. But in reality, no stability will last for long in the absence of justice, transparency, the rule of law and real democracy.

By supporting the cosmetic 2014 presidential election, the world’s powers will be losing their credibility as champions of democracy, and wasting dear resources by monitoring an election that is only a farce.

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Sara Khorshid