Words are like colors. They come and go with the seasons. Not so very long ago, words like “democratization” and “a new Middle East” were all the fashion in Washington and many a journalist, the trendy type, jumped on the bandwagon arguing that the Iraq war was about just that: democracy.
But the tune changed even under George Bush and today the “D-word” has largely fallen out of fashion. While it can still be used in criticizing such countries as Iran or Syria, it is generally avoided in reference to the rest of the region. Hence, we heard next to nothing about the democratic turns for the worse in Egypt and Jordan, which with Saudi Arabia, form America’s triangle of “moderate” Arab allies.
Despite a flood of promises not to, the Egyptian parliament on May 11 routinely and for the zillionth time extended the state of emergency that has continuously been in place since 1981, the year when Egypt’s former President Anwar Sadat was killed and his successor Hosni Mubarak took over.
While emergency rule per definition is a temporary solution to an extraordinary situation, a whole generation of Egyptians has come to accept as normal the suspension of their universal human rights. Members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), which has dominated Egypt’s political landscape since 1952, argue that the extra powers are needed to counter terrorism and drug trafficking. This hardly seems the ruling party’s only goal however. What’s more, the goal hardly justifies the means. According to human rights advocates, many thousands of Egyptians spend their lives behind bars without charges and without a fair trial. Torture is widespread. Meanwhile, basic human rights such as the freedom of association and expression have been severely reduced. Censorship is everywhere. It is no secret that the state’s extraordinary mandate has come in handy in the run-up to elections, when the NDP’s political opponents, especially members of the Muslim Brotherhood are arrested and locked up. Most of them are released once the elections are over, yet not everyone is that lucky.
When a civilian court in 2006 dismissed all charges against Khairat al-Shatir, the Brotherhood’s deputy supreme guide, and 15 other party members, Mubarak transferred their cases to a military tribunal, which in 2008 sentenced them to up to 10 years in jail. Naturally, the military court is no public affair, while the current emergency laws do not include the right to appeal.
Meanwhile, the ailing 82-year-old Mubarak continues to pave the way for his son Gamal to take over the presidential crown, while his second son, Alaa, keeps an eye on the family’s growing business empire.
The democratic barometer of Jordan does not peak much higher. Egypt’s eastern neighbor in May finally presented the long awaited new election law. King Abdullah II dissolved parliament late last year and parliamentary elections are set to take place by the end of this year.
While Jordan’s king publicly called for fair and free elections, he appointed Rajai Muasher, openly an opponent of political liberalization and reform, to take charge of formulating the new election law.
The end result is flawed, to say the least, and has been severely criticized by international human rights organizations. The main criticism concerns the fact that, while about half of Jordan’s population lives in Greater Amman, the new law has downsized constituencies and increased the number of seats in the lower house of Parliament to 120, which are spread all across the country. The obvious aim is to keep the “power of the people” firmly in the hands of the “true” Jordanian tribes, while Jordan’s capital remains underrepresented and with it the majority of Jordanians of Palestinian descent, as well as urban-based Islamic parties.
The color of the day is, therefore, not the “D-word” but “status quo,” and how to keep it no matter what. Having just returned from a trip to Egypt, the image that sticks in my mind as an epitome of the country’s politics is that of 40 elderly men protesting at the Ministry of Health against a cut in their benefits. They were faced by at least twice as many policemen in black, while around the corner two trucks filled with more uniforms awaited.
No image comes to mind regarding Jordan. The Hashemite Kingdom generally forbids demonstrations.
PETER SPEETJENS is a Beirut-based journalist