Tuesday, May 09, 2006

If You Stand For Nothing Else...

We are in a real fight today against tyranny. The tyranny that still exists in many nations and the rise of an ideology that has waxed and waned over centuries, but has discovered a new vigour with the ability of mass media, distribution and proliferation of weapons of all kinds. They use the internet, videos, press releases, video games, books, cell phones and all other sorts of mass communication devices to propagate their fascist ideology.

It shares with many other tyrannical states, the idea that free thought, free speech, free association, the freedom of religion and equality of citizens within and before the law, is anathema to its existence.

Within nations across the oceans and around the globe, the message of freedom and democracy exists. Sometimes in small dark corners where it is only whispered and sometimes in places where there is just enough access to open forums for it to be shouted. Unfortunately, it usually results in immediate arrest, harrassment, oft times torture and just as often, death.

In these places, the idea of freedom and democracy does not always reflect our exacting ideas, honed over centuries of "enlightenment" and bare knuckles struggle to define that "perfection". "Democracy advocates" may not be Republican or Democrat clones. They may not be Socialists, Trotskyite or otherwise.

In other democratic nations such as India, democracy exists, yet Communism is a main stream party. In some places, nearer and dearer to home, Socialism is the main political and economic structure. Yet, in all of these places, there are fundamental concepts which we understand, we can agree with and under which we can work, whether a Democrat, Socialist or even Communist, to have our voices heard, our ideas debated and the possibility that some will hear and agree. There is protection from persecution. There is the right to free association. There is the right to freedom of religion. There is a right to equality before the law. There are free elections and campaigns, open debates, free press and all the other trappings of a socio-political order that believes the rights of the individuals supercede the rights of the state.

Here we are free. We shout our ideas across public forums, in marches, across the internet, in political houses and even on bumper stickers. I fear no one will arrest me for advocating either liberal or conservative ideas. I do not believe that I need the protection of one political party or the other that is in power to state these ideas. I can read what I want. I can write it. I have the luxury, we have the luxury, of security and a stable political environment to choose to argue over the specifics of running a government, the extent of freedom, the viability of laws, the actions of our government and the general practicing of democracy. I can vote Republican one year and Democrat the next. Or, I could vote for an independent or the libertarians. I can whittle my positions down and organize them by priority in order to decide what party I believe will best support my ideas.

I have choices. Not always the ones I want or the best, but choices none the less.

In many countries, this is not the case. The very basic concepts of democracy do not exist or only have lip service paid to them. In those places, the simple existence of an advocate for democracy, whatever their political position on the left or right, is a miracle of perseverence. They are rare gems in a coal mine. In those places, the luxury of socialism v. capitalism, conservative v. liberal, matter little in the bigger scheme of things. The fact that democracy does not exist in any form that we recognize makes the details less important than the grand idea of democracy.

In many cases, what has kept democracy advocates from gaining strength and power in some semi-open nations is the failure to unite behind the one big idea first with all its intended basic fundamentals, such as free speech, free press, protection of individuals, equality before the law, etc, before trying to hash out the details of taxes, workers rights, state funded programs, economics, etc.

In fact, this is a basic failure of nations, political parties and individuals who live on the outside and pretend to support democracy movements in tyrannical nations. We want to debate who is a good "democrat" before democracy has even been established in order to establish who we will support or not support.

In such countries as Egypt, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, etc it does little good only to speak up on behalf of a Free Market Democrat. Power is in numbers. So long as we pick and choose what numbers we will support or not support, we will leave all democracy advocates powerless.

I have noted this tendency among many on the right and on the left of our political debates here in the United States as well as in European nations. An example is the debate over Iraqi democracy. I don't mean the debate over the war, per se, but those who supported the war in the beginning now have second thoughts because those who came to power through democratic processes do not resemble our own enlightened and liberal government. These believe that all is lost for a "true" democratic Iraq or at least democracy as we define it. the truth is, there are four parts to our democracy.

The first is the ability to achieve governance by the ballot box or the will of the people. An ability to receive majority vote thus ruling by the majority. The second requires that, once in power, the majority is inclined to protect the rights of the minority; particularly, the rights of individuals, even against some of the majorities more vociferous and demanding followers. The third is to be able to maintain the fundamentals of liberty. Pure democracy simply means that the majority rules. Liberty means that the rights of the individuals, in general, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", but specifically, free speech, free association, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, etc are always protected regardless of who is in charge. The fourth is the basis of all good society where one can assume, regardless of who rules, that we are relatively secure from harm from both our individual neighbors and the government. Should this basis of social good be compromised, we have the ability to receive redress and justice under the law.

These are the simple aspects of "democracy" as we see it. Can a Shia led government with Islamic tendencies adhere to these principles? The answer is yes. They are also influenced by our own actions. Certainly, one would hope in the support of democracy that we have provided more resources, training and funds to secular parties who resemble and believe in liberal policies such as we do. However, to reject Shia oriented political parties in total, when it represents a large block of people supporting democracy to the best of their ability and understanding, would mean that we should reject the possibility of democracy at all in Iraq.

I completely disagree with that approach. While we may wish that we did not have to compromise, what we need most is to support the fundamentals of liberty and democracy. Once that is in place we can work on the details. Particularly if a group is still reliant on monetary, material and political support. We have leverage to move it, but we had no ability to do so when there was no democracy and only an autocratic state.

In fact, I read a recent speech by Madeleine Albright that totally disregarded this concept when discussing the funding that was being put in place for Iraq.

It is surprising, therefore, that the Bush Administration is on the verge of abandoning democratic institution building in Iraq.

The President's request for funding in this area for all of next year has been reduced to what it would take to support U.S. military operations in Iraq for about six hours.

This is, in her own words, a gross distortion. The fact is, the executive is required to give a report to congress at least every 6 months if not more and funding for these activities are required by law to be reviewed and requested every two years by the constitution, but are regularly reviewed within the same time frames that reporting to congress and continued authorization from that body is required.. That is the matter of funding and organizing the ability for the military to function in Iraq.

What was truly misleading is the assumption that money must be in the military budget to support democracy in Iraq. In fact, in December of 2005, with little fanfare, the money for democratic support and reconstruction was removed from the military budget. This had a specific purpose. Mainly to take the money from the military spending where officers were more intent on building infrastructure and less concerned with the political aspects of who they were potentially supporting as well as to take this money away as an obligation of "war efforts". This put it firmly back into the hands of the State through USAID programs and other agencies or programs where the political and diplomatic demands of the US would not conflict with the necessity to conduct war. In other words, leverage over the political aspects of the democratic movements in Iraq that can, without guilt, be used to push these less than "pure" political groups to comply with the basics of democracy.

With few, if no other donors in the wings, this makes even the Shia have to keep toeing the line. Some folks are unhappy about this economic "hegemony" and believe that it is completely opposite of true support for ground up democracy. In fact, these people would have it that it creates a "puppet state" and interferes with the real sovreignty of Iraq. In some ways, they are correct, however, it does not mean that Iraq and the governing Shia do not have a choice. They can choose to receive the necessary funds and comply with at least the minimal requirements, or they can find another way.

This use of money and diplomacy is in fact the way that most democrats would accept "supporting democracy" in lieu of military action.

First they came for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the Social Democrats,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Social Democrat.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists,
and I didn’t speak up,
because I wasn’t a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak up,
because I wasn't a Jew,
Then they came for me,
and by that time there was no one
left to speak up for me.

In Egypt, we have a similar power. The United States provides over 2 billion in aid every year to the state. There are specific purposes for this money. The first of which is to bolster a, all be it, mediocre ally in the region. The country of Egypt has limited natural resources. It's economy is completely state controlled and exists on subsidies as well as tariffs from its main geographic, strategic point: the Suez Canal. This Canal allows millions of tons of raw goods, finished products and energy resources to be transported to Europe and the Americas as well as transporting exported goods from these nations. It cuts nearly ten days from the transport if it had to take the Horn of Africa and Cape Hope route. This is just one strategic point among many in the relationship with Egypt.

This agreement has allowed the Mubarek regime to flourish by using this economic power internally to develop security apparatus, to rig laws and control the populace economically in order to stay in power. To this end they suppressed all opposition for years. The Islamic movements were brutally suppressed, but were able to organize through student movements and the mosque. These movements turned violent and eventually assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981. Mubarek became the President and continues to this day. After additional crackdowns on dissidents, particularly the Muslim radicals, an agreement was reached with the Muslim Brotherhood. If they foreswore violence, nominal political acceptance would be given.

Mubarek's regime still had the power and could arrest and imprison members of the movement whenever it began to present a too viable front. The violent actions of the Islamists is still remembered and allows Mubarek an opposition that it can continue to present as a danger to the secularists as well as to Egypt's allies as a reason to continue laws and oppressive practices that keep the NDP and Mubarek in power. In the meantime, Mubarek continues to suppress other democratic movements. Everything from Nasserites, to Social Democrats, to Liberals and Communists.

The reason for this suppression is very simple. The Mubarek regime continues to pretend at democracy with all its necessary facade, but uses the power of emergency laws to annoint "legal parties" to participate in elections. Through its power sharing arrangement with the Muslim Brotherhood as well as control of election polls, the NDP continues to keep control of the Egyptian Parliament. If it legalized any other democratic party, having provided cover for the MB and given it a certain presence in the parliament, the seats that the new Democratic movement would most likely take NDP seats, not Muslim Brotherhood seats. This would give the MB a majority in parliament and the power to form the government of Egypt.

This of course can be troubling for US policy and strategic interest. On the other hand, with a new focus on supporting democracy, it is not in the interest of the United States to be seen supporting a regime that arrests and persecutes democracy advocates practicing the very basic fundamentals of free speech and peaceful organization.

The Kifiyah movement began when many different democratic secular movements determined that there was power in numbers and that they would best be able to make inroads on the closed political process if the differing movements joined forces to press for the fundamentals of democracy and provide the basis to achieve the numbers required to be considered a "legitimate party" that can stand for elections and get any democratic party member elected. They want a legitimate face in Egyptian politics and they can only get that by political and media exposure. At this time, most of their protests and demands are blacked out or severely damaged by state controlled media.

The most recent problems revolve around the arrest of Ayman Nour, the arrest of 49 Kifiyah Democracy advocates who were protesting along with judges and lawyers for a free and independent judiciary. At this time, the state can and does interfere with the administration of justice. There is no equality before the law, be ye petty criminal or political activist. Another protest was organized to protest the arrest and continued holding of these activists by the state. Eleven were arrested and eight still remain in custody. The state has insisted that it can hold these people up to 15 days without action and could even submit (and easily obtain) additional 15 day extensions. The charges range from failure to have a permit to "insulting the state" and other such non-sensical charges.

Now many have organized across the internet and in public to bring this to the attention of the US and other governments as well as express displeasure with the Egyptian government. People are ready to organize boycotts.

In the meantime, Mr. El Fatah's fate and those of the other 56 protesters was brought to the attention of Glenn Reynolds on Instapundit who also put the word out on Comment is Free at the Guardian (registration is required for commenting, but not for viewing). What was the immediate response?

Out of eight comments, four focused on the fact that Glenn Reynolds wrote it and determined, with all due process and speed, that the support of Glenn Reynolds meant that these democracy advocates were "right wing Bushites", or whatever the popular phrase is, and dismissed the call to arms out of hand. The basic sentiment was that he should rot in jail because of the perceived idea that any democracy advocate that may derive support from a "right wing nutcase" is not worth supporting.

As if there is a surfit of Liberal, secular democracy in Egypt and there is a need or ability to pick and choose those we will support in their fight for free speech, free association and the protection of individual rights when the real fight is to first get some representation of real democracy first.

When I first reproted on Alaa's arrest along with the other protestors, I made it clear that Alaa's democratic political persuasion did not matter to me. He is a Pan Arab Socialist. We have disagreed on US foreign policy, the war in Iraq, Palestine and Israel; just to name a few. But, Alaa and I agree on a few things. Namely free elections, free speech, free organization and freedom of religion just to name a few. I don't see Alaa as an enemy. I see him as a fellow idealist and a democracy advocate. His other politics matter little in the larger scheme of things. With the arrest of the other protesters, of whom I know little besides their names, he is but a symbol in some respects because he and his plight represents the entire problem with the lack of democracy and basic rights in Egypt.

We spend much time talking about the problems in the Middle East and other nations that prevent liberal, secular democratic movements from gaining acceptance, visibility and capability to move their countries towards more free democracy; something that people from both the left and the right should be able to agree on as basic right and need of people everywhere. Yet, what we have refused to do as free democracies is to stand together in the face of tyranny to support these groups of whatever political stripe they may be because we are too busy looking for those that resemble us in every aspect, whether the right or the left. WE are incapable of overcoming our differences to support these grass roots.

From here, it seems that we should share at least one common goal: the advancement of democracy and support of grassroots advocates wherever and whoever they are.

Therefore, if you stand for nothing else, stand up for freedom and democracy. Stand up for free speech and the protection of individual rights. Stand up for Alaa and the members of Kifiyah.

If you do not stand up for a Pan Arab Socialist democracy advocate in the face of tyranny, who will there be to stand up for when the democratic movement is completely crushed and there is no one left to stand up for?

Write to these following emails, embassies and state departments:

The Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
3521 International Ct. NW
Washington DC 20008
Phone (202) 895 5400
Fax (202) 244 5131
(202) 244 4319
Email: embassy@egyptembdc.org

or the US consulate in Egypt


Or the US State Department for Near East Affairs- Egypt:


Sample letters here

Updates at Sandmonkey; Free Alaa Blog; Global Voices

Boycotts and protests are being organized. The first and strongest voice we have is the ability to organize through the internet, write letters and make phone calls.

Help Alaa and the other Kifiyah advocates!

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