Egypt update . . .

Cairo at Egypt Constitutional Referendum 2014

Cairo at Egypt Constitutional Referendum 2014

“Egypt’s constitutional referendum has solved nothing” by Sharif Nashashibi, March 31 at Al Arabiya:

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Democracy International, which according to the Financial Times “fielded the most robust international monitoring operation,” expressed “serious concerns” about the political environment preceding the latest vote. “There was no real opportunity… to dissent,” said the Washington-based consultancy. “This constrained campaign environment made a robust debate on the substance and merits of the constitution impossible.”

Transparency International, which also sent observers for the referendum, condemned “repression by state authorities” prior to the vote. The government “harassed, arrested, and prosecuted peaceful critics, closing democratic space to promote views and debate before the referendum,” said the Berlin-based anti-corruption organization.

The U.S.-based Carter Center, which observed the previous constitutional vote, said it was “deeply concerned” by the “narrowed political space surrounding the upcoming referendum.” It said it would not field observers this time because “the late release of regulations for accreditation of witnesses” meant that the Center would be unable to do its job properly.

The result was “the least free and fair of the five national referendums and elections held since Egypt’s military-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak was pushed from power by mass protests in February 2011,” wrote Christian Science Monitor correspondent Dan Murphy. For all Mursi’s faults – and he had many – at least there was a vigorous campaign against his constitution, by opposition groups that were not outlawed.

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Just as Mursi’s constitution exacerbated national divisions while promising the opposite, the same is true of its replacement. It has simply entrenched the idea of three increasingly irreconcilable Egypts: that which supports Sisi and the military, that which backs Mursi and the Brotherhood, and that which opposes both.

This process will continue with the almost-certain scenario of a military figure (Sisi) as the next president, and an ever-widening clampdown on dissent. Mubarak must be getting a strong and satisfying sense of deja vu.

Crucially, there is no sign that approval of this new constitution has made, or will make, any positive difference to the country’s myriad and chronic problems. If anything, deadly violence is worsening, wholesale disenfranchisement is becoming more entrenched, human rights are being trampled on by a fully resurgent police state, and the economy remains on life support.

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In the meantime, Al Jazeera East Africa correspondent Peter Greste and his colleagues continue to languish in jail after another inconsequential appearance in court as reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation News:

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It was Greste’s fourth appearance in court, after more than 90 days in prison, and in an unusual move he was allowed to directly approach the judge and tell him why he should be freed.

In words translated for the judge, Greste said that he had only been in Egypt for two weeks before his arrest and he had no connection with the Muslim Brotherhood.

He also said that he had committed no crimes of violence, had no criminal record, and that he posed no threat to the people or state of Egypt.

Greste told the court his only desire was to continue the fight to clear his name.

Fellow defendant Mohamed Fahmy pointed out that Greste is a Christian, making any alleged support for the Muslim Brotherhood unusual.

Fahmy also argued that because he himself drinks alcohol, he would not be a member of the Brotherhood.

Three so-called technical experts who presented to the court were supposed to look at Greste’s stories and rule on whether they were biased towards the Muslim Brotherhood and whether they were seeking to tarnish Egypt’s reputation.

However, that did not happen because there were no facilities for it in the court.

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In the environment of the repression by the interim government and the military itself, the Egyptian judiciary’s performance in handing down a perfunctory mass death sentence last week and otherwise failing to offer a pretense of due process to other detainees like the Al Jazeera journalists makes it hard to have confidence in their independence in overseeing a May 25-26 presidential election in which Sisi has now announced his candidacy.

Let me recommend a good earlier piece by Tarek Radwan and Lara Talverdian of the Atlantic Council on the council’s Egypt Source blog, “Reflections on a Referendum.” I enjoyed getting acquainted with them in observing the referendum and they did a good job here of capturing the atmosphere at the January vote.

Kenya Government “pranks” U.S. into reassuring on unrequited “partnership” while suppressing protesters (updated)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Kenya’s government is led by Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who barely left KANU in form, and not at all in substance. Not surprisingly, as in the past, protests against the government are in general not allowed and protesters are normally teargassed, beaten and arrested. The fact that this is unlawful behavior by the government does not change the facts on the ground, whether under the 2010 “reform” constitution backed by the United States and the Kenyan voters, or under the old Lancaster House constitution as amended. This was the case during the Kibaki interlude when I lived in Kenya in 2007-08, and it has most certainly been the case during the original Kanu regimes and the current Jubilee revival.

The most recent conspicuous episode was on Thursday, February 13.

For people protesting against the Kenyan government to get the attention of the media they need to engage in something especially catchy beyond the usual shedding tears and blood and getting arrested. Last year, for instance, protesters made international news by releasing pigs in front of parliament to protest the extra-legal raises that the MPs, or “MPigs” were giving themselves. Of course the protesters were teargassed, beaten and arrested, but at least they made the news.

Unfortunately, after the fact the use of the pigs became something of a distraction to the issue of the financial avarice in parliament. Nairobi is a cosmopolitan capital in its own way, and for many, naturally, there is a right way to get teargassed, beaten and arrested, and a wrong way to get teargassed beaten and arrested. Everyone is a lot more used to greedy politicians than to real pigs turned loose in front of parliament. So this time organizers of the February 13 protest assured that they would not use any such animal stunts. (This time they had foam dolls to depict an infantile “diaper mentality”.)

With the build up of publicity and momentum for the announced and pre-cleared protest, the police blinked and announced to the media at the last minute that the protest was purportedly “cancelled” because of unspecified alleged terrorism concerns. Overlapping with this some Kenyan media outlets carried what the Standard headlined: “National Security Advisory Committee Statement on plans to destabilize government”:

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Updated: Burgeoning South Sudan crisis will increase Kenya’s leverage over donors, NGOs, international media

The news from South Sudan seems quite serious and disturbing. This is an area of special responsibility for the United States, and needless to say, I hope we are able to help.

Nairobi’s role for many years as the “back office” for international assistance to South Sudan has always given the Government of Kenya extra leverage through control of visas and work permits. My twitter feed indicates that the U.S. is recommending that Americans evacuate South Sudan as the current crisis swells with reports indicating 400-500 people may have been killed.

This brings to bear what I have called “the Nairobi curse” for Kenyans seeking political space, democracy and civil liberties of their own and hope for support from the international community. The thing you always hear, but never read, from internationals working in Kenya is “what if I can’t renew my work permit” because of some offense taken by someone in the Kenyan government.

Back in 2007-08 when I was East Africa director for IRI in Nairobi, we shared space with our separate Sudan program, which was much, much bigger than our Kenya program (and was IRI’s second largest program worldwide I was told, after Iraq). Under my East Africa office, our Somaliland program also got more funding than Kenya. Obviously there would have been repercussions from soured relations with the Kenyan administration. The same situation would pertain for NDI or other international organizations with large permanent regional operations based in Nairobi.

In my case, I arrived in Nairobi on the job in June 2007 expecting my work permit to come through within perhaps a few weeks of ordinary bureaucracy. With no explanation, it was not forthcoming until February 2008 during the late stages of the post election violence period. Thus, I did not have my permit issued yet when I was dealing with our controversial election observation and the issues about whether or not to release the exit poll that showed the opposition ODM winning the presidential race rather than the ECK’s official choice of Kibaki.
At some point that month I was summoned to an Immigration office at Nyayo House (where political prisoners where tortured in the basement during the Moi era) for no readily apparent reason and received the permit shortly thereafter. Of course Nairobi was a much more easy going place before the 2007 election than it is now. Nothing was ever said to connect any of this delay to anything to do with politics or the election and it may have been strictly a coincidence.

Fortunately for me, I was on leave from my job as a lawyer back in the United States, so being denied a permit and thus losing my job in Kenya and having to move my family back precipitously would not have been consequential for me in the way that it would have been for the typical young NGO worker. Everyone has their own story I am sure.

Earlier this year the Kenyan government announced, for instance, that it would start enforcing work permit rules for academic researchers on short assignments. Lots of room to maneuver for creatively repressive politicians.

By the way, Uhuru did end up signing that Media Bill.

Update: See the editorial in today’s Star: Work Permit Crackdown Is Counter-Productive. And the news story, “Rules on Work Permits Tighten“.