A Voter's Lament

Egypt's ruling generals may claim the ballot has been a success, but the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square know different.

Egypt's elections weren't supposed to be this way.

Our first "post-revolution" (sigh…) elections were supposed to be free. The overwhelmingly young people who led the January and February uprising would lead the nation into a future of freedom and justice, a nation for all its citizens, equal before the law. People would work together to eradicate corruption, poverty, sexual harassment, discrimination, petty crime -- traffic, even. The sky seemed to be the limit. Today is the Icarian crash landing.

I wasn't supposed to hear a candidate talk about "courting the Christian lobby's vote" or some acquaintances talk about voting for the Muslim Brotherhood because they want someone "who can stand up to the Christians who want to take over the country."

These elections weren't supposed to occur as we suffer under the military boot -- one that even the most committed revolutionaries among us have no clear idea how to remove. One that has handpicked a 78-year old former Mubarak-era prime minister who, as I write, is reported to be mulling the re-appointment of a number of ministers who were in office when the January 25th revolution began.

They shouldn't be taking place as families bury children who died over the course of the past week, when clashes with the army-backed police forces killed over 40 and injured more than 1,000 protesters who have demanded the end of the military rule and an immediate transfer of power to a civilian government.

They shouldn't occur while bloggers like Alaa Abdel Fattah, Maikel Nabil, and scores of other civilian prisoners unjustly languish in military jails on trumped-up charges. On Sunday, the day before the elections, Alaa's case was referred to an ad hoc "emergency" court and his detention was extended by a further 15 days, while Maikel, on his 99th day of a hunger strike, saw his retrial further postponed to Dec. 4. He currently survives on milk and juice.

Debates among activists who led the revolutionary movement about whether the election would legitimize military rule and whether to boycott had been raging for days before polls opened Monday. (My take: it might, yes; and no, I am not boycotting, though I hesitated long and hard.)

I did not want to vote, but felt I had to. After a sleepless night, I went to vote Monday morning, and stood in line for three hours, during which I witnessed a series of violations.

Many candidates were distributing flyers outside my polling station in Heliopolis, a quaint, middle-class and relatively politically liberal neighborhood in the east of Cairo. Some volunteer "popular committee for election security," with the army and police's explicit approval, were organizing the lines while handing out flyers for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). The FJP had set up a full-fledged booth 10 meters away from the station, despite rules forbidding any campaigning within 100 meters of the polls. (When I asked both the army general in charge of security outside and the judge supervising the vote inside the station, both told me a variant of: "It makes little difference, people here know what they're voting for anyway." That might be true for my educated neighborhood, but is it the case everywhere?)

Inside the polling station, where two well-meaning polling officials insisted that I stand and fill my ballots on the window sill "to save time," I insisted on doing it behind the metal curtain set up for this purpose, but saw (and photographed) many people who agreed to the window sill. I cast my vote as instructed for two individual candidates, one of whom had to be a "farmer" or a "laborer" due to an archaic but impossible to abrogate system, and for one party list. After dipping my finger in the purple ink, I sat in the station for a while to observe (with the permission of the judge), then made my way out with a heavy heart.

Although many are hailing Egypt's first free and fair parliamentary elections as a triumph for democracy, we have little to celebrate. Sure, the process was procedurally sound, and an election without the autocratic National Democratic Party that once dominated all political life here is worth taking part in. But rather than being about selecting a strong legislative body, these elections were an exercise in damage control. Many of us simply chose the least bad candidate, and sought to ensure that no dogmatic and divisive party dominates an assembly that will have little authority but will be tasked, through designating a 100-member committee, with drafting the country's new constitution.

These were not the elections we dreamed of, or for which we fought, bled, and lost hundreds of noble souls for -- most recently, people like 19-year-old Ahmed Sorour, who died under the wheels of a police armored vehicle during a sit-in on Saturday, or Rania Fouad, a volunteer doctor who was tending to patients in a makeshift "field hospital" in Tahrir Square on Wednesday when it sustained a teargas attack. Fouad went into a coma and died after the police prevented her colleagues from evacuating her.

A few hundred meters from Tahrir Square, where dozens of tents remain, a sit-in continues by the prime minister's office. The few stalwart revolutionaries there are challenging the legitimacy of an army appointmented government, demanding an end to military rule.

For those of us who reluctantly took part in this electoral exercise, we did so not to legitimize continued military rule or that of its favored civilian appointees: warmed-over bureaucrats from the Mubarak era. We voted because these are our elections, not the generals', nor the upstart politicians', nor the religious parties'. We voted because our love for Egypt means that we will make our voices heard, come what may.

Now, with inked fingers, it's back to the streets to protest. Minutes ago, a case brought against the Egyptian military by 25-year old Samira Ibrahim, who in the spring was subjected to the infamous and barbaric "virginity tests," was postponed until late December. A march in her support is planned for this afternoon.

The celebration will have to wait.



The Generals Have No Clothes

Islamabad's generals have been sponsoring the deaths of Americans for years, and yet Obama does nothing. Why?

Pakistan is indignant about the killing of 25 of its troops in a NATO air raid on Saturday. The circumstances that led to the assault are still unknown, but Washington and Europe have expressed contrition and promised an investigation. Pakistan has every reason to feel angry. But after a suitable period of mourning, shouldn't the United States, in the interests of fairness if nothing else, ask the Pakistani army if it plans ever to apologize for -- or, at bare minimum, acknowledge -- its role in the deaths of hundreds of coalition forces and many more Afghan civilians?

At the start of the 21st century, the United States offered Pakistan a very straightforward ultimatum: Join us in the war against terrorism inaugurated by al Qaeda's attacks on 9/11 -- or find yourself bombed to the Stone Age. In the decade since, Pakistan has arguably been responsible for more American deaths than any other state on earth. Yet Pakistan has not only evaded prosecution for its crimes. In a staggering turn of events, its army has found its program of sponsoring the slaughter of American troops in Afghanistan by the Taliban and al Qaeda amply subsidized by Washington.

One of the most principled voices against the Pakistani army during this time belonged, ironically, to Islamabad's ambassador to Washington. Husain Haqqani was, to repurpose Nirad Chaudhuri's phrase about Pandit Nehru, not only Pakistan's representative to the United States but also the West's ambassador to Pakistan. His resignation, offered and accepted on Tuesday, was ostensibly precipitated by an op-ed last month in the Financial Times by Mansoor Ijaz, an American businessman of Pakistani descent who claimed that an unnamed Pakistani diplomat -- whom he later identified as Haqqani -- had conscripted him in a grand scheme to curb the Pakistani military's power. Together, he alleged, they crafted a memo in which a series of dramatic offers were made to Washington -- among them, the promise to end state patronage of terrorism -- in return for the Obama administration's help in reining in the generals. (Haqqani vigorously denies involvement.)

Inexplicably, Ijaz, the courageous anti-military conspirator, transformed, without a hint of irony, into the army's canary, imperilling Pakistan's besieged civilian government by volunteering transcripts of his alleged exchanges with Haqqani. Pakistan's rightwing media served as his bullhorn, devoting their pages and program to his endless revelations. (Hardly anyone in the West accorded serious attention to Ijaz -- a clownish Croesus addicted to self-elevating fantasies. If only the Clinton administration had given attention to his "deal" with the Sudanese government to extradite Osama bin Laden to the United States, he once bragged, 9/11 would have been averted.)

The author of a devastatingly frank history of Pakistan, Haqqani has the virtue of clarity: He is known to view the army as an impediment to progress in the region. Still, it is stupefying to imagine that a diplomat and scholar of his sophistication would have recruited a pestilent popinjay like Ijaz to deliver a message that he could quite competently have communicated through other channels, or in person. The rapidity with which Ijaz has switched sides, meeting the ISI chief in London last month to handover "evidence" implicating his co-conspirator, strongly suggests that it is Haqqani who is the victim of a conspiracy.

Sherry Rehman, a formidable politician from Sindh, has now replaced Haqqani. But his forced resignation puts an end to the pretence of civilian rule in Pakistan -- and heralds the unapologetically solemn re-takeover of the country by the military-intelligence camorra that spawned the forces of destruction in Afghanistan. So it is astounding that, rather than treating Haqqani's departure as a setback, officials in the Obama administration see it as something of a boon. Haqqani's private criticisms of the Pakistani army led, according to a report in the New York Times, "to a diminishing of his influence in Washington, especially in the White House."

Why would the White House choose to belittle a man championing civilian rule in Pakistan? Isn't that also the objective of the Obama administration? The answer increasingly appears to be no.

Since the 1950s, when Gen. Ayub Khan mounted the first military coup, Pakistan's army has etiolated the country's evolution in every imaginable sense. Rooted in a culture of grievance and malevolence that is the foundational basis of Pakistan, the army has waged wars against India, suffused young minds with a fervor for jihad, sponsored terrorism, spread xenophobia and racism, carried out genocide against millions of its own citizens, stolen and smuggled nuclear secrets, foisted the vile Taliban regime upon the defenseless people of Afghanistan, and assumed complete ownership of Pakistan.

For wars and terrorist violence in South Asia to abate, Pakistan will have to resemble something approaching a normal state. The equation for that is simple: The army must return to the barracks.

Obama had an almost providential opportunity to squeeze the army in the immediate aftermath of bin Laden's discovery in May in the garrison city of Abbottabad. The khakis were at their weakest in four decades. That was the time to bolster civilian rule, to corral the army with fresh ultimatums. Instead, Obama seemed more anxious about pacifying Pakistan for having breached its sovereignty than holding its army to account for harboring bin Laden -- which explains the White House's rush to finesse Amb. Mike Mullen's candid testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in September.

Then, in a craven abdication of American responsibility to the citizens of Afghanistan, Obama talked about the need for nation-building at home. For a man who attained the presidency by invoking Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Obama has rarely displayed any compunction in retreating from battle with men who, given the opportunity, would have lynched King and Gandhi -- indeed men who have presided over the slaughter and torture of too many potential Kings and Gandhis of our age. Could there be a more forceful testament to the failure of Obama's foreign policy in South Asia than the sight of terrorist leader Sirajuddin Haqqani operating with impunity in Pakistan six months after bin Laden's killing?

Rehman, the new Pakistani ambassador, is a socially liberal pro-democracy politician. But disturbingly, and unlike her predecessor, she subscribes to the Pakistani army's view of Afghanistan: Any government in Kabul must be pro-Pakistan. This should hardly seem worth worrying about -- except that "pro-Pakistan," in the context of Afghanistan, means anti-India, anti-America, and, more troublingly, anti-Afghan. Bluntly, it means a Pakistani colony of the pre-2001 variety that hosted bin Laden, not a sovereign state with independent policymaking prerogatives. This explains why an overwhelming majority of Afghans, whenever given the chance, express only the deepest contempt for Pakistan.

The Pakistani army has responded to the NATO attack by blocking supply routes to the coalition forces. It has also issued a notice to close down the U.S.-run airbase in Shamsi. The proportional response to Pakistan's denial of its territory to the United States would be to limit Pakistan's role in Afghanistan. It is the United States that has secured Afghanistan; if Pakistan wants a role, it had better pay its dues. Instead, Washington grovels before Islamabad even as American soldiers die at the hands of Pakistan's clients.

Faced with a re-election campaign, Obama is seeking to obtain a cosmetic "end" to the mission in Afghanistan by cutting deals with the Pakistani army and its clients in the Taliban. This will involve a reduced presence of American troops on the ground, a heightened use of targeted drone strikes, and, to keep this arrangement, bribes to the Pakistan army in the form of vaguely conditional aid. Relations between the United States and Pakistan will return to "normal" in short order. A poltroon deal will be struck with the Taliban chieftains. As the fighters currently enjoying Pakistani hospitality in the country's northwest make their way back into Afghanistan, the gains made over the last decade will wither away. Thus will the tremendous sacrifices, of both American troops and Afghan civilians, be honored. For the citizens of Pakistan and Afghanistan, this will signal the start of yet another prolonged period of violence. President Obama will call it victory.