By Nir Boms and Aaron Mannes
With international attention focused on the Palestinian and Iraqi elections, the October presidential referendum in Egypt will be little more than a re-inauguration for President Hosni Mubarak, who seeks to regain the presidency for the fifth time and to pave the way for his son Gamal to succeed him. Yet, this time Mr. Mubarak could face a real challenger. “If given the chance, I personally want to run to break the barrier of fear and intimidation,” Professor Saad al-Din Ibrahim, perhaps the Arab world’s leading voice for democracy and human rights, stated. “Not that I have real hopes of success, but I want to show my fellow Egyptians that nothing should be a political taboo.” An open political contest in the largest Arab nation would be an enormous advance for democracy in the Middle East. But Mr. Ibrahim will probably not get this chance, because under the Egyptian constitution the parliament nominates the sole candidate and the citizens can only approve by voting either “yes” or “no”.
Mr. Mubarak has long deflected demands to enact serious political reforms by arguing that the alternatives to his regime are the Islamic extremists. Now, just as democratic transformation has become the keystone of U.S. policy in the Middle East, the 76-year-old Mr. Mubarak is attempting to follow the Syrian model of hereditary dictatorship by grooming his son Gamal as his heir. To evade this increased U.S. pressure to pursue democratic reforms, Mr. Mubarak has attempted to make himself indispensable to the American interests in the region, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while publicly embracing calls for reform.
In September, Mr. Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party convened under the banner of “New Thought and ReformPriorities.”Gamal Mubarak, head of the party’s influential policy committee, told reporters, “One-party rule is over.” In his closing speech President Mubarak called for the “spread of the culture of democracy,” an end to criminal sanctions for violations of the press law, and for the advisory upper house of Parliament to be granted full legislative powers.
But, according to Egyptian Parliament member Ayman Nour, “When the government talks of reform, they are addressing foreign nations.” Mr. Nour’s efforts to establish a new political party demonstrates the lengths the regime will go to prevent the rise of a viable opposition. Mr. Nour made several attempts to register his al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party, which calls for liberalizing Egypt’s economy and politics. In September, Egypt’s Political Parties Court in Cairo was scheduled to hear another appeal of several new political parties, including al-Ghad, applying for licenses to register as political groups. But most of the judges, Mubarak employees, were absent. Without a quorum, the applications were blocked without the court having to issue an outright denial.
Al-Ghad’s application was finally approved on Oct.r 28. But shortly thereafter the parliament’s legislative committee prevented al-Ghad from forming a parliamentary bloc. With six members of parliament committed (out of 454), al-Ghad would have become the leading opposition party. Even this tiny challenge could not be permitted under Egypt’s winner-keep-all politics.
President Mubarak has a long record of disproportionate responses to such political challenges. In 2000, to prevent Mr. Ibrahim from monitoring the elections that year, he was charged with undermining Egypt’s international stature and imprisoned. Mr. Ibrahim was released in 2002 after an international campaign by a coalition of human rights groups. But this time, the Egyptian regime’s high-handed tactics may have backfired. Mr. Ibrahim emerged from prison even more devoted to pressing for reform and with an international profile that will focus world attention on Egypt’s elections and hopefully deter blatant efforts at electoral sabotage.
One of Mr. Ibrahim’s ideas is to link U.S. aid (Egypt has received over $60 billion in U.S. aid over the last quarter-century) to real democratic reforms. If the United States is truly committed to a democratic Egypt, it should follow Mr. Ibrahim’s advice and use this leverage to press for open presidential elections and other real reforms. Not that the United States should endorse Mr. Ibrahim (or any other candidate for that matter) – but it should endorse their right to dissent. An open campaign in Egypt would be a catalyst for a much-needed discussion of civil society and liberty and lay the foundations for further reform. It should also be an American objective.
Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Aaron Mannes is the author of “Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations.”