19 December 2004
Nir Boms and Aaron Mannes
In the struggle to build a democratic Middle East, Egypt is a crucial front and the upcoming October 2005 presidential elections present a unique opportunity for reform. Prominent Egyptian reformers have expressed interest in running against President for life Hosni Mubarak, including Professor Saad al-Din Ibrahim – one of the Arab world’s leading voices for democracy and human rights.
“If given the chance, I personally want to run to break the barrier of fear and intimidation,” Ibrahim told The Associated Press. “Not that I have real hopes of success, but I want to show my fellow Egyptians that nothing should be a political taboo.”
An actual challenger to Mubarak’s one-man rule would be unprecedented. In four previous presidential referendums, Mubarak was the sole candidate and Egyptians voted yes or no. The United States tolerated Mubarak’s autocracy because he has appeared supportive of American interests in the Middle East and kept a chilly peace with Israel. In turn, the United States provided the Mubarak regime with about $60 billion in aid (two-thirds of which was military).
To keep the aid flowing, Mubarak cited the continuous threat of an Islamist takeover. Using this excuse he has kept in force draconian emergency laws enacted after his predecessor Anwar Sadat was assassinated that allowed the government to arrest and imprison with impunity.
Now that the United States has made democratic reform a high priority, Mubarak seeks to appear as a reformer. Last month Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), convened under the banner of “New Thought and Reform Priorities.” Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son and possible successor told reporters, “One-party rule is over.” President Mubarak himself promised in his closing speech to “spread the culture of democracy,” end criminal sanctions for violations of the press law and give full legislative powers to the Shura Council, the advisory upper house of Parliament.
But, in the words of Egyptian Parliament member Ayman Nour, “When the government talks of reform, they are addressing foreign nations.”
Mr. Nour’s own efforts to found the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party, with a platform focusing on liberalizing Egypt’s economy and politics, are instructive. The regime has used its control over the state institutions to throw up roadblock after roadblock. In September Egypt’s Political Parties Court in Cairo, was scheduled to hear yet 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, failed to show up. Without a quorum, the applications were blocked without the court having to issue an outright denial.
Al-Ghad’s application was approved on October 28. But shortly thereafter the Parliament’s legislative committee prevented al-Ghad from forming a parliamentary bloc. With six members of parliament committed, al-Ghad would have become the leading opposition party.
However, in Prof. Ibrahim, the regime may now face a democratic challenge that cannot be contained by administrative machinations. In 2000, Prof. Saad al-Din Ibrahim was imprisoned for making a film promoting voter registration that was deemed critical of Egypt’s regime. He was released in 2002 after an international campaign by a coalition of human rights groups. Prof. Ibrahim’s status would focus international attention on Egypt’s elections and draw attention to any blatant efforts to sabotage his candidacy.
Ibrahim is not the only liberal candidate willing to challenge Mubarak. Egyptian author and doctor Nawal Saadawi, who has been imprisoned for her outspoken feminist views on sex and religion, says she would like to “get moving 70 million Egyptian men and women who are currently just spectators without a voice and without power.”
But the candidacies of Saadawi and Ibrahim are unlikely to have any legal status because only parliament – which is dominated by the ruling party – can nominate the sole presidential candidate, whose name then goes to a referendum.
This is an opportunity for the United States to support its values and the transformation of the region. The U.S. should not endorse Ibrahim or any other candidate – but it should press for an open contest. Mubarak’s absolute control of the state machinery makes an opposition victory unlikely. But an open campaign would be a catalyst for a broader discussion of reform and liberty and increase understanding of democracy among the Egyptian public, ultimately paving the way for future change.
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