Egypt's democratisation: reality or mirage?

About the author
Khalil al-Anani is a scholar at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University in the UK and a former visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute.

When President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt announced on 26 February that he would introduce a measure of competition into his country’s presidential elections he took most observers and most of his compatriots by surprise, and the full meaning of the gesture has yet to become clear.

On 10 May, the lower house of parliament in Cairo – dominated by Mubarak supporters – followed the decision of the Shura Council (upper house) a day earlier and ratified the announcement with an amendment of Article 76 of Egypt’s constitution. There is, however, a significant qualification: any opposition candidate must have the written support of around 300 members of a variety of elected bodies, which in Egypt means those already anointed by President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP).

In practice, only candidates from the handful of officially approved political parties will be eligible to take part in the presidential elections due in September 2005. This may represent a modest advance, because until now only one candidate (approved by the Mubarak-controlled parliament) has gone forward to the national ballot – making the vote effectively a referendum on the incumbent.

Yet almost twenty-four years and more than four presidential terms since Mubarak assumed power in the aftermath of the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat in 1981, he has not suddenly thrown open the door to fully democratic presidential elections. In fact the new arrangement resembles the sham balloting familiar from many other dictatorships.

Also in openDemocracy on Egypt, democracy, and Islam:

▪ Daniel Swift, “Saad Eddin Ibrahim: through the Arab looking glass” (April 2003)

▪ Gilles Kepel, “Tightrope walks and chessboards: an interview” (April 2003)

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Little surprise, then, that most opposition activists dismiss the change as cosmetic. Hussein Abderrazek of the leftist Tagammu party says: “The NDP will choose not only its own candidate but also his competitors.” The government’s defence is that the restrictions are a precaution necessary to exclude candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood, possibly the largest opposition group in the country, from running.

For its part the Muslim Brotherhood has welcomed the change as a chink in the regime’s armour and said they would renew their efforts to achieve formal recognition in Egypt. One of the group’s leaders, Essam El-Irian, said that “we should exploit this critical moment” – before being arrested in a mass roundup of activists on 6 May, then announcing from prison that he would challenge Mubarak for the presidency himself.

The government initiative follows the emergence in Egypt of a movement known as Kifaya (“Enough”). Kifaya began organising five years ago as a response to the Palestinian uprising and picked up steam in March 2003 when about 10,000 Egyptians took to the streets of Cairo to protest against the United States invasion of Iraq. That protest quickly evolved into anti-Mubarak demonstrations, the first in his long rule.

Since then hundreds of secular, democratic (and more recently Muslim Brotherhood) activists have returned to the streets again and again – the latest incident coinciding with Mubarak’s 77th birthday on 5 May. Among the demands that accompany their powerful one-word slogan is that Mubarak should not run for a fifth term in September.

A Kifaya spokesman, Abdel-Halim Qandil, editor of the Nasserist party mouthpiece Al-Arabi, has stressed the broad scope of the group’s ambitions. “The Kifaya movement was not created just to organise demonstrations,” he says, “but beyond that to hold conferences and introduce a modified constitution that achieves radical political change.” It wants not only to end authoritarian rule, in other words, but to spread freedom across the country and improve the lives of Egyptians generally.

The pressure for change in Egypt, however, comes from outside the country as well as inside. Mubarak has recently watched a drama unfolding elsewhere in the region. Elections were held in Iraq, albeit under occupation, and under broadly similar conditions in Palestine. Saudi Arabia held its first-ever municipal elections, while Lebanese protesters took to the streets, bringing down the government and demanding Syrian troops withdraw. Even Libya is opening up.

The role of the United States in this process is complex. It has been pushing hard for democratisation in the region and it welcomed Mubarak’s decision to allow a multi-candidate vote as “very important”. Even the deputy head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Habib, acknowledged: “The proposed presidential referendum change could have been the result of pressure from the United States.” Yet the very opening up of space for criticism within a society like Egypt can mean that democratisation is double-edged for the US, as new voices on the public stage can also find a ready audience in denouncing its foreign policies and cultural influences.

So how far should can this constitutional amendment be regarded as the beginning of a meaningful process of democratisation in Egypt? Authoritarian regimes, after all, do occasionally introduce reforms when the pressures on them become unbearable. When they remain in power for long periods, domestic discontent sometimes grows to a point where they find it expedient to change their ways, or at least to appear to do so. They try to take the wind out of the opposition’s sails, avoid foreign pressure, maintain political credibility – and remain in control.

Egypt’s leadership has been aware of the internal pressures for some time, but the external influences are important too. In fact it was their combination that brought things to a head. George W Bush and Condoleezza Rice, his new secretary of state, have repeatedly urged reform on Egypt, but the pressure extends beyond the administration and beyond Egypt.

Senators Joseph Lieberman and John McCain tabled a bill in March suggesting measures to promote democracy around the world. The Advance Democracy Act allocates $250 million towards bolstering civil society in undemocratic countries. At the same time other members of Congress have urged the government to cut back economic assistance to authoritarian regimes. None of this is totally new – the same tactics were used in the 1990s to encourage change in east-central Europe – but what is novel is that the Arab region, because of its association with terror and violence, should be a leading target.

The changes in Egypt do not mean that wider political reform is around the corner. Reform is a multi-tiered, multi-dimensional process of which democratisation is but one aspect, and in any case Mubarak’s concession is conspicuous for its grudging modesty. But something is clearly afoot and there may now be an opportunity for Egypt’s opposition and civil society.