The countdown to the most important event for the future of the Middle East has begun. In 2011, the term of President Hosni Mubarak (in power since 1981) will end and Egyptians will vote for a new president of the republic. Mubarak, who would be 83 then, is unlikely to seek another term. Despite the various undemocratic succession scenarios under debate—the ascent to power of Mubarak’s son Gamal, an unknown military leader, or another official close to Mubarak—this election will constitute a watershed one way or the other for the future of democracy in the Middle East.
So far, the political situation inside Egypt remains a mixture of stalemate, turmoil, and fear of what lies ahead. The Egyptian government has become clumsy in dealing with the sort of internal problems it used to handle easily, to the extent that the army had to step in to resolve recent bread shortages. In the words of strategic expert Diaa Rashwan, this crisis appears to be the result of “conflicts among opposing wings in the [National Democratic] party and the political system, each of whom wants to embarrass the other in the eyes of the public.”
The struggle for the Egyptian presidency is so intense because of the extensive powers the office enjoys. There are thirty-five constitutional articles that delineate presidential powers, which include appointing the cabinet and convening the upper and lower houses of parliament—and dissolving them whenever he pleases. Moreover, the president heads the Court of Cassation and the Supreme Council of Police as well as being the commander in chief of the armed forces.
The next U.S. administration must be aware of the critical phase through which Cairo is passing. It must also know that if the United States claims that it is committed to supporting democratic change in the Arab world, then this is a historic opportunity—which will not recur—to restore its credibility in the eyes of the Arab citizenry. In dealing with Egyptian succession, the United States faces the opportunity to contribute constructively to the creation of a model of democratic governance in the Arab world’s most populous nation, a nation that is accustomed to being the starting point of shifts that have changed the Arab world, most notably the decision of late President Anwar Sadat to sign a peace agreement with Israel.
The past eight years of U.S.-Egyptian relations provide ample lessons about how to promote democracy (and how not to) in Egypt:
First, the United States in the near future must be pragmatic in dealing with certain realities that cannot be changed at present, notably candidates for the presidential election that will be held in September 2011. Washington should not attempt to advance one candidate over another or involve itself in any of the scenarios mentioned above. This is the exclusive concern of the Egyptian voter.
What the United States should do is to deal with the issue of the future of the Egyptian presidency in two phases: before and after the presidential election. Before the election, the United States should stress the importance of having the next Egyptian president chosen in transparent elections—despite the extremely limited choice of candidates—that the judiciary and civil society are permitted to oversee. After the election, Washington must support Egyptian demands to limit presidential terms to two, which will increase prospects for the peaceful alternation of power and alternative political forces to compete in future elections. Without presidential term limits, democratic reform in Egypt will be exceptionally difficult. Agreeing to such limits would be an important way for the new Egyptian president to demonstrate his seriousness about continuing political reform.
The new U.S. president should realize that there is no reason why pressure on Egypt to undertake political reform should damage cooperation between the two countries at the regional level. For example, at the height of the Bush administration’s pressure on Egypt for political reform in 2004-5, Egypt sent an ambassador to Baghdad, the first Arab country to do so after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In any case, Egypt’s regional role has declined due primarily to internal political deadlock; a reinvigoration of political life in Egypt might allow it to reclaim its regional role in dealing with issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and reconciliation efforts in Lebanon.
As part of a new, more pragmatic approach, the new U.S. administration should finally abandon the fear that democratic reform in Egypt will result in the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. Constitutional amendments passed in 2007 will prevent this. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot nominate any of its leaders to run for the presidency because it does not have a political party, and a Brotherhood candidate could not obtain enough votes in elected bodies to qualify to run as an independent candidate per stipulations in the Egyptian constitution.
Finally, the new U.S. administration should devote special attention to promoting the participation of youth in political parties and civil society. Ever since the United States began its support of democratic reform in Egypt, it has ignored a dangerous demographic reality: according to official statistics, young people make up 40 percent of Egypt’s inhabitants at a time when the country suffers from a severe lack of political participation.
Due to the absence of channels to direct this human capital, there has recently been an unprecedented rise in political activity among the Egyptian youth on the Internet. According to government statistics, there are more than 160,000 Egyptian blogs, constituting a vast array of virtual political participation. The general strike that occurred on April 6 was organized on the internet by young people and included 85,000 participants, the majority under the age of 30. This is a clear indication of Egyptian young people’s thirst to participate in political life. Will U.S. aid programs find ways to respond to this call? This would be one of the most important ways for the new U.S. president to support democracy in Egypt and, through Egypt, the entire Arab world.
Mohamed Abdel Baky is journalist and researcher on democracy and political Reform in Middle East. Kevin Burnham translated this article.