A ’new’ and ’open’ Egypt?

The Middle East appears to be changing. Its dictators are no longer immune from international justice. Their palaces are exposed to international pressure and their reign to increasing scrutiny by the people who already showed us that they can march in the streets of Lebanon, Egypt and even Syria. Elections have taken place not only in Iraq and the Palestinian Authority but also in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt — and that list goes on. A report about the new configuration of the parliament in Egypt appears almost natural in the western media. After all, it is just another parliament, right? Well, change can be good — but this is not its only possible path.
    Ayman Nour, an Egyptian opposition politician who is still detained after he tried to run in the last presidential election in Egypt may tell you more about that. Mr. Nour, who heads the popular liberal Ghad party, was detained on Dec. 5 with six others on accusations they forged the papers required for his party’s official recognition last year. His story is very much about the new realities in Egypt.
    Egypt just completed its last round of the parliamentary elections. The results show an increasing gain for the banned Islamic Brotherhood, which won 88 seats — or 20 percent of the 444 parliamentary seats. This indicates a major victory for the Brotherhood that retained 15 seats in the outgoing Peoples’ Assembly. It is already clear that the Brotherhood — an officially outlawed group that is responsible for some of Egypt’s most radical moments in its country’s history, including the assassination of President Anwar Sadat — is to become a significant voting bloc and a vocal power in Egyptian politics. Less clear are the implications of this new reality with regards to the future of Egypt and the stability of the Middle East as a whole.
    To be sure, President Hosni Mubarak appeared less than thrilled by these new developments. Despite his calls for open elections, his police have barred voters from polls, and his emissaries have attacked Brotherhood supporters in an apparent effort to block the group’s growing momentum. A European Union parliamentary delegation that came to monitor the elections determined that the ruling NDP engaged in buying votes and assaulting opposition activists. There was even criticism from judicial circles as the Central Judge Syndicate issued a statement citing an array of alleged violations, including cases of voters who were prevented from casting ballots and police who refused prevented people from voting.
    In the last week of the campaign, eight people have been killed and dozens wounded in election clashes. Egyptian police arrested nearly 1,500 Muslim Brotherhood and suspected activists in the three-week-long election cycle. Among those arrested was Ahmed Mohammed Mahmoud, the editor of a Web site that published news and politics that were not always friendly to the government. According to sources at the Egyptian Press Syndicate, his home was broken into by state security officers, who confiscated articles, books, CDs and hard discs containing written material. Two monitors from the National Coalition for Election Monitoring were nearly beaten to death as well.
    Despite all of this, the Brotherhood, campaigning under the slogan “Islam is the solution,” has succeeded in increasing its power. This is no coincidence. After 26 years of single-party rule and 23 years of a one-man reign — during which unemployment has risen to a whopping 25 percent, regime opponents have been jailed or killed and political reforms have been stifled — Egyptians are obviously ready for change. Islam appears to be a simple enough answer, particularly for a land where close to 50 percent of its population is illiterate. Drawing on the social networks of schools, mosques and community centers, the Brotherhood has been able to organize its activists and call them to vote. This has also helped raise the voting participation numbers to a record high of 15 percent. Indeed, democracy at work.
    In reality, many Egyptians have voted for the Brotherhood not because they want an Islamic government but rather because they are tired of a regime seen by many Egyptians as corrupt and ineffective. However, these elections have paved the way for those who would like to create some serious roadblocks to ensure that Egypt remains resilient in its opposition to progress.
    Egypt’s path to freedom should be supported, but very carefully. Democracy, and especially one that only represents 15 percent of its population, cannot simply address some critical Egyptian issues that must be resolved through a slower process of education and modernization. Further, democracy should not be a fig leaf for further oppression and stagnation.
    The West has been instrumental in applying pressure that helped convince Mr. Mubarak to open a possible path for freedom. Now it must make sure that the “new” Egypt begins to understand what being “open” is all about. Two billion American dollars will do well if invested with this perspective in mind.
    Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.