An opportunity for democratizing Egypt

An opportunity for democratizing Egypt

Egypt has been abuzz with excitement over the appearance on the scene of a serious contender in its forthcoming presidential race, due in October, 2011. He is Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, 67, who has just stepped down from his latest post as the Director of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A Nobel Peace Laureate and the highest Egyptian decoration, The Nile Medal; it is hard for the 82-year-old Mubarak to dismiss or tarnish Baradei, as was done to Ayman Nour, the 2005 contestant, or to this writer in 2000.

The mere announcement of his intention to give it a try and the subsequent outpouring of support for Baradei has already put a damper on the succession plans of Mubark’s son, Gamal, 46, who now appears too pale by comparison in the eyes of most Egyptian insiders. This may force Mubarak Senior, despite his age and failing health, to jump into the fray for a sixth term. At this writing he was in Germany for medical treatment and possible kidney surgery.

Whether it is the father or the son who will try to preserve power in the Mubarak family, Egyptian politics is already witnessing a sea of change with Baradei’s appearance on the scene. Even if they were competent and corruption free, contrary to their present image and reputation, sheer boredom seems a crucial factor in the enthusiasm of most Egyptians for a true presidential contest. Over 60 percent of them were born during Mubarak’s rule. With 29 years in power, he is the third longest ruler in Egypt’s 4000 years of recorded history. He has already outlived five American Presidents and all of Europe’s elected Prime Ministers.

Among Arab rulers, only Libya’s Qaddafi has been in power a few years longer.

More important, Mr. Baradei is offering Egyptians, the Middle East and the world, a liberal democratic alternative to the other awful choice between the current Mubarak autocracy and the potent challenger of the Muslim Brotherhood’s feared theocracy. Regardless of the possible outcome of the contest, this is indeed an opportunity for restoring democracy in Egypt after 60 years of a military–based autocracy. With one quarter of its population and an over towering cultural eminence, a democratic Egypt could be a role model for the rest of the Arab World and a credible regional counter on the ascending Iran.

These are all the reasons why the West, especially in the US, should not only take an active interest, but also a warning watch to see that the electoral contest in the land of the Nile is fair and free. Their combined annual $4 billion aid is good leverage. This could best be secured by demanding from the Egyptian regime a restoration of full judicial supervision of the elections and encouraging both domestic and international monitoring of the forthcoming Parliamentary and Presidential Elections.

**Ibrahim is the Wallenstein Distinguished Visiting Professor of Islamic and Middle East Studies at Drew University, Madison, New Jersey.