Can Nazif convince Washington of a slow and safe “Egyptian Democratic Model”?

As expected by many experts in Washington, the Bush administration did not exert real pressure on Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif during his latest visit to the United States. The administration simply presented some general requests, which it believed that sheer implementation of the requests would reduce the need to criticize the Egyptian regime or place direct pressure on it. Marina Ottaway, an expert of Democracy Affairs at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said to Washington Report, “I am not sure if the Bush administration will pressure Nazif and I think that the administration must say something about the need to achieve more progress democracy in Egypt.”

On the other hand, any substitute to the current Egyptian regime is a real dilemma for the United States, which considers the Egyptian regime a strong ally when it comes to important strategic issues such the War on Terror and the Middle East. In this respect, Ottaway said, “President Bush still needs Mubarak and he fears Islamists in any circumstance.”

The Three American Requests
According to the White House spokesman Scott McClellan, President Bush praised the historic steps taken by President Mubarak. The American side asked Nazif to clarify some points regarding the latest amendments to the Egyptian Constitution that were suggested by President Mubarak. The main focus of these amendments is to permit more than one candidate in the coming presidential elections.

At the same time, the spokesman for the U.S Department of State, Richard Boucher, said, “My country welcomes the Egyptian announcement of multi-party elections, and believes that it is important to apply this in a complete manner”.
He added that the U.S is available for anything that may forward attempts to achieve progress in political reform and democracy and to offer support whenever we find real efforts towards reform”. But some sources close to the talks told Washington Report (on condition of anonymity) that there was an additional series of American requests.
They are:

1) The necessity to guarantee complete transparency for the coming elections.

2) Reducing the number of people’s Assembly members who must approve of the candidates from 65 to 30.

3) The percentage of Mubarak’s National Party (NDP) representation in the new People’s Assembly should not exceed 50%.

Nazif “s Reply – Promoting the Egyptian Democratic Model
The aim of the Egyptian Prime Minister‘s visit was to convince the U.S administration that Egypt was serious about applying democracy. Nazif also expressed his support for President Bush’s call for greater democratic activity in the Middle East saying, “no one objects to Bush’s call for deepening democracy.” He pointed out that “the U.S role is confined to giving advice.” Nazif explained to the U.S officials the real reforms taking place in Egypt now represented some important democratic developments, the most important of which is that Egyptians would be free to elect their president from a ballot of other candidates for the first time since the age of the pharaohs.”

The Prime Minister also presented the Egyptian model of democracy which, although slow, is stable by maintaining security in the most important country in the Middle East. Nazif promised the U.S administration that free and transparent elections would take place. But contrary to the promises of the Egyptian Prime Minister, Maria Ottaway sees free elections taking place in Egypt in the coming autumn as impossible for several reasons. The most important of which are the Egyptian government’s unwillingness to allow civil participation and lack of preparedness by the opposition. Ottaway said, “the obstacles to free elections in Egypt are represented first by Mubarak and the National Party as they simply do not want free elections but rather to remain in power and second the opposition does not appear prepared or strong enough to force the government to stop manipulating elections.”

International observers… Who should we believe?
The White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said at the end of Bush-Nazif meeting, “The U.S president urged Egypt to go forward for making free elections with real campaigns in the presence of international observers.” However, the Egyptian Prime Minister denied the mentioning of international observers during his talks with President Bush. He said, “we will not discuss this matter in detail until Egypt is ready to discuss it.” Nazif made a statement to the NBC program “Meet the Press” in response to the question of whether he would accept the presence of international observers saying, “ I don’t mind the presence of international observes, there is no problem about that, but we have to solve our problems ourselves.” At the beginning of May, Bush called for international observers to monitor the presidential elections in Egypt but Gamal Mubarak, the Secretary of the Committee of Policies in the ruling National Party and the younger son of president Mubarak, refused the idea at the time.

Ignoring the Muslim Brotherhood
Despite the view of many American experts that the Muslim Brotherhood would be the cornerstone of any real democratic development in Egypt, they were not mentioned during any meeting between Nazif and U.S officials according to American sources. Tamara Watts, the Democracy expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington sees the Muslim Brotherhood as the most organized opposition group in Egypt.

She also thinks that the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is joining those who ask for more democracy is a very positive thing “she also agrees with Ottaway’s views saying “the Muslim Brotherhood has the largest popularity base in Egypt and we cannot say there is a democratic progress going on if we exclude it from the democratic process in Egypt. It seems that the issue of the Muslim Brotherhood did not preoccupy the U.S administration that much as there were not any official statement on the existence of discussions on latest arrest campaigns in the lines of Muslim Brotherhood members or regarding the Muslim Brotherhood decision of boycotting the national referendum of the suggested constitution amendments. On the other hand, many in Washington fear the idea of allowing peaceful Islamic groups, like the Muslim Brotherhood, to participate in the democratic transformation process because they doubt that the Brotherhood is committed to the concept of democracy. It is expected that the U.S administration will continue to talk publicly about the need to increase the levels of democratic participation in Egypt and the insistence on transparency in the coming elections.

Furthermore, the fixed bilateral relations (with its security and economic sides) between both sides remain away from the formal political argument. Many in Washington believe that what Egypt needs now is the existence of effective and real opposition to pose a genuine challenge to the President Mubarak regime because external pressures always have other calculations and the degree of American or European pressure is not expected to be high.