Comment: Egypt needs a democratic legacy

Comment: Egypt needs a democratic legacy

Hosni Mubarak said last week that Egypt “does not need a national hero”. The ageing Egyptian president, who is recovering in Germany from a gall bladder operation, was answering a question about Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel prize winner and recently retired head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Mr ElBaradei returned to Egypt, the land of his birth, last month to lead a movement pushing for democratic reform.

Mr Mubarak is right. Most Egyptians do not want new heroes. In the person of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the country’s first post-independence leader, Egypt had a “hero of liberation”, and in Anwar Sadat, his successor, it had a “hero of war and peace”. Mr Mubarak, who has ruled for 29 years, is the “hero of the October war”.

There is, to be sure, a tendency among some of Mr ElBaradei’s supporters to cast him as a hero who has come to save Egypt. Others see him as the man who will deliver the coup de grâce to presumed plans in ruling circles to arrange a succession to Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son.

But Mr ElBaradei himself has been playing down the idea that he aims to become president, emphasising instead his desire to help bring about democratic reforms. These include guarantees of free and fair elections and amendments to a constitution that gives the president unlimited terms in office and places hurdles in the path of independent candidates who want to run for the top job.

The movement that has grown around Mr ElBaradei is composed mainly of young people with no party affiliation. Some 180,000 have signed up to a Facebook group to promote him as Egypt’s next president. It is hard to gauge the real political impact of this kind of cyberspace opposition.

More important is the graphic illustration that Mr ElBaradei’s return provides that a man of his stature cannot run in presidential elections unless he joins one of the now discredited legal opposition parties. New political parties can be legalised only if approved by a committee headed by the chairman of the ruling party.

The Egyptian system is thus stacked against change. It could well be that the regime and its powerful security services brush off Mr ElBaradei and his supporters. But that would be a mistake.

The level of enthusiasm he has aroused should be taken as a positive sign. Many young and educated Egyptians yearn for change and are willing to work for it. The country’s political elite, much of it in the ruling party, should take notice.

Now with a population of almost 80m, about 40 per cent of whom live below or just above the poverty line, the country needs a political system that depends less on heroes, pharaohs and their authoritarian ilk and more on accountable leaders and credible institutions.

Crucial tasks such as an overhaul of the education and public health systems, or a reduction in fuel subsidies, need to be backed by the kind of social consensus that can only be forged through politics.

But since 1952 domestic politics has been all but abolished in Egypt. Voter turnouts are often less than 30 per cent, and a common refrain is that voting makes no difference. Changes in 2007 that have abolished judicial supervision over elections can only deepen mistrust in a flawed process.

The legal opposition parties are generally recognised as ineffectual and unelectable. They operate in a system where everyone understands that their function is to complete a democratic façade. As such they are unable to recruit members, enthuse supporters or present themselves as alternatives.

The only real opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, remains illegal, its members and leaders a permanent target for harassment, arrest and military trials.

As he contemplates his final years in office, Mr Mubarak, who is 81, should turn his attention to the political reforms the country needs. An amended constitution that lays the basis for an inclusive, credible and competitive political system could be his most lasting legacy.