Dr. Amr Hamzawy

Dr. Amr Hamzawy
Senior Associate
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Washington, D.C.
House Committee on International Relations
Hearing “Redefining Boundaries: Political Liberalization in the Arab World”

Challenges and Prospects of Political Liberalization in Egypt
The Arab world is changing. Confronted with increasingly disenchanted domestic
populations and Western efforts to promote democracy in the region, a representative
number of Arab governments has embarked on the road to political reforms or has
accelerated the pace of their realization. Changing regional conditions in the three years
have helped to create an unprecedented momentum for debating the perspectives of
democratic transformation from Morocco to Bahrain. Never before has Arab public
interest in political participation, peaceful transfer of power, and good governance been
as genuine and far-reaching.
Yet, the path to Arab democracy continues to be problematic. A close look at the
contemporary regional political scene reveals that the predominantly missing element—
when compared with more successful experiences of political transformation elsewhere
(e.g., Eastern Europe and South America)—is the emergence of democratic opposition
movements with broad constituencies that can contest authoritarian power and force
concessions. International efforts to promote democracy in societies where the tradeoffs
of undemocratic governance continue to be bearable for the ruling elites do not suffice to
make political reforms plausible or viable.
Government Reform Policies
Contemporary political developments in Egypt confirm these doubts. They shed light on
two major dilemmas of Egyptian politics: the tortuous path of the government in
initiating needed democratic reforms and the structural weakness of opposition parties
and movements. Since 2002, Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has
embarked on an effort to project a new, reformist image. Rising domestic demands for
political accountability, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, and popular
dissatisfaction with the performance of NDP-led governments have forced the party to
reconsider its public profile. A greater inclination on the part of the United States and the
European Union to pressure Egypt on political reform has also played a role. In the past
three years, a cadre of younger technocrats—mainly mid-career professionals,
businessmen, and university professors—has been injected into a party long dominated
by older figures. This “young guard,” well versed in the rhetoric of democracy and good
governance, has developed the NDP’s current platform of political reforms. The NDP has
also revamped its internal structure by introducing primaries for leadership posts, creating
specialized policy committees, and convening an annual congress.
Throughout the last three years the NDP has articulated different reform initiatives
tackling the crucial issues of citizen participation and their political rights. Although NDP
draft laws on “Exercising Political Rights” (Law No. 73 of 1956) and “Political Parties”
(Law No. 40 of 1977) represent attempts to open up the political system, they stop short
of creating momentum for democratization in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak’s recent
decision to amend article 76 of the constitution to allow more than one candidate to run in
the upcoming presidential election next fall certainly represents a significant reform step,
but there is real danger that it will be robbed of all meaning if it is not followed by other
substantial reforms or in case of a practice based on the model used in Tunisia, where
President Ben Ali carefully staged the inevitable extension of his period in office along
pluralist lines.
The Egyptian government has ignored the wide consensus that exists outside its own
constituency concerning the three reform imperatives needed to render Egypt’s
democratic transformation a realistic project: (1) setting limits on the terms of office as
well as the powers vested in the president as head of the executive, (2) rescinding the
State of Emergency, which was extended by the People’s Assembly on February 23,
2003, for three more years, and (3) changing the laws obstructing the functioning of
professional associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The State of
Emergency limits the ability of political and civic groups to associate and assemble
freely. Political parties, when legalized, are highly restricted in their activities. The
Emergency Law prohibits parties from organizing public meetings without prior
permission from the Ministry of Interior. Security forces have unrestrained powers to
arrest and detain individuals, a practice particularly common in the case of Islamist
groups whose members are normally arrested prior to parliamentary and local elections.
The legal framework for NGOs in Egypt is governed by Law No. 84 of 2002, which
requires civic associations to register with the Ministry of Social Affairs and opens the
possibility of political manipulation by granting the Ministry the right to disband by
administrative decree any association deemed to be performing illegal activities.
Furthermore, the law prohibits NGOs from taking part in political or syndicate activities
and receiving crucial foreign funding in the absence of governmental approval. In all
these areas, no traces of substantial transformation can be discerned since 2002.
Almost three decades ago Egypt appeared to embark on the road to democracy. Since
then the government has favored a more gradual transformation to a limited political
pluralism. The major legitimizing strategy for the government’s go-slow approach has
been twofold: (1) systematically evoke the well-worn mantra that economic reforms must
come before political reform, and (2) consistently maintain that the population needs to
be prepared for democracy before reforms can take place. But, the “democratization in
spurts” model has led to no more than minor reforms on the fringes of the political sphere.
The system of power relationships and constitutional and legal arrangements organizing
political participation remains essentially unchanged.
Opposition Movements
The second major dilemma of Egypt’s democratic transformation is the absence of
democratic opposition movements with broad constituencies. Although the party system
is fundamentally established and shows a moderate degree of fragmentation, the NDP
dominates it with its strong hold over the legislative and the executive branches. The four
major opposition parties—the liberal Al Wafd Party, the leftist National Progressive
Unionist Party, the Arab Nasserist Party, and the Al Ghad Party—are structurally weak
and lack constituencies large enough to mobilize popular support. Ten other small parties
are active, but their numbers and political relevance are inconsequential.
In contrast, there are approximately 16,000 registered civic associations. Even by
regional standards, however, the diversified topography of vital social interests is still
underrepresented; the poor, the weak, the marginalized, and the rural constituencies are
excluded from the system. In the 1950s and 1960s the state functioned as the major
representative of these groups, but since the Open Door Policy began in 1976, the state
has been retreating from various social spheres with no viable substitutes to fill the
vacuum. Representation of interests has become a monopoly of powerful political and
economic elites—a dangerous situation considering that the exclusion of large segments
of the Egyptian population has always resulted in social unrest, radical currents, and
political apathy. Civil society groups encounter both state restrictions and popular distrust.
Through an efficient conglomerate of legal and political measures, the state controls the
scope and content of activities performed by civic organizations. They tend to remain
centered in urban areas and oriented toward the middle class.
By contrast, nonviolent Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood are well
rooted in the Egyptian social and cultural fabric and possess great potential for forging
broad alliances for political transformation. In the 1980s and 1990s the Muslim Brothers
had yet to come up with a strategic commitment to democratic forms of governance.
Caught in the iron grip of state oppression and continuous radicalization at the outer
edges of the Islamist spectrum, they were forced out of the official political sphere. Their
preoccupation with rhetorically sound, though politically unattainable, issues—such as
the implementation of the Islamic Law and the Islamization of educational systems—did
not help them overcome general doubts about their real objectives. Rather, it lent
credibility to the negative perception of Islamists as traditionalist forces who are less
interested in tolerating the diversity of Egyptian society or accommodating political
pluralism in any serious way. By the end of the 1990s, despite considerable popular
support, the apparent failure of Islamists to change political realities in Egypt gave birth
to various revisionist trends among nonviolent movements and unleashed a critical
discussion on their priorities and strategies that gathered momentum in the aftermath of
September 11, 2001.
The major outcome has been a shift in mainstream Egyptian Islamist movements toward
more pragmatism based on prioritizing gradual democratic reforms as the path to follow
for their political integration and as the only viable strategy to challenge a persistently
authoritarian system. Embracing the notion of democratic polity within nonviolent
Islamist movements, however, does not mean that they are giving up their religious
legacy and becoming wholeheartedly the new liberals of Egypt. Rather, they will always
sustain their distinct religious identity as compared to other political forces by stressing,
at least rhetorically, a traditional agenda built around moral calls to implement the
Islamic Law and Islamize the public sphere and propagandistic pleas to liberate Palestine
and the Muslim homelands from the “infidels.” The crucial issue at stake is the fact that
calling for democratic reform is becoming a central component of the Islamist agenda as
well, if not its determining principle, one which transcends all others.
The realization of the new Islamist vision requires a degree of openness on the part of the
Egyptian government toward the integration of nonviolent movements in the political
sphere. Unfortunately, no steps have been taken in that direction. The Muslim
Brotherhood remains excluded from the political sphere and faces at virtually regular
intervals the repressive measures of the government. Islamist-led initiatives to establish
political parties (e.g., al-Wasat initiative) are normally blocked by the governmentcontrolled
Political Parties Affairs Committee. Despite their continued containment and
exclusion in the last few years, democratic Islamists have upheld their strategic choice for
gradual political reforms.
Throughout the last three years, different secular parties have been gradually reaching out
to mainstream Islamists and engaging them in campaigns calling for reforms. Islamists,
for their part, have seized the integration opportunity and positioned themselves at the
heart of the growing popular opposition. The Egyptian Movement for Change, Kifaya
(Enough), stands for this emerging secular-religious national alliance for democracy.
These are significant initial steps. Democratic opposition platforms are by far more
effective with Islamist participation than without it.
Promoting Political Reform in Egypt
Egypt’s path to democracy is uncertain. The government’s reform policies in the last
three years have gone in the right direction, but they stop short of introducing a package
of substantial changes into the political power structure and the restrictive patterns of
political participation prevailing in the country. Apparently, the only way to end the
current stalemate is to mobilize large constituencies for political reform. Opposition
parties and civil society actors, however, face restrictions imposed by the government and
suffer from various structural deficiencies. Nonviolent Islamists have the potential to
reach out to considerable constituencies, but they are suppressed by the government’s
security forces and have rather limited room for maneuver.
Egypt is so geostrategically important that it can neither be ignored nor subjected to
pressures. The United States can help promote reform by encouraging the government to
move ahead in opening up the political system and easing its restrictions against the
opposition, especially nonviolent Islamist movements. To this end, the United States
should use its strong economic and political ties with Egypt, without alienating the
government by threatening to cut down military and economic assistance. Managing the
reform process, primarily in its first stages, remains the prerogative of the existing regime
and without its backing the whole process cannot take off.
A second viable strategy is to promote the cause of emerging democratic platforms and
engage nonviolent Islamists. The United States needs to deepen its current openness
toward Islamist movements by gradually including them in democracy promotion
programs. Without their active participation, calls for reform in Egypt are bound to
remain the whisper of closed communities irrelevant to the social fabric at large. In a first
phase of collaboration it might be easier for both the United States and Islamist
movements to set aside the explosive terrains of national and regional politics and adopt a
low-profile approach. Different joint projects designed to promote mutual trust and
moderation within the Islamist spectrum can be envisaged for example in the fields of
civic education, empowerment of women, and local capacity building. Identifying
potential Islamist partners should follow a minimalist, more pragmatic and less normative,
approach. The respective movement or organization becomes eligible, provided that it
clearly and generally renounces violence and is willing to collaborate with the West. The
Egyptian government has long secured the support or at least the silent approval of the
United States for its repressive measures toward Islamist movements by evoking the socalled
Algerian syndrome or the nightmare of anti-Western fanatics coming to power
through the ballot box. However, at present excluding Islamists from the political sphere
weakens the chances of democratic transformation in Egypt more than anything else. The
cause of democracy is best served by bringing in nonviolent Islamists and their large