Egypt at democratic crossroads

Two recent events have caught the attention of the Egyptian media and fed speculation about the 2011 presidential election in Egypt.

First there was the sensational announcement by Mohammad Al Baradei the former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency in response to a campaign by young Egyptians calling on him to run for president. Al Baradei said he would only run on condition that the election be supervised by the judiciary and monitored by the international community.

Second, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was reported by Al Ahram newspaper to have said, in an interview with the Police magazine, that he wanted the elections to be “free and fair.” He also said that the presidential election would be open to “anyone who can bring benefit to Egypt.”

Given the respect Al Baradei enjoys in the international community and his apparent commitment to reform, social justice, and respect for human rights, he may represent the most serious challenge to Mubarak’s 29 years of uncontested reign.

But this challenge can be turned into an opportunity because it offers Mubarak a unique chance to steal the thunder of his critics and would-be reformers and in the process profoundly affect the course of events and indelibly shape his legacy.

Here are some ideas to promote a legacy of democracy and social peace that Mubarak can easily implement.

First, follow up on the verbal promises made recently about free and fair elections by accommodating the demand for judicial supervision and international monitoring of the 2011 presidential election. This will not impinge on the dignity of Egypt or its sovereignty; on the contrary it will enhance both.

Second, remove the constitutional limitations on eligibility that heavily favour the candidates approved by the establishment and handicap outsiders such as Al Baradei. This will demonstrate self-confidence and faith in the ability of the people to make the right choice.

Third, announce that no military experience is needed for the job of president. Egypt has been ruled for almost 60 years by three presidents who were all military officers. None of them were elected by the people, except for Mubarak, who won re-election in a landslide victory in the 2005 election the first contested presidential election in Egypt although the result was disputed by critics and opposition.

In a free and fair election no military officer is likely to be elected president for the simple reason that none enjoys enough popular support to win without the intervention of the ruling party machine or the direct intervention of Mubarak himself; Mubarak could for instance appoint a military officer, or someone like the intelligence chief Omar Sulaiman, to be his vice -president, and thus pave the way for a continuation of military rule in Egypt. Or Mubarak could underscore his believe in democratic governance by becoming the first Egyptian president to usher in civilian rule and affirm the supremacy of civilian authority over the military. Fourth, clear the air once and for all and dispel the growing rumours that Mubarak is grooming his son Jamal to succeed him in office.

Last year Mubarak told American television viewers, in an interview with Charlie Rose, that “This was never raised between my son and myself … It is not on my mind to have my son inherit me…”

Fair and free elections should be subject to rules and procedures to ensure that no unfair advantage is given to the ruling party candidate in terms of access to the media, to the government’s vast resources, and use of the the security forces.

In this regard, opposition figure Ayman Nour, who ran against President Mubarak in the 2005, announced late last year that he would sue Jamal Mubarak in Cairo’s Supreme Administrative Court on charges of “‘using the privileges of executive power without constitutional rights”.

Fifth, unequivocally commit to supremacy of rule of law, especially in terms of protection of human rights, freedom of assembly and peaceful protest. Those arrested during anti-government demonstrations or on suspicion of belonging to illegal organisations should either be charged or released. Democracy has no room for political prisoners.

In this regard the election last month of the moderate Mohammad Badi to the post of the Muslim Brothers’ ‘supreme guide’ is noteworthy. Badi said in his acceptance speech that he believed in peaceful, democratic action. Social peace requires dialogue and conciliation even with banned organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.


Sixth, announce and immediately implement a vast programme of social justice based not so much on International Monetary Fund criteria for economic development, but on compassion for the growing numbers of poor and less privileged.

“The economic decline is serious,” says Abdul Halim Qandil, editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Sawt Al Umma, and speaker for the opposition movement Kifaya.

“In 1973 the Egyptian economy was still on a par with [that of] South Korea. Today South Korea is in 10th place, and we are number 122.” The unbearably high cost of living, the interminably long lines before bakeries still selling subsidised bread, and the repression with which anti-government demonstrations were met have resulted in a high level of frustration and anger. A government that remains insensitive to the plight of the people cannot claim to be representative of the people.

Seventh, provide unstinting support for the transformation of Egypt from a security state the hallmark of military rule to a civil-society state, the indispensable foundation of democratic governance.

Disasters and accidents have been occurring in Egypt with alarming regularity: trains catch fire, buses plunge into rivers and buildings collapse without warning. One recent example may serve to illustrate the current state of affairs in Egypt. Last year, when several buildings collapsed in a popular district in Cairo, the security forces, anxious to contain people’s anger, were on the scene within the hour. It took the rescue services six hours to show up.

The task is challenging, but the potential rewards for a legacy of democracy and social peace are as enormous as they are uplifting.

Adel Safty is distinguished professor adjunct at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration in Russia. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky.

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