Let’s help Egypt get democratic

The irony of President George W. Bush’s project to promote a metamorphosis of Iraq into a free and open society is that he chose a country that is arguably one of the worst regional candidates for such a transformation.

Under the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, civil society was decimated, independent political parties were nonexistent and the economy was ravaged by war, international sanctions and the predatory intrusions of the dictatorship. What’s more, Bush administration officials convinced themselves that Iraqis were predominantly secular and nationalistic. So they initially underestimated the power of tribe, ethnicity and sect to frame identity.

By contrast, in Egypt – one of the most important Arab countries of the region – there is a strong tradition of political debate and a vibrant intellectual life. There also are an extensive civil society, a judiciary intent on sustaining its autonomy and integrity, and a durable secular liberal tradition. Yet, rather than playing a much more active role in giving shape to a freer political life in Egypt, the United States has soft-pedaled reform there. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited in mid-January, she did not say a public word about it

This is a particularly opportune time to instill real reforms in Egypt precisely because the United States has an opportunity to deftly affect the terms of reference under which any future Egyptian president assumes office. President Hosni Mubarak, 78, has been in power for more than a quarter-century, and Egyptians are debating the post-Mubarak era.

The president’s son Gamal is being positioned to succeed his father, but this is hardly inevit-able. Whoever the successor may be is less important than expanding the substance of freedom in Egypt.

Across the Arab world there is one common preoccupation in discussions about U.S. policy in the region: that the United States is far closer to failure than success. Egypt affords the United States the chance to achieve something important that will counterbalance somewhat the calamities it faces elsewhere.

The expansion of political freedom will not necessarily lead, soon at least, to a viable liberal democracy in Egypt. Elsewhere, in Iraq and Palestine, the United States expected the diplomatic equivalent of instant gratification, as though an election could magically transform a political climate and compensate for decades of autocratic social engineering. In contrast, the United States has the clout through its foreign aid to encourage a much larger role for Egyptian secular liberal intellectuals and reformers who espouse values friendly to the West.

One of the dirty little secrets of Egyptian politics is that government squashes secular opponents while allowing Islamist opposition (and leftist groups) freer rein, including privileged access to the media and more scope to campaign for political office when there are carefully controlled national elections.

The Islamists are unlikely to be seen by the United States as a palatable alternative to the regime, so who cares if they are given space in the arena of ideas? Government officials wag their fingers at the Americans, mumble “Hamas” and ask: “Is that what you want?”

Egyptian officials are inclined to speak of the country as a developing democracy, so a good start would be to at least insist that Egypt adhere to its asserted respect for basic political freedoms. This means there must be a wide scope for freedom of expression.

The lifting of the emergency laws that have been in effect since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 would be an important step, but there are other crucial benchmarks as well. One would be a constitutional provision [CORRECTION: An Opinion essay on Friday misstated a point made by writers Hala Mustafa and Augustus Richard Norton. They suggest the revision of an article in Egypt’s constitution that says Islamic law is the “primary source” of law in Egypt. Because of an editing error, the essay did not include the word “revision.” PG. A13 ALL 2/17/07] that Islamic law is the “primary source” of law in Egypt. The provision has often been used to justify the curtailing of basic freedoms, including the rights of women, minorities and intellectuals.

The United States must not simply stand on the sidelines, frozen in place by Mubarak’s elixir of stability. The United States should insist on palpable evidence that the Egyptian government is committed to significant structural reform. Some may consider this colonialist meddling, but it needs doing.

Without a freer realm for a vibrant secular liberal debate, there will be little more than cosmetic change. An obvious litmus test for reform is not just that responsible challenges to arbitrary government are possible without retaliation, but whether respected liberals will be placed in significant positions within the regime.

At a time when the United States seems to be losing its way in the Middle East and confronts difficult choices in Iraq, the Bush administration might enjoy a notable success by renewing its commitment to political reform and freedom in Egypt. This would be widely noticed in the Arab world and would buoy precisely those forces predisposed to support the values that the United States wishes to exemplify.

What we are suggesting is not an alternative to a realistic approach to the region but a crucial component in a credible policy.

*Dr. Hala Mustafa, a professor of. economics and political science at Cairo University and editor-in-chief of al-Dimuqratiya (Democracy), is a veteran political analyst and a member of Gamal Mubarak’s circle. 

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