Promises To Keep In Egypt

Promises To Keep In Egypt

By Saad Ibrahim

CAIRO — Weeks afterward, Egyptians are still getting fresh accounts of the irregularities and outright fraud that marred their first multi-candidate presidential election Sept. 7. With the barrier of fear disintegrating, more and more people are speaking out impatiently. President Hosni Mubarak has finally been downsized to human scale as critics line up to question his entire electoral record.

Only three months earlier, his government reported that 57 percent of the electorate, or 17 million voters, turned out in a constitutional referendum, despite widespread boycotts. The presidential election was passionately contested by at least three major parties. Yet, by official count, only 23 percent, or 7 million, bothered to vote — a 10 million-person deficit. The fact is that this time, with 6,000 domestic monitors and more than 200 foreign reporters on the scene, the regime was cornered into reducing both its cheating and lying margins, though not totally getting rid of the old


The public debates that ensued have revealed some new and unexpected twists. One of these is a revised attitude toward the outside world. Another is a rethinking of the role of the much-maligned Muslim Brotherhood.

Many of the opposition parties that once went along with the Mubarak regime in opposing international election monitoring are now loudly insisting on it for the forthcoming November parliamentary elections. This is a major development in the evolution of Egyptian political culture, long replete with xenophobia and conspiracy theories about the outside world. Even the most anti-American leftists are demanding to know where President Bush and the United States stand vis-à-vis this sham presidential election. Will the West be similarly oblivious to the expected travesties in the parliamentary elections?

In its heart, the Egyptian opposition still doubts the sincerity of Bush’s exhortations on behalf of liberty and democracy. Some go so far as to accuse the United States of duplicity and outright support for the Mubarak campaign. This may have to do with the fact that Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and campaign manager, shows a fascination with all things American — witness his heavy reliance on U.S.-style advertising gimmicks during the campaign. The fact that members of Mubarak’s inner circle were shuttling back and forth between Cairo and Washington during the weeks leading up to the election gave added credence to the allegation.

Some are now holding not only Mubarak but also the United States accountable for fulfillment of his many campaign promises. These include finding work for 5 million unemployed Egyptians, most of whom are young college graduates. Another promise: restoration of the independence of the judiciary, a pressing demand for years. Mubarak pledged to sign the draft law for judicial reform that has been languishing on his desk. The same applies to abrogation of the Emergency Law that has been in effect since Mubarak’s ascendance to power in 1981. Yet another crucial issue he promised to address is replacing the parliamentary electoral system of winner-take-all with one of proportionate representation, ensuring a greater measure of legislative power-sharing.

Combating corruption was a campaign issue that the major challenger, Ayman Nour, seized on. He dared Mubarak and other members of his family to reveal the size and source of their assets. They declined to do so during the campaign but promised to do so shortly afterward.

One issue Mubarak is still adamant about, and hence made no campaign promises on, is his refusal to legalize the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest Islamic movement. Believed to be the strongest opposition bloc, the Brotherhood has long enjoyed a de facto popular legitimacy. During the presidential campaign, nearly all the opposition parties courted it by pledging to work for legalization of the party. Increasingly, it looks as if all of Egypt’s political class except Mubarak’s party has come around to this position. Thus, instead of Mubarak’s isolating the Muslim Brotherhood, it has managed to isolate him. To consolidate its moral gains and prepare for upcoming parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood has joined the chorus calling for international election monitoring in November.

This is a time of tremendous ferment in Egypt. It demands that the United States and the rest of the world stay vigilant and bear witness to Egyptian popular demands. If it is too much to expect outright support for the fledgling dissident movement, there should at least be an effort to hold Mubarak accountable for the promises he made.

The writer is chair of the Ibn Khaldun Center and a professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo.