EGYPT: Egypt must let its people go
Brian Whitaker

May 19, 2005

Two short sentences in a speech by US President George W. Bush had Egypt`s political dinosaurs in a flap last week: `Egypt will hold a presidential election this fall,` Bush said. `That election should proceed with international monitors and with rules that allow for a real campaign.`

Given that Egypt has a long history of blatantly rigged elections and that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak`s National Democratic party (NDP) has a stultifying near-monopoly on the country`s politics, it is difficult to see how anyone could object to international monitors or allowing a real election campaign, but object they did.

The Mubarak regime has got itself into a mess. Instead of accepting that political reform is inevitable, embracing it wholeheartedly and then claiming the credit, it is resorting to half measures and belated sops to its critics that can only worsen its predicament in the long run.

Mubarak has dominated Egypt`s political scene for almost 24 years. He is coming to the end of his fourth six-year term, but it should have been obvious that clinging on to power for a fifth term in a presidential `election` where he was the only candidate would not go smoothly: the world has moved on and that sort of thing is no longer acceptable, even in Egypt.

The president`s age (he turned 77 earlier this month) and the apparent attempts to groom his son to succeed him have also been ringing alarm bells among his critics.

Last autumn the NDP held its annual conference and trumpeted some long-needed economic reforms. The moment, exactly a year before the presidential election, would have been opportune to start the process of political reform as well, but there was not a word of it.

It was only in the face of public criticism of his presidency that was unprecedented by Egyptian standards and protests by the Kifaya (`Enough`) movement that Mubarak relented and announced in February that he was willing to allow more than one candidate in the election.

This led to a bizarre debate among Egypt`s political elite about the qualifications needed by presidential candidates, the result of which was a complex set of rules approved by parliament last week.

To outsiders, many of the arguments used in this debate sounded quaint and comical, but they exposed senior Egyptian politicians` lack of grasp of the essential principles of democracy. The discussion was all about protecting voters from `unsuitable` candidates. This entirely missed the point about elections: it is for the voters to decide who would make a suitable president and who would not.

One simple and obvious proposal - to let anyone stand provided they could collect a certain number of signatures from voters supporting their nomination - was dismissed out of hand by Ibrahim Nafie, a columnist for the semi-official Al Ahram newspaper.

`This idea is potentially dangerous since it opens the door to the possible purchase of signatures,` he wrote. `Nothing could be better guaranteed to cheapen the nomination process to the highest office in the land than turning it into something akin to a public auction.`

Others expressed fears that unpatriotic candidates or foreign agents might run for the presidency. So what? If someone wants to stand on behalf of the Unpatriotic Alliance of Foreign Agents and Subversives, why not let them? Does anyone seriously expect them to be elected?

Under the rules parliament approved last week, there is apparently no risk at all of cheapening the nomination process because it is virtually impossible for anyone to stand as a candidate without the blessing of Mubarak`s NDP. Since these intrinsically unfair rules involve a change to the constitution, voters will be asked to approve them later this month in a national referendum.

It is a preposterous choice: vote yes if you want phoney elections with more than one candidate; vote no if you want to keep the system as it is.

So far, Nafie has failed to denounce the referendum in his column as a cheapening of the constitutional process, though undoubtedly it is. The constitution needs to be thoroughly overhauled rather than tinkered with for Mubarak`s political convenience.

Reactions to the idea of international election monitoring have also been bizarre. If the intention is to hold proper elections then it ought to be no big deal.

Unable to state in public the real reason for their objections - that monitoring would obstruct the hallowed Egyptian tradition of ballot- rigging - the politicians have been desperately searching for other excuses. `We all reject any intervention in our internal affairs,` was the best line that Safwat Al Sherif, speaker of the Shura council and a Mubarak sycophant, could come up with.

Having run out of plausible arguments, the regime is increasingly raising the bogey of foreign influence as a way to resist change and defend the indefensible. Would-be presidential candidates are almost automatically smeared as foreign (i.e. American) agents despite the fact that one of them, Ayman Nour, speaks little English and has never visited the United States.

Playing the nationalist and anti-American card is another short-term expedient that could easily backfire. Nour has already returned the insult, suggesting that Mubarak is an American agent - a claim that contains a measure of truth since Egypt depends heavily on US aid and the president makes regular trips to Washington with his begging bowl.

In fact, he was due to have made one such pilgrimage this week but decided he was too busy and sent his prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, instead.

He was not too busy, however, to give an interview to a Kuwaiti newspaper in which he made some fatuous comments about anti-government demonstrators. `Battling unemployment requires investment,` he said. `With these demonstrations that we are seeing, the investor will flee, meaning unemployment will spread. It is obvious that the unjustified demonstrations have no program. They are staged just to create a state of unrest that drives out the foreign investor.`

In reality there is nothing that discourages foreign investors in Egypt more than the bureaucratic procedures imposed by the Mubarak government, which serve no real purpose other than to facilitate the collection of bribes by officials.

These are the desperate bleatings of a president who has patently lost the plot. Of course, he can carry on arresting demonstrators by the busload and using hired thugs to intimidate opposition candidates; there is also no doubt that he can secure a fifth presidential term, by fair means or foul, if he wants to. But the regime`s legitimacy is steadily ebbing away.

The only consolation is that Mubarak has so far refused to say whether he indeed plans to seek a fifth term. This may simply be a tactic to keep his opponents guessing, but while he remains officially undecided there is still a slender chance that his closest advisers may persuade him to retire gracefully while he can.

Brian Whitaker is The Guardian`s Middle East editor. By courtesy of Democracy Egypt. This article appeared in The Guardian on May 16.