Politics & Policy

What a Wonder

A little Egyptian election could got a long way.

With a Mubarak victory foreordained, Egypt’s presidential elections–the first allowing multiple candidates–can only be considered a tiny step toward reform in Egypt. Fortunately, there is a chance to take a second step with the approaching parliamentary elections in November. Egyptian reformers hope to build on the experience of multiparty presidential elections to prepare for competitive parliamentary elections and lay the groundwork for more effective election monitoring. But more dynamic change is necessary if the people of Egypt are to be engaged in the reform process. One step, that would have the twin virtues of being an important reform while not directly challenging Mubarak, would be to press for an open election for vice president to be included in the parliamentary elections.

#ad#Since taking power after Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Mubarak has not appointed a vice president. While modern Egypt has not been a democracy, it has been a republic. Vice President Anwar Sadat succeeded President Nasser on his death in 1970. Sadat, in turn, was succeeded by Vice President Hosni Mubarak. This is in distinct contrast to the messy succession processes that prevail in the rest of the Arab world. The establishment of a vice president would restore a sense of Egyptian constitutionalism. It would also be prudent. Mubarak’s domination of Egyptian politics is so complete that Egypt (and the world) holds its collective breath whenever Mubarak appears in jeopardy, like in 1995 following an assassination attempt in Ethiopia, and in November 2003 when he collapsed while speaking before parliament. Mubarak appears healthy, but at 77 this status cannot last indefinitely.

A vice-presidential election would open the political system by giving the Egyptians a real stake in their political process, and it would prepare the groundwork for truly contested popular elections. But a vice-presidential election would also have the virtue of not directly threatening Mubarak. The vice president would have no formal power but would set the stage for an eventual transition. Taking Mubarak’s situation into account is essential for any reform. Over $50 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt has produced stability but no political reform or even economic growth. Mubarak is no reformer. His quarter century in power has been a period of stagnation. But Mubarak responds to pressure when it is firmly and carefully applied. He released leading reformer Prof. Saad al-Din Ibrahim from prison after an international campaign, and he has recently appointed some solid technocrats to his cabinet. He has even expanded trade relations with Israel, again under U.S. pressure. It is only when pushed to act against his own core interests that Mubarak will balk.

Incremental steps are necessary because, as Mubarak plausibly argues the immediate alternative to his rule would be a regime run by the Muslim Brotherhood. This would not be not an outcome favorable to the United States or to the prospect of reform in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood seeks, in the words of Egyptian intellectual Tarek Heggy, to establish “a Caliphate, a religious militarized state, as the base to wage war against the ‘infidel’ West.” In interviews, Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammed Mahdi Othman Akef does little to dispel this impression. In the Egyptian paper al-Arabi, Akef called suicide bombings in Iraq and against Israel a religious obligation. He told the Muslim Brotherhood website that “Islam will invade Europe and America, because Islam has logic and a mission.”

Currently the Muslim Brotherhood is banned but tolerated in Egypt. It is possible that a Muslim Brotherhood-aligned candidate could win the vice-presidential elections. If this issue is faced openly and with international support before the Brotherhood acquires real power, then Egypt could focus on building the checks and balances necessary to maintain an open democracy.

Egypt, the largest Arab state, has been the cradle of the major ideologies of the Arab world. Modern Islamism originated in Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian President Nasser was the great figure of pan-Arabism. The backbone of al-Qaeda’s leadership is Egyptian. But it was also Egypt that made peace with Israel. In the first half of the 20th century Egypt made important strides toward building a liberal democracy and synthesizing its Muslim past with the modern present. Echoes of this era still exist. Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz helped forge a modern Arabic literature by melding Western and Arab literary forms. A leading Egyptian playwright, Ali Salem, has written and spoken out for reform and peace. He wrote warmly of his travels to Israel. For his trouble he was expelled from the Egyptian Playwright’s Association, but his book was still an Egyptian best seller.

The Nile is deep and while the surface may appear turbulent and dominated by radicalism, there are pragmatic depths. Much of Egypt’s radicalism is fostered by Mubarak’s regime itself. The Egyptian media, which is viciously anti-Semitic and anti-American, is state-controlled. A poll by Egypt’s Education Ministry has shown that Egypt’s best educated harbor the strongest anti-Israeli sentiments. This is a terrible commentary on Egyptian higher education, but it also indicates the potential for popular moderation. Discourse accompanying open elections will help foster this moderation. If these trends can be nurtured, it will encourage reform throughout the Middle East.

By adding an open election for vice president to its November parliamentary elections, Egypt can build on the small step of the recent semi-competitive presidential elections, restore Egyptian constitutionalism, and begin to foster the open political discussions necessary for real reform. This is a unique opportunity that must be seized if the United States is serious about nurturing freedom in the Arab world.

Aaron Mannes, author of the TerrorBlog and Profiles in Terror: The Guide to Middle East Terrorist Organizations, researches terrorism for the Semantic Web Agents Group at the Maryland Information and Network Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Maryland. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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