9.20.2005

Editorial: Tentative Steps Down the Road to Democracy

The Economist
September 9, 2005

It was a lopsided fight, hastily arranged, poorly refereed, and pitting a big bruiser against bantams. Still, Egypt's first-ever presidential election, on Wednesday September 7th, marked a watershed, even though it came as no surprise whatsoever that the incumbent, Hosni Mubarak (pictured), won. State-owned newspapers said on Friday he had gained around 80% of the vote.

Perhaps more than any other recent Middle Eastern event, from January's elections in Iraq to the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon, the simple running of a public political contest in the oldest, largest and most archetypically autocratic of Arab states presages an acceleration of the momentum for change in a region notable for political backwardness.

As in similarly novel elections for the top post over recent years, in such Arab republics as Algeria and Tunisia for example, the incumbent could expect to sweep all rivals aside. But Mr Mubarak's win, extending his term to 2011, is less significant than the scale of political ferment stirred by the campaigning itself.

After 24 unchallenged years in power, and control of a vast state apparatus, Mr Mubarak had a huge advantage. Yet his main rivals still managed to get their message out in an unprecedentedly noisy barrage of speechmaking and publicity. This did not inspire a large turnout. A legacy of deep cynicism, the barring of potentially popular Islamist candidates and procedural obstacles to voter registration kept numbers down.

However, the spectacle of public, often impassioned criticism and the very possibility of choice appear to have opened up new ways of thinking, focused minds on real issues, and emboldened activist groups that were already pressing for reform. “I've toured 15 out of 26 governorates, and not one single pane of glass was broken,” declared Ayman Nour, the youngest presidential challenger. “So how come we've been told for 24 years that we need riot police and emergency laws, that we aren't ready for democracy?”

Democracy is not quite what Egyptians have got. Mr Mubarak's regime, like the “reformist” ruling elites of nearby countries such as Jordan, Bahrain and Morocco, has yet to relinquish real control of the pace and scale of change. Its powers remain multiple and unchallenged, from the president's appointing of regional governors, mayors and village headmen right down to police officers' virtual immunity from punishment if they happen to maltreat suspects. “Three minutes of freedom” is what one Egyptian intellectual dubbed his country's 19-day official campaign period.

Not surprisingly, many Arabs suspect that reforms in Egypt and elsewhere are cosmetic, intended mainly to appease the Bush administration, which actively preaches democratisation as a foil to extremism. This is not entirely fair. In Egypt, for instance, reformist currents have gained prominence within the ruling National Democratic Party, just as they have within ruling families in the Gulf. Some argue that the government needs democratic legitimacy, as much to enable it to stand up to America as to better sell the kind of liberal economic policies they believe are the surest course to prosperity.

Other factors weigh in for change. Across the Arab world, demography, technology and communications have sparked a revolution in expectations. Satellite television presents clashing ideas, promoting a refreshing culture of debate. The fading of the post-colonial generation of leaders, and the failure of their pan-Arab project, has led to a loss of prestige for the patriarchal power structure that has long characterised Arab states. To disenfranchised youths facing such region-wide plagues as unemployment and housing shortages, radical Islam has sometimes appealed. But the violent excess of extremist militants has prompted many to seek practical solutions. Egypt's campaign rhetoric, for example, stressed domestic issues rather than the kind of perceived great injustices—Palestine, Iraq, Islam-bashing—that have traditionally grabbed the attention of the “Arab street”.

True enough, American pressure for democratisation has been inconsistent. The much-touted American aid programme meant to promote reform, the Middle East Partnership Initiative, gets less cash in a year than what America spends in Iraq in a day. Washington bureaucracy delayed funds for some democracy activists in Egypt. Others that did get American money include groups seeking to monitor the elections, but a quasi-official election commission blocked them from doing the job.

American policy priorities have also clashed with reformist goals. Pursuing terrorism by “rendering” suspects to torture-prone governments undercuts the many local groups lobbying to end such practices. Rather than being hailed as a model for pluralism, Iraq is widely seen as a chaos to be avoided. Many Arabs view its new constitution as the outcome of an American plot to divide and rule. Most Arab reformers warm much more to the caustic critiques of American filmmaker Michael Moore than to George Bush's “forward strategy of freedom”. Most believe that when push comes to shove, America's thirst for oil will exceed its democratic principles.

Yet there is little doubt that American influence has helped to tip the balance of regional forces in favour of reform. A coincidence, perhaps, but it was shortly after Condoleezza Rice, America's secretary of state, abruptly cancelled a scheduled visit to Egypt that Mr Mubarak announced his initiative to hold contested presidential elections. Later, speaking in Cairo, Ms Rice won over even a few Egyptian sceptics by appealing to their pride, suggesting that their country should lead the region in political progress as it has led before in pursuing peace. Lebanon's dramatic overthrow of veiled Syrian rule this spring was only made possible by American-led moves to de-claw and isolate Syria's regime. And these moves were made possible, in turn, by the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

And if the changes in many countries remain shallow, the whole floor of public debate has clearly shifted to questions of when and how to reform, rather than why. This is true even of regional laggards such as Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria, which have all taken wobbly first steps towards wider public participation in government. Where bigger steps have been taken, such as in Egypt, the public appetite has been whetted rather than appeased. “This election was just a drill, which the government would never have accepted without foreign badgering,” admits an Egyptian official. “But it sets the stage for parliamentary elections that may get really interesting.” These are due in November. If debate stays lively until then, a lot more Egyptians may actually bother to vote.

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