Op-Ed: A Foot in the Door for Egyptian Democracy

Author: Steven A. Cook

September 8, 2005
Foreign Policy

There was never any doubt that Hosni Mubarak would win Egypt's presidential election. But look a little further down the road, and you just might see a refreshingly uncertain path for Egyptian politics.

Egypt's presidential election was a farce. Challengers running against the 24-year incumbent, Hosni Mubarak, faced insurmountable obstacles. But just because the election was a sham, doesn't mean that it was meaningless. The constitutional amendments that were instituted to make the election possible may just open the door for real democracy in Egypt.

First, some perspective. Before this year, no Egyptian leader dating back to the Pharaoh Menes -- who ruled around 2900 B.C. -- had ever permitted a challenge to his rule. So Mubarak surprised almost everyone when, in February, he directed lawmakers to amend the Egyptian constitution and allow for multiple candidates for president, an office he has held since 1981. In one sense, this was a momentous development for which Mubarak deserves a lot of credit. On the other hand, the changes to the constitution were mostly cosmetic. Besides fighting the state-run media, Mubarak's challengers had to clear a number of unreasonable legal and technical hurdles: Independent candidates were required to obtain the signatures of 250 members of Egypt's parliament and 120 signatures from members of Egypt's municipal councils spread across 12 of Egypt's 27 governorates. In the end, only nine party-affiliated candidates (and no independents) were allowed to challenge Mubarak. Then, Mubarak's opponents were given just 19 days to campaign.

All that meant an assured victory for Mubarak. But the constitutional changes that Mubarak encouraged could open the door for a more democratic presidential race as early as 2011. Previously, Egyptian presidential succession was predictable. Gamal Abdel Nasser chose Anwar Sadat as his vice president and successor. When Nasser died, Sadat became president. When Sadat was assassinated in 1981, his vice president, Mubarak, became president. Although the Egyptian vice president is not technically first in the line of succession -- the speaker of the People's Assembly is -- neither Sadat's nor Mubarak's assumption of the presidency was ever in doubt. The recent changes to the constitution make this line of succession less certain. No longer will the incumbent president's chosen successor automatically assume the presidency.

Even if Mubarak selects his younger son, Gamal, or a high-ranking military officer to be his vice president and presumptive successor, that person would have to stand as a candidate in the 2011 elections. Elections, of course, do not a democracy make. And whoever becomes Mubarak's right-hand man will inherit a political machine and significant resources. It's also true that only political parties in existence for at least five years will be permitted to put up candidates, making it more difficult for challengers. At the same time, a new process has been set in motion that will be difficult to reverse.

Influential elements of Egyptian society are already mobilizing to push Mubarak's changes further than he anticipated. Approximately 3,000 members of Egypt's Judges Club, for instance, are insisting that they be given full authority to supervise the presidential elections to ensure polling is conducted freely and fairly. One astute Egyptian observer puts it this way: "Egyptian judges now know the power of making collective, public demands, buoyed by the admiration and support of pro-democracy forces and the glare of the international and domestic media." Other groups are following suit, including journalists, human rights activists, Islamists, and even Egypt's sclerotic opposition parties. All are signaling to Mubarak and his regime that business as usual is no longer acceptable. Mubarak's appointed successor, whoever it is, will likely not be able to waltz through the 2011 elections by believing merely that his patronage network will be enough to trump these reform-minded forces.

While immediately unsatisfying, Mubarak's constitutional amendments could make a significant impact on Egyptian politics in the middle to long term. Sure, the changes seem like yet another gambit to reinforce Egypt's existing political order under the guise of reform. But they nevertheless have the potential -- in combination with continued internal and external pressure for change -- to provide the basis for significant moves toward real democracy. The status quo in Egypt is slowly slipping away. And by 2011, Egypt may have a president who is neither a military officer nor a civilian with the last name Mubarak.

Steven A. Cook is the Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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