Democracy Egyptian style
With international attention focused on the Palestinian and Iraqi elections, the October presidential referendum in Egypt will be little more than a re-inauguration for President Hosni Mubarak, who seeks to regain the presidency for the fifth time and to pave the way for his son Gamal to succeed him. Yet, this time Mr. Mubarak could face a real challenger. "If given the chance, I personally want to run to break the barrier of fear and intimidation," Professor Saad al-Din Ibrahim, perhaps the Arab world's leading voice for democracy and human rights, stated. "Not that I have real hopes of success, but I want to show my fellow Egyptians that nothing should be a political taboo." An open political contest in the largest Arab nation would be an enormous advance for democracy in the Middle East. But Mr. Ibrahim will probably not get this chance, because under the Egyptian constitution the parliament nominates the sole candidate and the citizens can only approve by voting either "yes" or "no".
Mr. Mubarak has long deflected demands to enact serious political reforms by arguing that the alternatives to his regime are the Islamic extremists. Now, just as democratic transformation has become the keystone of U.S. policy in the Middle East, the 76-year-old Mr. Mubarak is attempting to follow the Syrian model of hereditary dictatorship by grooming his son Gamal as his heir. To evade this increased U.S. pressure to pursue democratic reforms, Mr. Mubarak has attempted to make himself indispensable to the American interests in the region, particularly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while publicly embracing calls for reform.
Al-Ghad's application was finally approved on Oct.r 28. But shortly thereafter the parliament's legislative committee prevented al-Ghad from forming a parliamentary bloc. With six members of parliament committed (out of 454), al-Ghad would have become the leading opposition party. Even this tiny challenge could not be permitted under Egypt's winner-keep-all politics.
President Mubarak has a long record of disproportionate responses to such political challenges. In 2000, to prevent Mr. Ibrahim from monitoring the elections that year, he was charged with undermining Egypt's international stature and imprisoned. Mr. Ibrahim was released in 2002 after an international campaign by a coalition of human rights groups. But this time, the Egyptian regime's high-handed tactics may have backfired. Mr. Ibrahim emerged from prison even more devoted to pressing for reform and with an international profile that will focus world attention on Egypt's elections and hopefully deter blatant efforts at electoral sabotage.
One of Mr. Ibrahim's ideas is to link U.S. aid (Egypt has received over $60 billion in U.S. aid over the last quarter-century) to real democratic reforms. If the United States is truly committed to a democratic Egypt, it should follow Mr. Ibrahim's advice and use this leverage to press for open presidential elections and other real reforms....