Egyptian Example Shows Need for Homegrown Democratization in the Middle East

Article excerpt

"Democratizing" the Middle East-one of the Bush administration's primary foreign policy objectives-has been presented as an integral part of the overall war against terrorism. Regardless of where one stands concerning the link between the two issues, however, it seems reasonable to conclude that the former is a worthy cause in itself.

But in order for this endeavor to achieve its intended results, it must be pursued as a collaborative effort in which the governments and societies of the Middle East themselves lead the process of reform, supported by the United States and the international community as a whole, rather than a case of one side prescribing formulas and dictating terms to the other under a shadow of coercion.

Another prerequisite for the success of this policy is the realization that not all Middle Eastern countries are the same-and, in fact, are at varying stages of evolution regarding their political development.

Egypt, for example, recently has been undergoing an inclusive process of introspection and critical evaluation aimed at introducing needed political reform.

The current internal debate in Egypt reveals a close national consensus for a gradual, sustainable process of reform that starts by ensuring the creation of the necessary political and cultural precursors in the form of sound democratic institutions: namely, representative political parties, freedom of expression whether in media or otherwise, an independent judiciary, and an empowered civil society. It is worth mentioning in this regard that The Egyptian High Constitutional Court dissolved two successive parliaments-in 1987, as a result of electoral irregularities in the 1984 elections, and in 1990, because of the absence of legal supervision of election booths in the 1987 elections.

Another feature of this process upon which all actors on the Egyptian political scene seem to agree is that political reform is a domestic affair. While outside support and assistance are needed, a prescriptive approach to a clearly domestic issue such as political reform is highly objectionable, as it would be to any people, and as the Lebanese most recently have demonstrated.

Thus far the reform process in Egypt has borne some positive results. The country now has a relatively liberal and open media where a large number of opposition newspapers freely express their views on any issue. There also are a growing number of privately owned and managed television networks operating freely from official control. Satellite television is available to all, and Internet access is widely accessible. An expanding civil society is scrutinizing government policies in every field. Indeed, it is worth noting that on June 19, 2003 law No. 94 created an independent National Council for Human Rights, with a membership comprising some of the most vocal critics of the Egyptian government.

American policy should be fashioned as a choice between a policy driven by interests and one that upholds values.

On gender issues, there are yet several lingering social and cultural impediments, and many aspects that must be boldly faced. Nevertheless, Egyptian women have been politically active and have had the right to vote and to hold office for the better part of the last century. …