Confronting Cairo: Changing an Illusory Democracy

By Lee, Eric | Harvard International Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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Confronting Cairo: Changing an Illusory Democracy

Lee, Eric, Harvard International Review

When President Hosni Mubarak announced in February 2005 that Egypt would be holding direct democratic presidential elections for the first time in its history, US President George W. Bush was quick to welcome the news as a positive step toward the realization of democracy in the Middle East. Mubarak, a former military officer who has ruled Egypt for over two decades with the help of media censorship, secret police, and a state of emergency law, finally seemed to have succumbed to international and domestic pressure. Before his announced change, the president was selected by the parliament and then approved by referendum. Mubarak won his election easily, but the November 2005 parliamentary elections shocked observers and the political elite in Egypt. The officially banned Muslim Brotherhood Party exceeded expectations to net over 70 seats, which is about 20 percent of Parliament. Following these results, Mubarak, who had never truly embraced democracy, reverted to his old autocratic practices. This past February Mubarak announced the cancellation of local elections slated for April, undoubtedly in an effort to preserve his tight grip on Egypt.


The September 2005 multiparty presidential election, which was marred by accounts of voter irregularities and intimidation, had already turned heads and increased suspicion. Only Egyptian citizens who had registered to vote before December 2004 could actually vote, a clever loophole given that Mubarak did not reveal his intent to hold the election until the following February.

The most serious opposition to Mubarak, Ayman Nour of the secular and reformist Al-Ghad "Tomorrow" Party, also was imprisoned just weeks before the February announcement and now faces prison time on what appears to be trumped-up charges brought by the Mubarak government. The poor attendance on the part of secular liberal parties, in contrast to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, and the cancelation of April's elections reveal the difficult tasks the United States must confront as it attempts to match action with rhetoric in bringing democracy to the Muslim world.

Challenges for the United States

The United States needs to increase the pressure on Mubarak and demand that he bring transparency to Egypt's political culture. Not only are the Egyptian people ready, anxious, and eager for reform, but inaction now will only exacerbate what is already a tenuous situation. Yet at the same time, US demands for greater democratic reforms in the Middle East may hurt the interests of the United States and its allies in the short term as religious parties gain more power and support in the ballot box, a point amply demonstrated by Hamas' recent victory in the Palestinian territories.

Close ties between Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood also poses the difficult question: to what extent should the United States demand democracy if it means allowing an Islamist party to join the political process? After all, while Mubarak may not be a democratic leader, his government is more likely to be stable and susceptible to US influence than would one led by a radical religious group. For the Bush administration, the changes in Egypt-pose both significant risks and promising rewards. They will require a serious, sustained effort to bring about the elusive goal of a freer Egyptian populace under a truly liberal and open government.

The Crumbling Status Quo

Despite having campaigned in 2000 as a candidate dismissive of nation-building and overseas intervention, President Bush has, since the September 11 terrorist attacks, laid out a foreign policy agenda largely based on pre-emption and democratization. But critics from both sides of the aisle have noted that, beyond toppling the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, the Bush administration has poorly executed the war against terrorism, failing to secure US ports and borders and to back military muscle with diplomacy.

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