Egypt's sad elections
ISLAM AND THE WEST
أكد الدكتور أحمد نظيف، رئيس مجلس الوزراء، أن نجاح ٩ وزراء فى الجولة الأولى من الانتخابات البرلمانية دليل على وجود قاعدة شعبية مؤيدة للحكومة فى الدوائر الانتخابية، مضيفاً أن نجاح الوزراء كان «بتفوق شديد واكتساح».
Well, you heard it here first folks. According to Egypt's Prime Minister, Dr. Ahmed Nazif, the country's recent elections, and in particular the victory of 9 ministers in the first round, clearly indicate a "popular base of support for the regime" that is nothing less than "sweeping."
Al Masri al Ayoum, December 2, 2010.
If judged by the official results of the November 28 election, Nazif's remarks are correct. Who could contest such a statement, when according to the Egyptian authorities, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) won 95 percent of the vote, and thus 96 percent of the seats in parliament?
There was a time when the leaders of many Arab autocracies preferred something short of such an overwhelming electoral victory. In contrast to the one-man rule epitomized by Syria's Bashir al-Assad, or Iraq's Saddam Hussein, the leaders of Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen and Kuwait have alllowed a process of controlled elections that gives oppositions a chance for some representation in national assemblies.
The fact that with the possible exception of Kuwait, these assemblies wield very little authority by comparison to nearly all-powerful executives is not the key point. If, at the very least, elections produced parliaments in which opposition elites could "let off steam," autocracies could attenuate their periodic legitimacy crises. For both regimes and oppositions, this arrangement sustained a modicum of tenuous accommodation.
But such calculated authoritarian munificence has its dark side. After all, state-managed political liberalization also has also provided Arab leaders with a mechanism to arbitrarily expose and prosecute its critics. As Egypt's late president, Anwar al-Sadat put it, "democracy is a safety valve that lets me see who my enemies are."
That Sadat made this statement in 1977 reminds us that state-managed liberalization in the Arab world has been around for a long time. Still, it got a new lease on life when the administration of George W. Bush initiated its "Freedom Agenda." Under the latter's umbrella, oppositions were emboldened, while pro-US Arab governments felt obliged to tolerate a somewhat greater level of competition and criticism.
In retrospect it was a brief moment, lasting from late 2004 to early 2006. But this interlude provided sufficient time for Arab regimes to teach Washington a lesson about the supposed "destabilizing" effects of democracy. The biggest would-be teacher was Egypt. During the first phase of the 2005 parliamentary elections the government allowed independents affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood to run. But when Islamists began winning seats, the regime squelched the Islamists' challenge to the NDP's monopoly.
From Cairo's perspective, the result was just perfect. There were enough Islamists in the parliament to illustrate to the U.S. the costs of tolerating competition, but insufficient opposition to cause the regime much pain. Moreover, to the happiness of Egypt's leaders, Washington swallowed the bait. During the last two years of the Bush administration, the White House did not give the "Freedom Agenda" the top level attention it had briefly enjoyed. The party was over.
Phase two in this cynical dynamic came last week. The very blunt campaign carried on by Egypt's bureaucratic and security apparatus prior to the 2010,November 28 elections demonstrates two basic facts: First, Egypt's leaders have no intention of allowing even a modest challenge to their authority; and second, Cairo believes that its ties to the U.S. will not suffer from this blatant effort to turn back the political clock.
How far back can this process go before Egypt's rulers become totally isolated from the populace? The real problem in Egypt today is not so much the absence of democracy as the absence of politics itself. When there is no honest mechanism by which citizens can create a moral, ideological and/or institutional connection to the state, society will go in its own direction. This is a prescription for mass apathy, out of which mass resentment could suddenly explode, especially during moments of crisis.
Egypt's leaders are aware of this problem. Indeed, in the run up to next year's presidential elections, the current power struggle within the regime is sure to intensify. The "young guard," including President Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal, will probably argue that having asserted the iron first, the time has come for a little generosity. Indeed, Gamal--or some other new generation NDP activist--might be tasked with becoming the voice of reconciliation. In a political system that rests on the arbitrary use of power, what is taken away can also be returned.
What can or should the US do to encourage a reopening of the political field? While Washington has limited leverage, more criticism of the recent elections from our highest officials might help increase the leverage of NDP reformists. True, the latter are more committed to reform as a political survival tactic than as a strategy of actual political change. But a nuanced diplomacy can help push tactical cynicism in a more fruitful direction.
Washington must also find ways to assist a political opposition which remains profoundly divided, and largely out of touch with its supposed base of supporters. Prior to the elections, tensions within the opposition over whether to boycott played into the regime's hands. But these tensions also masked a far deeper strategic difference regarding the ultimate purpose of political reform. Indeed, when a member of the Brotherhood's Guidance Committee issued a "fatwa" stating that participation in elections is a "religious" duty-rather than a matter of individual choice-- his actions only accentuated the deep divide between secularists and Islamists.
These tensions reflect first order principles and are thus very hard to overcome. Nevertheless, the prospects for political change in Egypt will remain slim absent more efforts at promoting dialogue within and between the emerging generation of Islamist and secular leaders.
The Internet can help advance this dialogue, but it cannot be a substitute for face-to-face interaction. To advance this goal, US democracy assistance organizations should work with their counterparts in Egypt to create a safe umbrella under which political and social activists can meet to have a serious debate about their country's future.
Daniel Brumberg is Co-Director of Georgetown University's Democarcy and Governance Program and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention at the United States Institute of Peace.
By Daniel Brumberg |
December 9, 2010; 1:44 PM ET
Islam and the West
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