Friday, April 01, 2005

5 More Years: Why Hosni Mubarak Should Be Allowed to Re-Elect Himself One Last Time

Two senior Egyptian officials are visiting Washington this week amid heightened American pressure on their boss, Hosni Mubarak, to permit free elections--which he would probably lose. Mubarak has ruled Egypt under emergency laws and nixed political activity for nearly 24 years. His recent arrest of a liberal contender for the presidency on trumped up charges is symptomatic of his abysmal human rights record. His excesses have embittered many Egyptians, while his establishment press routinely parrots anti-American and anti-Jewish canards. Yet the U.S. government has maintained its support for Mubarak, paying out tens of billions of dollars in aid to his regime over the last few decades. The Bush White House has also made use of the regime's "special talents," outsourcing the interrogation of terror suspects to Cairo.

Now the word in Egypt is that Mubarak wants to run without serious opposition for a sixth consecutive term in the upcoming spring elections--and perhaps groom his son Gamal to succeed him. So what's a freedom-loving country like ours to do about it? Not for the first time, President Bush called upon Egypt in his recent State of the Union address to "show the way toward democracy in the Middle East," and pundits want to hold the administration to its word. A Washington Post editorial in January hailed a group of anti-Mubarak protesters in Cairo and slammed Bush for giving "no indication that he objects to another of the fraudulent referendums with which Mr. Mubarak has ratified his rule." Max Boot, writing in the Los Angeles Times, has asserted that there is "little evidence that Islamists are popular enough to win a free election in Egypt" and urged Washington to cut or squeeze the umbilical cord of aid to the regime "unless there's real economic and political progress." Throw the bum out, some argue, and let the chips fall where they will.

The desired ends of the Post editorial writers and Boot--liberal democracy in Egypt--are noble, and I share them. But the means they apparently envision--regime change through free elections this spring--would be self-defeating. The Post seems unaware, for example, that the organizer of the very protests in Cairo that they praised, Nasserist party stalwart Abd Al Halim Qandil, penned the following words in Arabic in his opposition newspaper just a few days after September 11, 2001: "Yes, we have the right to celebrate [the September 11 attacks]. This was the first step in a thousand-mile journey toward defeating America in a knockout blow." Nor is Boot's dismissal of Islamists' prospects in free elections--casually stated in the piece without any evidence to back it up--borne out by reality: As most scholars of modern Egypt acknowledge, the Muslim Brotherhood, though banned from official political activity, dominates Egypt's influential professional associations and maintains the strongest grassroots organization in the country besides the ruling party. Both Boot and The Washington Post neglect to address the obvious fact that the political arena in Egypt today is lopsided: Liberals are exceedingly weak and radical nationalists and Islamists are strong. This is a mess of Mubarak's making. But ironically, for reasons unique to Egyptian politics, Mubarak may also be the person best suited to clean up this mess, paving the way for liberal democracy in Cairo. And strange though it may seem, the longtime foe of liberal reform could soon have every incentive to do just that.


The stakes in Egypt are higher than some might realize. The apparent success of the Iraqi elections--despite sweeping gains by Shia Islamists--might incline some Americans to believe that Islamist victories are an acceptable price to pay for the arrival of democracy in Muslim countries. And in some places, they'd be right. Egypt, however, is different. By contrast to some Shia Islamist parties, which began making conciliatory gestures toward the United States months before the invasion of Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood--a Sunni, Egyptian-dominated international movement--has been ratcheting up its anti-American rhetoric. Just a few days ago on Al Jazeera, I watched Abd Al Mun'im Abu 'l-Fattuh, a Cairo-born leader of the organization, affirm his support for the Iraqi insurgency, restate his opposition to the Camp David accords between Begin and Sadat, and appeal for nationalist-Islamist unity in the Arab world in order to confront "our real enemy," the United States. Leaving aside the fact that more radical groups, including Al Qaeda, arose directly from the Muslim Brotherhood--the mentoring relationship in Afghanistan between Brotherhood stalwart Abdullah Azzam and Osama Bin Laden has been ably chronicled in an Al Jazeera documentary--the stated goals of the mainstream Brotherhood leaders are bone-chilling enough. For instance, they aspire to undo the entire framework of Arab-Israeli peace. Hamas, the Brotherhood's offspring in Palestine, is now in the delicate early phases of political d├ętente with the Palestinian Authority--an encouraging move due in no small part to the prodding of Egypt's intelligence services. A new Egyptian governing coalition with any significant Brotherhood presence would likely switch off such pressure, and Hamas could well regress toward militancy. In the Palestinian territories and throughout the Sunni-majority Arab world, political gains for the Brotherhood in Egypt--the country where the movement was born, and still the cultural and political capital of the region--would give a dramatic boost to hardline groups and undermine the nascent liberal movements that oppose them.

Yes, such dire warnings of an ascendant Muslim Brotherhood play right into Mubarak's hands. Indeed, Mubarak has long used the strength of the Brotherhood as an excuse for his authoritarian rule. But he has done more than merely talk up this threat--he has done his best to make it real by working to undermine Egypt's liberal movement and outdo his Islamist rivals on religious matters. There are now over 100,000 mosques in Egypt, most of which were built under Mubarak's reign. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs has greater influence today on public mores and government censorship of writers and artists than at any time in the country's modern history. All these gestures to appease potential Brotherhood recruits have only helped strengthen a physical and legal infrastructure that enables the Brotherhood to function as a semi-overt social movement. Meanwhile, most of the liberals whose views would be more amenable to the United States and Europe have become marginal players--due to their comparative lack of legal and cultural influence, their thwarted attempts to start newspapers of their own, and Mubarak's penchant for throwing them in jail.

As a result of all this, liberalism is weak in Egypt, and it needs time to strengthen itself. True, it may be pleasing to hear the following words from Muhammad Farid Hassanein, a former parliamentarian who wants to run against Mubarak: "I see the Europeans who came to Israel with a culture of freedom, and we can learn from them by becoming closer to them." But a more mainstream voice with a much larger following, Mustafa Bakri, has written in response, "I am willing to bet that if he were to say these things in the streets, he wouldn't get away unharmed." And he's probably right. A liberal voice with a party and following of his own, Ayman Nour--who now sits in solitary confinement in Cairo--is by all accounts a lovely man with a progressive social agenda. But even Nour must pay homage to the Brotherhood. In his own words: "We have no objection to the Brotherhood or any political force whose legitimacy is from the people, rather than via a mere license." If Nour were to win a presidential election this spring, he would have little choice but to pander to the Brotherhood in order to stitch together a coalition that could command a governing majority.

In short, the skewed political environment that has been created by Mubarak's long years of anti-liberal manipulations would only be enshrined if free and fair elections took place now. To foster a semblance of political balance in Egyptian society, political and cultural pressure must first be exerted from the top--a twenty-first century Ataturk-style project to undo the country's decades-long tilt toward Islamism is needed. This means opening Egyptian broadcast media to progressive voices, not just religious clerics and the political establishment. It means advancing a secular humanist agenda through the educational system. It means opening the organs of state, from the judiciary to the executive, to the sort of exchange programs with democratic countries that bore fruit so profoundly in the Ukraine in recent months. The details of the project would best be left to Egypt's liberals themselves, who know better than outsiders what they need to gain ground. But the central question has already been well expressed by Egyptian dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, no stranger to the country's prison system himself: "What, Mr. Mubarak, have you done to preserve the popularity of non-Islamist forces in the country?"

The idea that Mubarak might be counted on to perform such an about-face will induce skepticism--and rightly so. But two new factors argue in his favor. First, he has lately demonstrated that he responds to robust American pressure. His contribution to the fragile truce between Israel and the Palestinians marks a departure from previous years of cold peace and obstructionism toward Israel. And as Max Boot observed in his Times op-ed: "Dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim credits US pressure with helping to win his release from prison in 2003. And that involved a threat to withhold merely $130 million in supplemental aid. What might a threat to cut off $2 billion accomplish?" With Bush signaling that he intends to make the promotion of liberal democracy a staple of his second term, it would be a bad time to see one of the world's more malleable Arab despots pass from the scene--assuming, as seems likely, that a replacement governing coalition gleaned from today's political opposition groups would be worse.

Second, the 76-year-old Mubarak's own calculations have changed. His personal horizons are shorter and his long-term agenda revolves around his son Gamal. Unlike Saddam's son and chosen heir, a homicidal psychopath, Gamal Mubarak is a well-liked businessman with the esteem of Western-oriented liberals in the country--but he is not well liked by radicals. Mubarak's Egypt is not Saddam's Iraq, where a ruler's offspring could conceivably have been forced upon the population. Nor is it Assad's Syria, where the minority ethnic clique that brutally rules naturally coalesced around the late president's son in order to perpetuate an unnatural status quo. In Egypt, perhaps the most thoroughly globalized Arab country, Gamal's future lies with the class of secular liberals who, up until now, have been discouraged from entering the political fray. He hasn't paid his dues with the Islamists and he has no credentials with the military and security establishment. His ambitions require a change in Egypt's political landscape--a change for the better. In this respect, the old man who rules the country has more hopes in common with liberals and reformers than he used to, albeit for entirely selfish reasons. This confluence of interests should be exploited by the United States--not discarded.


Of course, there is always the possibility that Mubarak will die in office--he would be the third Egyptian dictator in a row to do so. The ruling regime's 35-year precedent would call for a senior member of the security establishment to succeed him--defense minister and armed forces chief Muhammad Hussein Tantawi is a possibility, as is the minister of intelligence, Umar Suleyman, who happens to be making the rounds in Washington this week. In either event, American leverage over a new interim president to prod reforms forward would be just as strong as American leverage over Mubarak, because the state would rapidly turn insolvent without our foreign aid. Furthermore--as I know from personal experience, having met with Egyptian brass as a telecommunications consultant in 2001 and 2002--institutional culture within the armed forces is evolving. A prominent stratum of technocrats who are deeply involved in systems overhauls within the security establishment is made up of Western-oriented liberals with degrees from American and Canadian universities. Many would be receptive to U.S. exhortations to reform.

It's true that calls of "five more years" for Hosni Mubarak might seem at first to be pouring cold water on the vision of cascading democracies in the Middle East--especially after the successful elections in Iraq. And it's understandable that nothing would please democracy advocates more than to see last month's massive Iraqi turnout one-upped by free and fair elections in Egypt this spring. But a bit of patience is sometimes wise--and now may be one of those times. At this writing, I observe reports on Arabic television suggesting that Egypt's ruling party intends to grant dissidents the constitutional amendment for which they are clamoring, to make it easier to contest the presidency--but only after the spring elections. This move will anger Mubarak's many detractors because it would enable the incumbent to squeak by and have his sixth term. But it also would redefine the political system in Egypt in the leader's final years, creating a set of expectations for reform that America can hold him to on penalty of bankruptcy. The alternative, an ostensibly democratic government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, would only set back the cause of liberalism in the Middle East. For Egyptians, true democracy is finally on the horizon--and also worth waiting for.

Note: Translated quotes from Abd Al Halim Qandil, Muhammad Farid Hassanein, and Mustafa Bakri were taken from the website of the Middle East Media Research Institute. All other translations are mine.

Joseph Braude is the author of The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World. This essay first appeared in The New Republic Online on February 17, 2005.

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