Can Egypt Really Become a Democracy?

Protracted, unprecedented democratic change is possible, but it won't be quick or easy

Egypt soldier and pyramids.jpg

After nearly 30 years on the throne, Egypt's modern-day pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, will soon follow in the footsteps of Tunisia's dictator, Ben Ali. The only question is not whether he will leave the presidency of Egypt, or even when, but how. In the face of persistent and growing mass protests--and a newfound sense of civic empowerment on the part of Egypt's long demoralized youthful masses--it is difficult to imagine Mubarak surviving in office for more than another week to ten days. The only question is whether he will see the inevitable and do one last service to his country--leave office gracefully--or whether he will have to be pushed out by the military or a deepening climate of chaos on the streets.

Egypt is very far from being "ready" institutionally or civically for democracy, but it is perched at a point that could make a transition to democracy feasible.

First, the naming of a vice-president, after the office sat vacant throughout Mubarak's presidency, leaves open the possibility of an orderly transitional succession. Should the savvy former intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, read his country's mood shrewdly and decide to preside over a free and fair contest for the presidential election six months hence, he could go down as a hero in Egyptian history, negating the central role he played in a now widely reviled regime. Parallels to the now valued transitional role played by Indonesia's vice-president, B.J. Habibie, after the fall of Suharto in 1998 come to mind.

Second, in contrast to Tunisia, there is an obvious democratic alternative to Mubarak (or Suleiman, or any other regime stalwart): the Nobel-prize-winning former International Atomic Energy Agency head, Mohamed ElBaradei. As a political novice who has lived outside Egypt for most of the last few decades, ElBaradei is far from an ideal founding president of a new democracy (but then, few countries in a situation of regime turmoil, or even after a carefully planned transition, wind up with a leader of the vision and political skill of Nelson Mandela). Yet ElBaradei has a number of assets, including a keen understanding of the international environment, wide international contacts, experience in running a large organization, a personal history that is untainted by association with the repression and corruption of the Mubarak era, and the apparent ability to unite disparate elements of the opposition, religious and secular, behind his candidacy.

Beyond ElBaradei, the emergence of a broad opposition effort (including ElBaradei and former opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour) to negotiate the terms of a transition and a new national unity government also augur hopefully for the near-term future.

If a reasonably free and fair contest for the presidency could be organized on schedule in September 2011, there is little doubt that the long-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) would be dealt a crushing defeat. To ensure that, however, would not only require institutional changes to allow a fully open and free presidential contest, but also to ensure a fresh registration of voters and neutral administration of the electoral process. These changes would need to be implemented fairly quickly to enable a credible and reasonably fair process as soon as September. The first such change will need to be a constitutional amendment to remove the condition that requires a party to have 5 percent of the seats in parliament in order to field a presidential candidate.

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Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. More

Diamond is the founding co-editor of the Journal of Democracy and serves as senior consultant (and previously was codirector) at the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy. At Stanford, he also directs the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law.

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