Can Egypt Really Become a Democracy?

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

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.

If Egypt can adhere to the September election timetable, the democratic election of a new Egyptian president would be the beginning, not the end, of a democratic transition. The parliament will need to be completely reelected, as the elections of late 2010 were even more farcical and outrageously rigged than previous ones. As a result, the NDP won 81 percent of the seats, and no opposition party won more than a small sliver of seats in an election that at least three-quarters of eligible voters (and probably many more) boycotted.

A new democratically elected president would accordingly need to preside over a far-reaching transitional process, which would require the rewriting of the constitution; the reform and renewal of the electoral system, the judiciary, and other government institutions, especially the police; and the training and empowerment of democratic political parties, mass media, and civil society organizations, which have been heavily constrained during the Mubarak era. Egyptians might want to consider the next presidential term as a deliberately transitional and power-sharing government, under a relatively spare interim constitution, while a democratic process of dialogue and deliberation drafted a new permanent constitution. South Africa could serve as a model here; a newly elected democratic parliament could also serve as a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution with wide popular participation and consultation.

Forging the rules and institutional arrangements of a transitional period will not be easy. Political stability will require a broadly inclusive process of negotiations that brings all key political stakeholders to the table, and that forges a political pact that ensures the loyalty of the Army and security apparatus while gradually renewing its officer ranks and establishing civilian democratic control. No doubt there will be calls for retrospective justice to investigate the many abuses of human rights during the Mubarak era, but the historical experience of other transitions suggest that this task should be addressed with caution and deliberation, in a way that does not drive the surviving elements of the old regime into a posture of resistance and sabotage.

The challenge for the U.S. is to align itself squarely behind Egypt's aspirations for democracy without being so public, clumsy and abrupt in abandoning Mubarak that we provoke an anti-American backlash among other regional allies. But if we have to choose between rulers and their people, it is time we started choosing the people. We need to quickly develop a strategy and commit new resources to assist Egyptian political parties, non-governmental organizations, civic education groups, and independent media to help them prepare the country for a period of protracted and unprecedented democratic change.

Egypt is entering the end of an era. Hosni Mubarak's exit from power under the pressure of volcanic popular protests will have wide repercussions throughout the Arab world. It will accelerate the momentum of democratic change in the region, and open the possibility of electoral democracy emerging in the Arab world's largest and most influential country. If Mubarak can be induced to exit peacefully and soon, and the way can be paved to a free and credible presidential election in September, the authoritarian exceptionalism of the Arab world may begin drawing to an end.

This post also appears at Democracy Digest.