Egypt: Breaking the Fear Barrier

Egypt will hold its first multi-candidate presidential elections in September. Expectations for some degree of political plurality were raised when President Hosni Mubarak announced in February that the constitution would be amended to allow an electoral contest. Following fears that Mubarak was grooming his son Gamal to inherit the presidency, this announcement was seen as a major move towards opening up the political system, which has been dominated by one party rule since 1952.

The World Today
4 minute READ

Maha Azzam

The end of Mubarak’s presidency would mark the termination of the last connection to the officer corps which has held power, adopting the civilian rank of president but with essentially autocratic authority, since the coup over half a century ago.

There are many fault lines in Egypt but among the most serious are those related to the economy and the political battle between Islam and secularism as the source of the nation’s identity and orientation. It is an old power struggle going back at least to the beginning of the twentieth century, if not earlier, and yet is particularly poignant today as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists insist on their right to a voice and a role in politics.

Free elections have produced Islamist successes over more moderate and secular alternatives, most recently in Iran. This is despite all the protestations of liberals and moderates that the popular influence of the Islamists was on the wane. The present Egyptian government is a long way from offering either secularists or Islamists free and fair elections, but the longer it postpones that day, the more critical and polarised the situation will become.

There was a referendum in May to ratify Mubarak’s proposal – presumably in case people preferred single candidate elections. The three main opposition parties permitted by the regime, the Wafd, the Tagammu and the Nasserist Party as well as the banned Muslim Brotherhood – which is probably the most popular – called for a boycott. They argued the proposed law was designed to exclude independent candidates.

Among the restrictions imposed was the stipulation that a potential candidate needed the backing of at least 65 members of parliament. The problem for the opposition is that of 454 parliament seats, ten are presidential appointments, 402 belong to his party, and there is a long history of accusations of rigged elections. This leaves a maximum of 32 votes that can freely support anyone else. On the other hand, the president presumably could direct his block to back another candidate.


The referendum resulted in a ‘yes’ vote but was characterised by the usual low turnout, allegations of rigging, and acts of violence against the opposition. United States President, George Bush, voiced concern that violence against peaceful demonstrators did not conform to democratic norms.

The farcical nature of the electoral process was highlighted by the Wafd newspaper which published photographs of two of its reporters casting ballots in six different Cairo polling stations unopposed and undetected. It was a foretaste of what may occur in the presidential elections.

Mubarak’s dramatic move appears to be cosmetic and is marred by a history of government restrictions imposed each time there has been an urge toward political liberalisation. The move was primarily a response to US pressure for Middle East political reform. This is part of the Broader Middle East initiative and because Washington is worried by the upsurge in domestic opposition in Egypt following the Iraq war.

Although there has been a continuing call from various political forces for greater political liberalisation and the removal of emergency laws – Egypt has been ruled by such laws for 57 out of the last 65 years – opposition parties have been weak throughout the Anwar Sadat and Mubarak eras and posed no serious challenge to the political order.

There has been increasing frustration at the political stalemate, despite a degree of freedom for the press and more open criticism of government and corruption, although no criticism is allowed of the president himself. A coalition of activists from left wing, nationalist and Islamist backgrounds, Kifaya (Enough), has been at the heart of street protest during the last few months. A show of opposition unity in the face of the existing stalemate.

There have been previous attempts at liberalisation. Following the 1973 October, Egypt appeared to be charting a path toward greater political and economic openess. While limited, it was seen as a break from the authoritarian period of President Abdel Nasser and part of a move away from the Soviet Union. Some moderate Islamists ran as parliamentary candidates under the umbrella of the Socialist Labour Party but no real legal alternative was allowed.

Student unions and professional syndicates became an alternative channel for groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists managed to harness support through them and increased their influence throughout the 1970s and 1980s. They have come under government scrutiny and control in the last decade, mainly to restrict the Islamists. This has meant the broader political arena, although dominated by one party, and street protest, though controlled by the security forces which place very heavy restrictions on demonstrators, nevertheless increasingly became areas of opposition.


The main party that plans to contest the elections, al-Ghad (Tomorrow) and its leader Ayman Nour, a forty-year-old lawyer, are viewed in the west, in particular, as the new face of opposition. They are presented as liberal and secular, and seem to fit well with the American search for an alternative to the Islamists. They have been the only real voice of opposition for decades, whether through extremist organisations, dormant for the last decade as a result of tough security measures, but now showing signs of revival, or moderate alternatives, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, this does not mean that the Islamist alternative has been overtaken. It is just that in the current mood for democratisation in the region, its voice is not the one any in the west will want to hear if there is a secular alternative. Nour who has put himself forward as a candidate, has become a recognisable political figure, despite his limited following, mainly because of his trial on charges of forging signatures to allow him to run in the presidential elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, despite its popularity among many sections of society and the intimidation and arrest of a number of leading figures, seems unable fully to exploit the present situation, partly because it has not been able to find a potential leader. It also continues to be denied the right to function as a legitimate political party, despite condemnation of violence and peaceful activity for over thirty years.

The continuing ban on the Muslim Brotherhood standing for election is increasingly untenable, partly because of its long-standing non-violence, and partly because in other parts of the region Islamist parties of various leanings have contested elections, including Hizbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in The Occupied Territories. In Turkey a moderate Islamist party has come to power.

Opponents of the Brotherhood say they can never be allowed to run because the constitution forbids parties based on religion. This is disingenuous, since Egypt’s constitution is based on religion and clearly states that Islam is the main source of law.

Keeping the lid on

In Egypt and the broader Arab world there is talk of the need for non- interference by the US in their internal affairs, as well as scepticism at the American democratisation agenda.

Ironically this is shared by governments and many opposition figures, even those critical of their regimes. And yet, regimes have only acquiesced to cosmetic reform because of a combination of internal and external pressure. Washington has been the main instigator of the limited gestures toward reform and, for the present, it is the US that can force more change, unless there is an upsurge of opposition.

Mubarak hopes he can keep the lid on the situation through backing from the regime’s old support base, the army – although it is worth remembering that Sadat’s assassins were from the military. He also looks to the business and entrepreneurial class, many of whom have succeeded in amassing fortunes that have made the gap between the haves and have-nots more stark than ever.

For this new class, Gamal Mubarak, the President’s son, and for a while much talked about heir apparent, is the main champion of economic reform and the safest guarantee of their privileges and the country’s stability. The difficulty for Gamal is that, given the present mood, the increasingly open criticism and disappointment at flawed reform attempts, a direct succession after his father’s death is not assured. It is more likely Gamal will attempt to influence and control the new business environment while strengthening his position in the ruling party, thus building a broader support base rather than immediately inheriting like his contemporaries in Morocco, Syria and Jordan.

Not invincible

There is an increasing call for greater participation and accountability throughout the region, but the most perceptible difference from recent years is the lack of fear at speaking out against regimes in power; it is as if at least the first barrier of fear has been broken.

The American presence in Iraq is seen as an occupation and unreservedly condemned in Egypt, where anti- American feeling remains high. Yet the fall of Saddam Hussein has demonstrated Arab regimes are not invincible, even though in Iraq, change required foreign intervention. This dramatic development, along with the influence of satellite television news stations in allowing more people to be aware of regional and international developments, and al- Jazeera, in particular, providing a forum to criticise many Arab regimes, has had an impact by encouraging greater criticism of the ruling elite.

Egypt’s political and economic cleavages are beginning to widen. Since the coup, the country has experienced one form of authoritarian government or another that failed to deliver economically for the majority despite heightened expectations and increased education. Today, official unemployment stands at ten percent – although the real number is thought to be nearer twenty. Forty percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line and economic performance overall has been dire.

Despite harsh security measures against Islamist militants, there has recently been a return to terrorist activity. This is a rejection of both the state and its policies. While these groups are marginal, their activities tend to provide the regime with a further excuse to contain opposition. Unfortunately, this very reluctance to liberalise may breed further disillusion, and eventually more extreme opposition.