The best line of the afternoon came from Mahmoud Ali Mohamed of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development. “When we look at Egyptian political theater,” Mohamed said, riffing off an earlier statement by one of his co-panelists, “there is only one director. There is only one person who opens and closes the curtain.” Unfortunately, that important premise, which was essentially embraced by all three participants, got lost in the shuffle of talk about election monitors and voting — props in Hosni Mubarak’s farcical democratic theatrics.
I went to see a panel discussion at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday about Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections: “boycott, campaigns, and monitors.” The participants were Wael Nawara, a leading member of the prominent-but-small opposition party el-Ghad; the aforementioned Mohamed of the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development (a group I’ve never heard of before despite a pretty decent knowledge of Egypt’s pro-democracy movement); and Andrew Albertson, the requisite American from a DC-based think tank, in this case the Project on Middle East Democracy.
The Egyptian parliamentary elections are scheduled for November 29 and they are being watched closely by observers inside Egypt and around the world, in large part because of what they could portend for the next year’s presidential election. The fate of that election remains up in the air and many are concerned that President Hosni Mubarak will use the opportunity to install his son in power. But the panel’s focus on elections glosses over the other important challenges that Egypt faces, from a fractured opposition to a mismanaged economy to a brutally repressive police state.
Nawara asserted at the beginning of his talk that it was the first time the Egyptian opposition had an opportunity to address Washington. I doubt that considering Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s repeated (and much celebrated) visits to DC, but that’s besides the point. It’s important that the Egyptian opposition gets its voice heard by people who make, or at least influence, decisions in Washington. But if this is a rare opportunity for the anti-Mubarak voice to be heard here, it’s too bad that it had to be focused on elections, when that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of Egypt’s lack of democracy.
When Egyptians don’t have freedom of speech, class mobility, or a viable opposition, why should anyone worry about filling out ballots for parliamentarians? Nawara commented on this, saying that the “emphasis on election technicalities may be counterproductive.” But then the matter was dropped.
But even if there were systems in place to facilitate electoral democracy in Egypt, the opposition political parties don’t seem ready for it. The panelists at the Carnegie Endowment’s series are a case in point. Nawara comes from el-Ghad Party, the group best known for its media-loving head Ayman Nour who has been resistant to standing with Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who has been, at least to a certain extent, shaking up elections in Egypt. Ghad ended up deciding to join ElBaradei’s call to boycott the election, but the front that the groups presented was far from a united one. Mohamed, the other Egyptian participant, represented the Wafd Party, a state-sanctioned opposition group that is widely considered co-opted by the ruling regime. The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organized and most-visible opposition movement declared less than two weeks ago its intention to contest 30 percent of seats in parliament, going against the opposition’s election boycott. In return, more than 150 Brotherhood members have been arrested.
With or without political parties or international election monitors, Egypt is a brutal police state, the kind of place where cops can beat a 28 year old to death in an Internet cafe in the second biggest city in the country in broad daylight; the kind of place where torture is par for the course in police stations and prisons; the kind of place where migrants (and yes, I know, they wouldn’t be voting anyway) are shot to death for trying to cross borders. Protests in Cairo are regularly met with vicious violence on the part of the state security apparatus.
And while the Egyptian economy may be “liberal,” it is far from democratic. Since the Mubarak government signed on to an IMF structural adjustment program in the early 1990s, the majority of Egyptians have continued to get poorer. The widespread privatization of state-owned factories and businesses have benefited only a small business class, one that operates hand-in-hand with the ruling party. As the Egyptian economist Galal Amin has said, “Those who continue to preach the trickle-down theory are likely to be the ones who do not really care whether anything trickles down at all.” A system as top-heavy as Egypt’s capitalism does not lay the foundation for a democratic society.
Of course, it’s possible that free and fair elections for the parliament would turn around the injustice governing contemporary Egypt. Indeed, the problems that plague Egypt are cyclical: Civil society is constricted by the police state, which is in power to protect the elite’s economic interests. Democracy is complicated and Albertson, in his brief remarks yesterday, pointed out that democratic elections are about creating accountable governments. Perhaps local and international election monitors could help change that. But when the majority of the opposition is boycotting the election anyway, that seems like a pointless course.
If I sound critical of the Carnegie Endowment for putting the panel together I don’t mean to. It’s great to see a room full of people in Washington thinking about the lack of democracy in Egypt. I just hope that in the future they can see beyond elections to the deeper problems that afflict the country.