Dubious Democracy on the Nile

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By Hala Mustafa
Saturday, November 5, 2005

CAIRO -- President Hosni Mubarak's overwhelming victory in Egypt's presidential election in September came as no surprise. But it raised an important question: Will this month's parliamentary elections, which most Egyptians regard as the true test of recent political reforms here, be more fair and transparent -- and less predictable in their outcome?

Unfortunately, it is difficult to believe that the elections will lead to substantial change in Egypt's political system, regardless of whether they meet international standards. Although clean elections are a necessary component of democracy, in Egypt they cannot -- and will not -- guarantee reforms.

The political domination of Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) extends to the security services, government bureaucracy and national media. In fact, the security establishment is deeply involved in the selection of parliamentary candidates. Accountable political parties are suppressed, so that there appears to be no political alternative except the Islamist movement.

Nine opposition elements -- including docile "official" parties, parties denied legal registration and other movements -- have tried to combat that reality by uniting to form a National Front. Members agreed to present a unified list of 222 (out of a potential 444) parliamentary candidates. While the banned Muslim Brotherhood supports the Front, it retains its own list of 163 candidates who will run as independents; in the last parliamentary election, it won 17 seats. The Al-Ghad Party of Ayman Nour, who placed second to Mubarak in the presidential election, was excluded from the Front but will run its own list of approximately 80 candidates.

A number of candidates from the Front no doubt will emerge victorious. But because the Front encompasses diverse political trends from right to left, it lacks coherence; inevitably, individual party loyalties and ideological differences will emerge once the fervor of the campaign dies down. Most likely, the opposition will fragment and the opportunity for reform will dissipate.

Will Mubarak lose his majority in parliament? If the previous parliamentary elections are any indication, not likely. In 2000 the official NDP candidates won 37 percent, while dissidents in the ruling party won 55 percent. After the election, the dissidents were reintegrated into the NDP's bloc, which strengthened the ruling party's control of Parliament. This pattern will probably repeat this month.

The meager number of women -- only six, or 1.4 percent -- nominated by the NDP is shameful. It indicates that the representation of women in Parliament is unlikely to improve from the seven who currently hold seats. As for the Christian Coptic minority, the NDP will field only one such candidate.

Legalizing the Muslim Brotherhood is not the magic solution to these problems, and it is dangerous to reduce the broad challenges of Egypt's democratic transition to this one issue. While all political forces have a right to representation, the early legalization of the Brotherhood would probably only contribute to the further "Islamization" of politics, which has been used in the past as an excuse to maintain the status quo.

Debate on reform in Egypt must look beyond elections, which can be expected to reflect that status quo. Change must take place through constitutional reform that will restructure political life to allow new and dynamic parties to compete with Mubarak's NDP. Egypt also needs more civil freedoms, more rights for women and minorities and a reshaping of the political elite to include a greater diversity of voices.

The writer is editor of the Al-Ahram Foundation's quarterly journal al-Dimuqratia (Democracy).


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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