Hosni Mubarak, who is visiting Washington this week, is completing his third term (a total of 18 years) as the president of Egypt. He stands out as the longest-serving head of that state in the past 150 years.
The Mubarak government takes justifiable pride in its economic achievements in this decade: maintaining annual growth of about 5 percent, bringing inflation down from more than 25 percent to less than 6 percent, reducing budget deficits from 17 percent to less than 2 percent of GDP, stabilizing the pound-dollar exchange rate, increasing foreign exchange reserves from less than $1 billion to more than $20 billion and expanding the share of the private sector from about 35 percent to more than 65 percent today.
Commendable as these achievements are, however, they have come at an exorbitant cost to Egyptians. Economic liberalization has gone hand in hand with increased control of the state over political, social and cultural affairs.
The presidency is the strongest political institution in Egypt. The president appoints nearly all the country's prominent figures: ministers, senior army officers, media chiefs, judges, bankers, corporate bosses, university presidents and even the heads of Muslim and Coptic institutions. Mubarak is supreme commander of the armed forces and head of the majority political party. Officially, Egypt has 14 parties, all financed by the state. Mubarak's party controls 90 percent of Egypt's National Assembly, and all the party's functionaries are on the public payroll. In the name of national security, emergency laws enacted following President Sadat's assassination in 1981 are still in force.
In this oppressive climate, without the checks and balances inherent in a real democracy, corruption can find fertile ground. Why does a Third World leader need 90 percent of the vote to justify his power base? Many observers claim that the Mubarak regime is sufficiently popular with ordinary citizens to command more than 50 percent of the popular vote. And why did Mubarak, who was Anwar Sadat's vice president from 1975 to 1980, refuse to nominate a vice president of his own in three successive terms?
The observed expansion in Egypt's civil society has been marked by a widening division between rich and poor, the powerful and powerless, and the military and civil society. Economic growth has exacerbated an already skewed distribution of income and failed to absorb the expanding numbers of job seekers. Increasing unemployment has been the result, especially among young people, with an attendant expansion in Muslim fundamentalism, which presented itself as the people's voice against an oppressive state.
The expanded scope of civil society and nongovernment organizations (NGOs) was a necessary social innovation based on citizen initiatives. Those initiatives produced thousands of NGOs with missions ranging from defending human rights to extending micro-credit for the poor. These budding institutions attracted financing from international sources, but in late May, the Egyptian National Assembly passed legislation in the name of protecting NGOs from external influences that is sure to paralyze those very bodies.
Meanwhile, in the name of conserving and protecting cultural values, the state has curtailed free speech. The Ministry of Information has blocked attempts to set up private radio and TV stations and closed the outspoken weekly, Al Dustour, invoking charges of yellow journalism. Last year the state censor banned the American University in Cairo from importing dozens of books, including Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet" and an academic study, "Egypt Under Mubarak."
Egypt is a strategic ally and a force for peace, stability, growth and enlightenment in a region fraught with conflict, stagnation and fanaticism. Mubarak has led his country steadily and ably for 18 years. In so doing, however, his regime has kept change at bay.
Nelson Mandela voluntarily retired from the presidency of South Africa after one term. Is it too much to ask of Hosni Mubarak that he retire after serving three terms? And if he insists on serving a fourth, can he not at least prepare the way for a fair and honest election of the National Assembly? As a truly democratic country, Egypt could take care of itself. It is time to let it do so.
The writer is an American consultant in international economics.