Will Changing the Egyptian Constitution's Election System Really Foster Democracy?:
Why Egypt-Watchers Don't Think So

By JOHN W. DEAN
Friday, Mar. 25, 2005

In his Second Inaugural Address, President Bush declared that the central purpose of his second term would be to promote democracy and end tyranny everywhere. It was pure neoconservatism. As Dimitri Simes -- who is not a neo-con, but rather heads the Nixon Center, a foreign policy think tank -- said, "If Bush means it literally, then it means we have an extremist in the White House."

Since then, Bush has continued his call for democracy - especially in the Middle East. This radical policy of the United States telling other countries how to govern themselves has been created out of the ashes of his Iraq policy. Indeed, it is based on the same sort of poor intelligence and weak analysis that produced phantom weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and a fantasy connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda.

Bush has merely substituted his unsupported (and unsupportable) claim that Middle Eastern democracy will end the threat of terror for his baseless rationale for expending blood and treasure in Iraq. While Bush can impose democracy on Iraq as an occupying power, gunpoint democracy is not exactly contagious. And we don't have enough guns to end tyranny everywhere.

Take Egypt, where Bush is using his bully pulpit of the presidency, using words as weapons. With no pretense to being a Middle East expert, I can share the lessons of my brief, recent experience as a visiting professor with the Department of History of the American University of Cairo.

There, I spoke with many of those in Egypt who are most knowledgeable on this subject, and found out what they think about Bush's policy and pronouncements. Among those I consulted were many well-educated Egyptian students and successful young businesspeople, as well as a number of Americans who teach Egyptian youth while living in their world.

Hosni Mubarak's Egypt: Very Different From American Media Descriptions

Based on my discussions, it appears that President Bush may be doing more harm than good. His bloviating about Middle East democracy is not going down well in Egypt.

Most Americans' view of Egypt centers on the Sphinx, the Pyramids, and other tourist attractions. But the reality of life for most of the 20 million or so Egyptians who live in and around Egypt's rundown, ramshackle capital city, Cairo, is a harsh one.

I found that headline stories proclaiming emerging Middle East, and Egyptian, democracy have confused hope with reality. These stories, often deriving from Bush White House-promoted propaganda, do not reflect the truth.

For one thing, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is no born-again democrat - despite what one might think from reading the American press. The Wall Street Journal has claimed that "Since Mr. Bush first outlined his vision, traditional allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have begun tentative political overhaul." Business Week headlined its report, "The Sands Are Shifting Under Egypt's Mubarak."

It's true that in September, an Egyptian presidential election will take place. But conservative publications such as The American Enterprise Online are wrong to claim a premature victory for democracy, months before the election occurs.

Worse, such publications have claimed that the victory will be a result of American force: They argue that "[t]he fresh hope now pulsing through the Middle East is not the result of diplomacy, or U.N. programs, or foreign aid, or expanded trade, or carrots offered by Europeans, or multilateral negotiations, or visits from Sean Penn. It is the fruit of fierce U.S. military strength, real toughness on the part of the middle American public, and a tremendous hardness in the person of our President and his staff."

These publications, and many others, should send a reporter to Cairo. Democracy is not as imminent as the news media seems to think. Nor is it the logical byproduct of America's war; far from it.

Mubarak's Proposed Amendment to the Egyptian Constitution

None of the politically sophisticated Egyptians, or the professionals who study Egyptian politics, to whom I spoke believe any of this - and they have good reason to know whereof they speak.

In late February, President Mubarak called for an amendment to the Egyptian constitution that would enable opposition candidates to engage in a fair and free election for the presidency - an election of the kind that, I am told, has not occurred there since 1950.

Specifically, Mubarak seeks to amend Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution to allow for direct election of the president.

Under existing Egyptian law, presidential candidates must obtain the approval of two-thirds of the Parliament, and this parliamentary selection must then be ratified by a "yes" or "no" plebiscite.

Given the current system, Mubarak would doubtless prevail - as he has, without challenge, since his rule began in 1981. His National Democratic Party dominates Parliament overwhelmingly. So one might think Mubarak deserves credit for moving to a new system. In fact, however, the new system may be just as slanted towards him as the old.

The Loopholes in Mubarak's Proposal

While the details of Mubarak's proposed new system of electing Egypt's president have yet to surface, he has broadly outlined it. He is proposing a system that would permit registration of new political parties - each of which in turn, can offer a candidate. All candidates would then be voted on by all voters. But the devil, of course, will be in the details.

Mubarak-watchers in Egypt see two large loopholes in his proposal. First, there is the requirement that the party be officially registered. This requirement could be used to refuse ballot slots to some parties' candidates.

Second, there is the requirement that all party candidates must still win the endorsement of Parliament. Remember, Mubarak's party totally controls Parliament. So this requirement, in effect, means Mubarak can control the outcome of the election.

In part for these reasons, virtually everyone I spoke with thinks that if there ever is a direct election, the winner will be either Mubarak or a person to whom Mubarak wishes to hand the power. While writing this column, I learned that Mubarak's son Gamal announced he will not be a candidate this year; that means Mubarak will likely seek reelection and win.

In short, no one in Egypt is holding their breath, expecting the committee of Parliament -- which is to report the amendment in May for an election this September -- to produce a truly democratic process. And Mubarak's actions speak for themselves.

Mubarak's Words Versus His Actions

Clearly, Mubarak wants no serious opposition. His most formidable opponent to date is Ayman Nour, the forty-one-year-old head of the new and growing Al Ghad Party. To deal with Nour, Mubarak had him thrown in jail, claiming his party had forged signatures to obtain its official status.

One knowledgeable person with whom I spoke believes that Nour is secretly being backed by the CIA. Whether or not that is true, America's interest in Nour is evident. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed the U.S.'s "very strong concern" about Nour's imprisonment. This, in turn, caused Mubarak to postpone the G-8 meeting that had been scheduled for March in Cairo.

Nour has since been released, but Mubarak's prosecutors continue to press charges against him. Nour has declared he will "continue to fight this dictatorship." He says the charges against him are phony, a frame-up designed to cut short his political career.

In short, Mubarak's actions show that he is not truly inclined toward democracy. To the contrary, Mubarak has stated the road to reform is long, and it appears he is determined to make that a self-fulfilling prophecy - impeding true democracy as long as he possibly can.

Egypt Is Moving Quickly to Capitalism, But Not to Democracy

Perceptibly, there are new attitudes stirring in Egypt. Many of the country's best and brightest have returned home from abroad to be part of these developments. As one told me, Egyptians are rediscovering their confidence in their country.

But these thoughts and hopes for Egypt are more entrepreneurial than political. While Egypt has a state controlled economy (with the exception of agriculture and real estate), a private sector is nonetheless emerging.

One Egyptian, who has degrees from several American universities, explained that Cairo's stock market's volume has grown, in less than a year, from 10 million to 100 million daily transactions. Investors include not only the wealthy, but those of more modest income, such as clerks and secretaries. In this country where industry and commerce are, in theory, controlled by the government, the first IPO (initial public offering) of a private company will occur this week.

But while the government may, to some extent, be giving up its stranglehold on business, it has hardly decreased its looming military and bureaucratic presence in society. There are about 70 million people in Egypt; as many as 7 million work for the government. Many are in uniform; the heavy presence of military and security forces is conspicuous everywhere.

Because Mubarak fears demonstrations, literally thousands of troops show up for the smallest of protests. Such freedom of expression is against the law in Egypt, so students demonstrate on their private campuses, from which the military is barred. Still, the military makes its presence felt in these private realms: During my visit, they surrounded the small downtown campus of American University, when only a few dozen students had scheduled an on-campus demonstration.

Democracy on Mubarak's Terms Won't Be Genuine Democracy

"Democracy will come to Egypt," a professor and political authority on Egypt explained to me, "but with only half the country literate, and maybe 25 percent unemployed and only interested in keeping food on the table and a roof over the family, I don't think Egypt is ready." This person continued, "Even if Egypt were ready, when it comes it will be on Mubarak's terms, and I don't think he is ready."

Mubarak has repeatedly issued press and public statements that political reforms "cannot come from outside." It appears a matter of pride amongst Egyptians, or at least those I spoke with, that they do not want George Bush, whom they loathe, telling them how to govern their country.

"We are happy to take American money to provide Israel with a buffer state in this Arab world," I was told by one politically sophisticated Egyptian. "We are a good investment for the United States to protect its interest in Israel," he added. "But if George Bush thinks he can force democracy on Egypt, and the Middle East, he's dumber than I thought he was, and unlike many of my countrymen, I never thought he was dumb."

An American expatriate, who has lived in Cairo for several decades, told me, "Bush's effort to take credit for the democratic thinking emerging in the Middle East is actually counterproductive. Arabs so dislike the man, they find him so hypocritical, so offensive and arrogant, that he is more likely to cause the Middle East, including Egypt, to do exactly the opposite of what he claims he wants."

In summary, I found little, if any reason, to believe there is much prospect for Democracy in Egypt at this time. Testifying to this fact is that I feel compelled to protect the identity of my many sources, the people who were willing to openly discuss this matter with me. The reason is that I fear for their well-being; they live in a country where speaking your mind can get you in deep trouble. And without open debate, what kind of democracy can emerge?


John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.