There is a historic opportunity presenting itself in Egypt. Under pressure from the United States, Egypt is now considering changing its restrictive election laws to allow for more competition from independent political parties. If the United States can continue its campaign for democracy in Egypt, we can positively influence the development of a free and open Egyptian society.
Currently, Egypt’s parliament selects the sole candidate for president and the nation is given a “yes” or “no” vote on that candidate. This system has allowed President Hosni Mubarak to run unopposed as president since 1981, since his party holds 353 of the 444 elected seats in the Egyptian parliament.
The media is also state controlled, with the national press being licensed and regulated by the Supreme Press Council. The Council’s authority to grant or deny press licenses also allows it to control who gets to report news in Egypt, which is an effective weapon against dissent.
But there are signs of cracks in the wall of tyranny in Egypt. On Jan. 29, Egypt arrested Ayman Nur on trumped up charges that he forged signatures on petitions to register his Al Ghad party (whose newspaper was also shut down) for elections. The arrest prompted criticism from inside and outside Egypt, and even caused Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to cancel her planned visit there.
After Rice canceled her trip, Mubarak announced he will be asking parliament to change election law to allow multiple candidates to run for the office of president. Whether or not it will be an honest and effective reform remains to be seen. Parliament has stated that qualification for candidates will be restricted to certain “conditions,” a nice way of saying that only ineffective candidates will be chosen.
Nevertheless, the proposed change is clearly an attempt to placate the West, especially the United States. President Bush’s recent speeches have made clear that friendly relations with the United States will be dependent on a country’s commitment to democracy.
As it stands, the United States has a keen interest in turning Egypt into healthy democracy. Public dissatisfaction inside Egypt against the repressive regime there could lead to a revolution, bringing Islamists into power. By promoting democracy in Egypt, the United States has the opportunity to position itself as an ally of the people of Egypt, rather than as the “Great Satan.”
The United States has many tools at its disposal to help promote Egyptian democracy. Regimes like Egypt’s derive many benefits from their association with the United States. Politically, they are legitimized by formal recognition of their government and our refusal to support internal opposition. And by being able to access our huge domestic markets, their country’s economy benefits as well.
By holding out the carrot of favorable trade agreements and gripping the stick of sanctions, the United States can greatly influence a country’s policies regarding civil rights. This strategy is especially effective in Egypt, which receives billions in dollars from U.S. taxpayers each year.
Dissatisfaction in the administration with the poor civil rights record in Egypt could cause that aid to be severely curtailed or revoked altogether.
Egypt does not want to risk angering the United States over the issue of civil rights, and hence the move to open up the political system.
This is where the United States can be highly effective in promoting democracy in Egypt. The administration has already taken the first step by having Rice publicly snub Egypt. Further recalcitrance on Egypt’s part in opening up their political system should be met with more concrete economic penalties.
The United States should not let up on Egypt. It should use all the economic and political tools at its disposal to pressure Egypt into reforming its election system. This strategy has paid huge dividends already in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine and in the popular protests in Lebanon against the Syrian occupation.
By applying the lessons learned from those two countries, President Bush can insure that Egyptians too will be able to appreciate the benefits of democracy.
Sean Paroski, whose column appears every Thursday, is a senior applied mathematics major.