Egypt’s big move to democracy met with hesitance

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Egypt recently announced that it will hold multiple-candidate elections later this year for the first time in its 5,000-year history. Prior to this, voting ballots only included the incumbent president — a dictator really — and no other candidates were allowed to contest him.

Being an Egyptian American, I was both happy and skeptical of this news. Is this a sign of true reform, or just a political move on President Hosny Mubarak’s behalf to keep the United States off his back?

Egypt has always been thought of as a country able to lead the Arab world toward reform, but it will be hard for this to happen when the feelings on the street completely differ from the leaders’ support of the West. Many Arab governments hide their support of the West from their citizens, who are constantly subjected to anti-Western sentiments. Bridging this gap is one of the first and most important obstacles facing Mubarak.

Egyptians, like most Arab citizens, are accustomed to being ruled by dictatorships in which individual freedoms are practically nonexistent. Egyptians are also accustomed to corruption and manipulation to a point where they might not even see the benefit in voting. My father told me how prevalent bribery was in Egypt in order to get anything done. Even his senior officer in the Egyptian military accepted bribes. In Egypt, it’s not what you know, but who you know, and while Mubarak preps his son for the presidency, Egyptians are skeptical of his decision to move toward “democracy.”

There’s a catch to Mubarak’s move. Presidential candidates are required by law to be part of a “legalized” party, but Mubarak’s own party is the only entity in control of the legalizing process. Due to laws such as these, Egypt’s political landscape has been swept clean of any contenders, and for the most part has been under a one-party rule for the past 50 years.

Another catalyst that has stripped the credibility of Mubarak’s decision was the arrest of Ayman Nour, a young parliament member. Prior to his arrest, Nour had been calling for constitutional reform in Egypt. Because of this, his parliamentary immunity was taken away and he was thrown in jail for “forgery” this past January. His political party, liberal al-Ghad, was recently legalized, however, and Nour was finally released from jail March 12, showing a slight change of old Egyptian habits.

As all this plays out, many wonder whether Mubarak’s decision comes from “outside pressure or internal change,” as a writer for The Economist put it. I don’t think it really matters what it is. Of course, pressure from the Bush administration and the West has played a role in Mubarak’s decision, but in the end, these changes are in the best interest of the Egyptian people, Mubarak himself, and the Western powers.

The inevitable spread of information and communications technology has probably played a bigger role in Mubarak’s decision than any other internal or external change. The Egyptian government can no longer control the information its people receive. With computers, cell phones, and satellite television, many Egyptians are able to hear news broadcasts from around the world, stubbing the government’s earlier monopoly over the media. Prior to these developments, people only heard whatever the government wanted them to hear.

After hearing about the millions in Iraq who defied the insurgency and risked their lives to vote, and of the protests in Lebanon over the long and overstayed Syrian occupation, Egyptians could soon feel they are long due for their own reform to bridge the gap between the rich and poor by truly giving people a voice.

Mubarak’s decision happened to be perfectly timed, pleasing skeptics in the West, while still showing the people of Egypt that he could truly care about them. That’s why it is in Mubarak’s best interest to start a trustworthy, respected election process, because his legacy in Egypt depends on it. In accomplishing this, he will long be honored and remembered.

But if this September’s ballot only includes the elder Mubarak and his son Gamal, or if one of the Mubaraks receives 90 percent of the votes, then we will know what the true intentions for Mubarak’s decision were. But no matter what reasons Mubarak had in making his decision, he has made it. It could be in his self-interest, or in that of his son, or it could be meant to truly reform Egypt.

Accomplishing democracy in this part of the world will not be easy. Things won’t change overnight, but it’s a solid start, and only time will tell if Mubarak’s historic move was a genuine sign of reform, or just a political move to keep the United States off his back and pacify his people, who are starting to demand democracy.

Omar Said is a senior economics major.