With just 48 hours to the end of the Egyptian presidential election campaign, all seems set for a convincing victory by the incumbent President Hosni Mubarak. He is unlikely to win a fifth seven-year term with the usual 99 per cent plus share of the vote. But even his opponents do not expect to see him retire to write his memoirs.
Does this mean that the 7 September election should be dismissed either as a masquerade, as some do, or as irrelevant as others suggest?
The answer is a clear: no.
To be sure, the election is not taking place in ideal conditions.
To begin with, the change in the electoral law allowing a multi-party contest was announced only last February thus leaving little time for the opposition to organise. It is also clear that no mechanism exists for a credible monitoring of all the 54000 polling stations spread across the country. Because the law forbids the presence of foreign observers, the only non-partisan group now in place consists of a small force of volunteers mobilised by a coalition of non-governmental organisations.
The government’s decision to limit campaign expenditure to just under $90,000 also means that opposition candidates with no access to the state-owned mass media would have a hard time obtaining name recognition let alone explaining their programmes to a nation of over 70 million people. Because the final date for voter registration was last December and thus before the reform was announced, many who would have voted in a multi-candidate election may well have decided not to register at all. Yet another problem is the exclusion of almost 2.2 million Egyptian expatriates throughout the world who might have favoured more reform-minded candidates.
The list of problems with this election could go on and on. And, yet, there is little doubt that the exercise represents a major positive evolution in Egyptian politics.
To begin with President Mubarak deserves credit for taking the bull by the horns and, rather than dismiss democratisation as an alien idea that Arabs should shun, has committed himself to a process of reform that, if allowed to run its full course, could turn Egypt into a working democracy.
One may find the pace of reform set by Mubarak as too slow. But it would be wrong to dismiss the importance of the fact that he has legitimised democracy as a national aspiration.
Mubarak’s decision to allow multi-candidate elections was important for another reason. It ended a tradition, more than a half a century old, of allowing a camarilla of senior military figures to choose the nation’s leader in secret and then have him rubber-stamped by the parliament.
Mubarak’s opponents have had a field day speculating about his sincerity in opening up the political sphere. What matters in politics, however, is not the motive but the result of an act.
The most important result of Mubarak’s act is that in all future elections in Egypt the voters will have a genuine choice. A six-decade’ old taboo has been smashed: the leader himself can be openly challenged with his fate decided by voters rather than army chiefs.
Much has been made of the fact that the new electoral law does not allow candidates to stand as independents.
A closer look, however, might show that the decision is not as pernicious some claim. For it obliges Egyptians to get organised in parties thus giving their evolving political life some of the structures it needs. It also prevents radical religious groups to masquerade as political organisations behind this or that falsely independent candidate.
In assessing the Egyptian exercise, it is important not to lose sight of the regional context. Most of the Arab regimes labelling themselves as republics are despotic outfits with either no electoral process or the usual 99.99 per cent victory always guaranteed for the incumbent.
Just as one swallow does not a summer make, a single election, even if held in perfect conditions, does not amount to a democracy. Nevertheless, although Egypt’s democratic evolution is in its early stages, there is ground for optimism.
One of the many disastrous results of the 1952 military coup d’etat was to destroy the Egyptian middle classes in the name of a misguided fascination with pseudo-socialistic ideas.
Thousands of middle class families fled post-coup d’etat Egypt and those who stayed often sunk into poverty and political insignificance.
In the post two decades, however, and largely thanks to economic liberalisation, a new urban middle class has gradually taken shape in Egypt.
Its impact was already significant in the nation’s economic and cultural life. The opening up of the political sphere will allow it to gain a bigger say in policymaking as well.
In fact, these middle classes deserve part of the credit for the modest reforms announced so far. The dissident group known as “ Al-Kifayah”(Basta!) that shook Egypt out of its torpor by almost daily demonstrations in Cairo played a role in hastening reform far out or proportion to its numerical strength.
To transform Egypt from a typical Arab” mukhaberat” state ran by a military and security elite into a modern democratic polity in which new middle classes open to globalisation play the lead is not easy. The cultural habits of despotism take a long time to dissipate, and many Egyptians are genuinely apprehensive about change.
The election campaign, the first pluralist contest for power in Egypt’s recent history, has revealed many encouraging facts.
Foremost among these is the maturity, breadth of vision, and goodwill manifested by all candidates. None was tempted by the demons of cheap populism which have always plagued the politics of the Middle East. And none tried to stir the people’s emotions by stoking the old fires of xenophobia and hatred of others. There was also no sign of the religious feud, pitting Muslims against the Copts (Egyptian Christians) that many enemies of democracy had predicted.
In this dry run for democracy, the Egyptians demonstrated a remarkable degree of consensus on a number of major issues, chief among them the need for further reform.
Almost all candidates supported peace with Israel, friendship with the major Western democracies, and the development of a liberal economic model. No one argued for any version of the discredited systems of command economy and state control that dominated Egyptian elite thought between 1952 and 1977. There was also no sign of any desire to see Egypt adopt a theocratic system in the name of “a return to Islam.”
The exercise has shown that Egypt is ready and able to develop a faster and more comprehensive process of democratisation without risking its national cohesion and/or security.
Many in the ruling elite had criticised Mubarak’s reforms as a move that might allow evil genies out of the bottle. So far, however, the genies that have come out and made themselves heard appear to be entirely benign.