Commentary: Is the U.S. Ready for Egyptian Democracy?

Author: Arts and Letters

In the wake of Egypt’s reelection of President Hosni Mubarak on Sept. 7, the chattering classes have been pouring praise on Mubarak’s government for a vote they view as a first step toward shattering a half-century of authoritarian rule. For the first time in Egyptian history, multiple candidates were allowed to stand in the election. And many assume that credit is due the Bush administration for its persistent pleas for democracy in the Arab world.

But the far more significant outcome of the presidential election is that over the last year, as Egyptians anxiously anticipated election day, a strong and significant opposition movement against Mubarak went public. And who is the backbone of this opposition movement? The Islamists. For the first time since the 1970s, thousands of Egyptians of all political and religious persuasions joined forces in street protests, demanding political reform and an end to the regime. While a fractured opposition had operated behind the scenes for years, this election inspired secularists, leftists and, most of all, Islamists to take the unprecedented step of coordinating their various campaigns against Mubarak’s expected victory.

The demonstrations that gathered the most protesters were those organized by the banned conservative Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of an Islamic group that split from the Brotherhood, called al Wasat (Arabic for “the center”). The protests are significant because they illustrate the power of Islamic leaders to mobilize tens of thousands of Egyptians who are usually terrified to confront zealous riot police. Demonstrations in Egypt are officially banned, according to an emergency law that has been in effect since shortly after former president Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, and in the past, the Brotherhood and activists in al Wasat never confronted the regime directly.

But now the Islamists have a strategy: The Sept. 7 vote was but a dress rehearsal for parliamentary elections scheduled for November, when the Islamists hope to sway enough voters to win a significant number of seats and gain credibility. In past elections, candidates who were Islamic sympathizers and ran under the guise of “independents” were either banned from the elections or found that they had lost in the first round of voting due to state-sponsored fraud. Despite these obstacles, there are already about 17 independents in the 454-seat Egyptian parliament. We can expect many more after November.

An Islamic-influenced Egypt is certainly not the kind of democracy the Bush administration has ever had in mind for the region’s most important nation. I remember how one official talked about the administration’s goals when she invited me to lunch just weeks before the start of the Iraq war to discuss the United States’ plan to remake the Middle East. My hostess insisted that the Islamists’ hold on power in Egypt was minimal — so minuscule in fact, that the Bush administration believed that a bit of educational reform could knock the wind out of the Islamic movement. For instance, the images of school girls in head scarves should be removed from textbooks, she suggested.

At the time, I challenged this analysis, explaining that during the years I had lived and worked as a journalist in Egypt I had reached the opposite conclusion: Egypt had been transforming rapidly into an Islamic society, in a sort of grass-roots revolution. I suggested that the Bush administration begin a dialogue with moderate Islamists, whose power had been on the rise for two decades. But there appears to have been no change of heart in Washington. There was, as far as I can make out, no attempt to reach out to moderate Islamists during the protests leading up to the election. And U.S. officials recently said they agreed with Egypt’s long-held position that the Muslim Brotherhood should remain a banned organization.

The power of the Islamist opposition was apparent on election day. Voter turnout was low, according to monitors. The electorate had apparently answered calls by activists to boycott what they knew would be a flawed poll, even though the ruling National Democratic Party had dangled the possibility of lavish gifts in exchange for votes. Mubarak faced nine challengers, but not one had a serious chance of winning. They could not possibly have matched his resources or exposure, largely because the government controls the media.

What does this mean for Egypt’s future? It is highly unlikely the Brotherhood will be allowed to run candidates in the parliamentary elections. The official position of the Egyptian government is that religious organizations must not be allowed to become political parties. But if the Brotherhood were permitted to have candidates, the organization would probably make a strong showing in the polls. Chances are, it will still make a difference.

For one, the Brotherhood may well broker deals with parties that are allowed to run in order to guarantee that the Islamic agenda is represented in the political process. This was the strategy that the Brotherhood applied in the lead-up to September’s election, and presidential candidates courted its support.

Another way the Brotherhood could be represented in a new parliament is through the Wasat party. The Islamists who formed the Wasat party are close to getting it legalized as a political — as opposed to a religious — organization. Members of the Brotherhood say publicly that they have profound differences with the Wasat party, including over such issues as whether women should be permitted to hold key leadership positions in the government or the extent to which sharia, or Islamic law, should dictate legislation in Egypt. And, indeed, prominent founders of the Wasat party and others left the Brotherhood because they believed the organization was too conservative. If Wasat leaders wielded power, they would be unlikely to make veiling compulsory for Egyptian women, as the Brotherhood would require. But these are details that will likely be resolved in the coming years.

The point of Mubarak’s victory is that it has obscured a longer-term effect of the election. Frustration over a fifth term for Mubarak has inspired widespread protest that transcends religion and ideology.

For two years now, many people in the Middle East have been wondering how the world can stand by while the United States creates such havoc in Iraq. Ordinary Egyptians have been glued to graphic pictures on al Jazeera TV, first of Iraqi children dying from American bombs and now of the mayhem that rules the streets of Baghdad. For the first time in the 20 years that I have visited, studied or worked as a journalist in Egypt, I have begun to feel true hostility toward America and Americans. In the past, no matter what happened in the Middle East, you could always count on the mild-mannered Egyptians to maintain favorable attitudes toward their American guests.

That has all but gone. But I couldn’t persuade my administration lunch partner of that two years ago, and I don’t see any evidence of change in the administration’s attitude since then. When I cited polls showing the growing animosity toward America within the Muslim world, even among the United States’ historical allies, my hostess corrected me. Polls should not be believed, she said. It is in vogue for Arabs and Muslims to voice their disapproval with the democracy the Bush administration is exporting to the Middle East.

In the looking-glass world that is U_._S. policy, failure is often mistaken for success. Aside from Iraq, there is no place where this is more apparent than in longtime U.S. ally Egypt. Rather than celebrate the flawed poll and the reelection of Mubarak, the Bush administration should heed the wake-up call of the country’s invigorated opposition. It won’t do any good simply to erase all those images of veiled school girls from Egyptian textbooks

Geneive Abdo, a fellow at the Joan B. Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame and the author of “No God but God: Egypt and the Triumph of Islam” (Oxford), is writing a book about Muslims in America.

Originally published by Geneive Abdo (in The Washington Post) at on September 18, 2005.