Egypt has gone through 26 years of single-party rule, during which unemployment has risen to 25 percent. Regime opponents have been jailed, and many promises of political reform have been consistently ignored. Nearly everyone — the United States, Egyptian opposition, even the ruling party of President Hosni Mubarak — agrees that it is time for a change in the Arab world’s largest country.
And it is not coincidental that Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP), which convened earlier this month under the banner of “New Thought and Reform Priorities,” was quick to embrace the rhetoric of reform. “One-party rule is over,” the president’s son, Gamal, grandly announced to reporters, and President Mubarak himself promised in his closing speech to “spread the culture of democracy.” Reforms that are reportedly under consideration include proportional representation for elections, ending criminal sanctions for violations of the press law and giving full legislative powers to the Shura Council, the advisory upper house of Parliament.
The rhetoric of the conference reflected the language of recent Arab reform initiatives such as the Alexandria and Doha Declarations — important manifestos dealing with the issues of freedom, democracy and political reforms. Likewise, the NDP produced a “Rights of Citizenship and Democratization” platform of its own, offering some promising suggestions on political reform, including commitments to human rights and the rule of law, and aspirations to promote wider participation in political life by giving greater responsibility and autonomy to civil-society organizations.
Rhetoric was cheap at the NDP conference that avoided addressing the issues that were critical to Egypt’s democrats, among them a constitutional amendment that will prevent President Mubarak from taking a fifth five-year term in 12 months’ time, the removal of article II of the constitution that effectively Islamized Egypt, and the demand for an end to the emergency laws that allow for indefinite detentions without trial (the laws were enacted in 1981, following Anwar Sadat’s assassination). Paradoxically, the NDP Rights of Citizenship and Democratization document even promoted new restrictions on democracy, such as a requirement that parties regularly inform the authorities of their funding sources.
And despite the new asserted political opening, these new reforms appear to actually restrain the political dialogue and engenders cynicism among some Egyptian democrats. “The political system has ossified,” says Mona Makram-Ebeid, a former member of parliament, a delegate of the Alexandria Conference for Reform and the secretary-general of the Hizbat al Ghad Party (the Party of tomorrow). Ghad is a new liberal political party that subscribes itself to the brief period of secular liberalism Egypt enjoyed under the Wafd Party, before the era of Nasserism and Pan-Arabism. Ghad, due to its liberal agenda, was denied political status and will not be allowed to actively participate in new “post one party” era… And Makram-Ebeid is not alone. Earlier this month the government’s Political Affairs Committee refused to allow the establishment of two other new parties.
While the rhetoric of reforms often includes commitments to human rights, most notably absent is any reference to the status of the minorities in Egypt. Egypt is the home of the largest Christian minority in the Middle East, the Copts, number more than 11 million and face severe government discrimination and are often targeted by militant Muslims with little or no protection from the government. The Copts face total exclusion by the government from political representation. In addition, they must obtain a presidential permit every time they want to build a new church. Likewise, the Nubians of Egypt face ethnic and cultural warfare by the Egyptian government, including depopulation of Nubians from their ancestral lands and replacing them with Arabs.
Mr. Mubarak’s telegenic son Gamal, one who is seen as the architect of the NDP’s reform initiative, is happy to promote “governance reform” rather than “democracy.” He advocates for patience and shares the same views of Osama El Baz, a close advisor to the president, that changes should be introduced slowly because “If we introduce lots of changes in a short period of time, the people could not digest them.”
Indeed Gamal Mubark stands to lose the most if “democracy” is fully implemented in Egypt before the anticipated transition of power his way. He has been busy replacing the top leadership of the NDP and the influential ministries in Egypt with those loyal to himself. If left as is, and under emergency law proceedings and without real reforms in Egypt, Gamal Mubarak will be nominated for the presidency of Egypt and confirmed by the parliament. That body is controlled by the NDP with no real mechanism for a challenger to challenge or a chance for the population to have a vote on the matter. This approach will grant an easy victory for the rhetoric of freedom but will do very little to change autocratic reality in Egypt and the grip of NDP as the one and only game in town.
In a recent New York Times report, Hosni Mubarak was quoted as saying, “If we open the door completely before the people, there will be chaos.” The NDP conference, a carefully crafted move by the Mubaraks — the young and the old — was not meant to break that spirit of “openness” but rather to control it or co-opt it at best. But since the history of freedom in the Middle East is being written as you read these lines, it is important to point at these moments of rhetoric since not so long ago they too were rare, if existing at all.
Today, one can at least hear a serious discourse on Egyptian democracy and join the hopes of committed activists who are trying to turn words into deeds. They have a long way to go, they need all the help they can get and they ask that the world will not be blindfolded by the rhetoric of freedom but rather demand accountability for its action.
The decisive factor in freedom in Egypt is the level of commitment by the U.S. government to reforms, not rhetoric. We may accept Gamal Mubarak as transitional president of Egypt, but not at the expense of real reforms.
Nir Boms is the vice president of the Centre for Freedom in the Middle East. Michael Meunier is the executive director of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.