CAIRO. — Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt’s leading democracy activist, hangs two photographs in his modest office at the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. One shows him with Vice President Dick Cheney at the White House; the other is a portrait of Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah. This juxtaposition tellingly captures some the current state of mind of Egypt’s pro-democracy opposition: insecure and not certain where to turn to.
Three forces shape the public life of this country of over 70 million: the ruling National Democratic Party, led by Hosni Mubarak; Islamists, who have increased their share of parliamentary seats from 2 percent in 1984 to roughly 20 percent today; and the democrats, outgunned by both the autocrats and theocrats.
The first of these forces is both the most powerful and the most unwavering. In his address last November to the opening of Egypt’s parliamentary session, Mr. Mubarak, who has been president since 1981, vowed to remain president as long as his heart continues to beat. He has also taken steps to secure the succession of his son, Jamal, a move that will likely be introduced as a measure intended to secure Egypt’s “stability.” Mr. Mubarak routinely imprisons challengers, men like Ayman Nour, runner-up in the 2005 presidential election (with 7 percent of the vote), Talaat el-Sadat, a member of parliament and nephew of Anwar Sadat who had criticized the Egyptian military, and Mr. Ibrahim, jailed in 2000 with members of his staff and acquitted three years later.
The Islamist’s program, like Mr. Mubarak’s, is similarly intelligible. The Muslim Brotherhood, which continues to gather strength under the slogan “Islam is the solution,” is considered by some the real beneficiary of the “democracy revolution.” But its electoral achievement also has something to do with the reported 500 million Egyptian pounds it spent distributing blankets and buying votes during the last election. With only 23 percent of registered voters showing up to the polls, such tactics yield disproportionate influence.
The pro-democracy opposition, however, is altogether more difficult to understand. Although there are 23 opposition parties on paper, in reality only three are of any consequence: the liberal Wafd Party (banned from 1952 to 1978), the Arab Nationalist Nasserite Party and the leftist Tagammua Party.
Each in its own fashion advocates steps toward genuine democracy and an independent judiciary, free establishment of political parties, privatization and the abolition of Egypt’s state of emergency. Reformers also seek to amend Article 77 of the constitution in order to impose a two-term limit on the president.
They also tend to share a lament for the cultural and economic decay in a country that used to act as a symbol of Arab pride. They point not only to Egypt’s glaring poverty, but to its loss of cosmopolitanism, its crumbling bridges to the West and the abysmal state of its schools. The National Council of Education recently reported that Egypt spends $743 a year on each university student, roughly a tenth of education expenditures in developing countries, and one-fiftieth of what developed countries spend.
On one point, however, Egyptian reformers, autocrats and theocrats appear to agree. They share a critical attitude toward American democratization efforts in the Middle East. They consider American optimistic announcements of an “Arab spring” in 2005 — triggered by Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution,” unprecedented elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, and Egypt’s first multicandidate presidential election in 50 years — wishfully premature. The autocrats and the theocrats point to a different sort of American imperialism. The democrats point to a United States that reneged on its commitment for democracy and, following its failure in Iraq, reverted to the old “stability” approach that erased all that was achieved since the issue of democracy was actually put on the table. Reformers took special note when during her visit to Egypt in mid-January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conspicuously avoided the democratization rhetoric she had deployed during her last trip in 2005.
Refaat El-Saeed, a member Egypt’s upper house of parliament and the head of the Tagammua Party, puts this rather simply. Egyptians, he said the other day, “cannot imagine that the same people who abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, run the Guantanamo detention camp, and endlessly forgive Israeli aggression are also genuine democratizes.”
Even apart from these sins, Mr. El-Saeed thinks the American democracy initiative fundamentally misguided: “Democracy is an internal affair; you cannot export it by the ton.” Other democracy activists agree. The American democracy initiative in the Middle East, they told us, has proved hesitant and inconsistent — if not outright contradictory. Talking the talk and walking the walk are two different things — especially here. Democracy is not an “instant” project that is created by a show of elections that can easily be bought. Democracy takes time — but America appeared to have lost its patience.
Rather than abandoning its efforts to foster democracy in the region, the United States should listen to those who share its objectives in the region and stand by their side as they try to return the “spring of freedom” to its tracks.
Benjamin Balint is a writer based at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.