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The Challenge of Political Reform: Egypt After the Iraq War

Cairo/Brussels, 30 September 2003: The Iraq war has reinvigorated debate about political reform in Egypt, as evidenced at the 26-28 September conference of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and in renewed opposition activism. But the debate has unfolded in ways that neither advocates nor critics of the war predicted – emboldening domestic challenges to the regime and causing a realignment of the opposition but also strengthening opposition to U.S. policies and undermining Washington’s ability to promote democracy in the region.

Egypt After the Iraq War*, a new briefing paper from the International Crisis Group and one of a series of ICG publications addressing the issue of political reform in the Middle East and North Africa, argues that both the regime and the opposition now recognise substantial reform is necessary. But a significant gap exists between their projects, with the former favouring long-term changes in political culture, and the latter a more ambitious constitutional agenda.

“The nation’s elites, in government and in opposition, appear to realise the importance of effectively incorporating Egypt’s youth through political reform”, according to Robert Malley, Director of the Middle East/North Africa Program at ICG. “Now they face the daunting task of going beyond slogans and instilling a true sense of belonging and inclusion. This will require bold steps from the regime and a corresponding evolution in the opposition parties’ attitude as well”.

The NDP Conference suggested the ruling party is thinking of ways to broaden political participation. This welcome development needs to be implemented so Egypt can break from its monopolistic attitude and move from formal to substantive pluralism. A significant test will be whether the regime develops legitimate processes to choose the next president and whether the NDP follows through on its proposal to liberalise legislation governing political parties, professional associations, and unions.

The opposition parties have demonstrated renewed vigour and unity of purpose, but their organised presence in society is modest. To play an effective role, they need to reform sclerotic internal structures and avoid traditional leadership disputes. An important test will be whether they respond to new elements in the NDP’s program and initiate a dialogue between the two competing visions of reform.

Hugh Roberts, ICG North Africa Project Director, said, “The conflict between the visions of reform should not obscure the fact that there is a consensus that substantial reform of some kind is long overdue. The regime and the opposition would do best to move from the current zero-sum conception of politics and start considering their rivals as forces to be harnessed rather than defeated or by-passed”.

There is also a strong message to Washington. Its unpopular policies in Iraq and on the Israel-Palestinian front have embarrassed a friendly government in Egypt and undercut the U.S.’s ability to promote democratic reform in the region. Today, there is far greater anger in Egypt directed at President Mubarak for supporting the U.S. than there is at the U.S. for supporting Mubarak. The U.S. would help the cause of reform best by more vigorously pursuing a just settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and de-Americanising the Iraqi occupation.

Andrew Stroehlein (Brussels) +32 (0) 485 555 946 [email protected]
Jennifer Leonard (Washington) +1-202-785 1601
*Read the report in full on our website: http://www.crisisweb.org/

The International Crisis Group (ICG) is an independent, non-profit, multinational organisation, with over 90 staff members on five continents, working through field-based analysis and high-level advocacy to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

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