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The Challenge of Political Reform: Egypt After the Iraq War


On the eve of the American-led war on Iraq, commentators and officials in the West and the Arab world outdid one another with predictions concerning its probable ripple effects. Supporters announced a democratic wave and a strengthening of pro-Western elements. Opponents predicted tumultuous upheaval throughout the region. In Egypt, as evidenced by the 26-28 September 2003 conference of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and renewed activism by the opposition, a clear effect of the war has been to reinvigorate debate about political reform. But so far, that debate has unfolded in ways that neither war advocates nor critics predicted.


Egypt has witnessed a series of different, at times competing, developments:

  • Strengthened opposition to U.S. policies. The deeply unpopular war, coming on top of the Palestinian intifada and Washington's perceived alignment with the Israeli government, has further mainstreamed opposition to U.S. policies in the Middle East. Individuals seeking to strike a more balanced and nuanced approach to the U.S. have been marginalised.

  • Emboldened challenges to the regime. Domestic criticism of the government is nothing new. But the failure of Egypt and of the Arab states generally to prevent the American invasion of Iraq, coupled with growing concern over economic issues - highlighted by the floating of the Egyptian pound in January 2003 - has prompted renewed challenge of the government's policies, notably those in the diplomatic arena. Far more openly than before, dissent has focused on the decisions and pronouncements of President Hosni Mubarak himself. Increasingly forthright charges that Egyptian decision-making is not truly sovereign but subject to American dictates are being voiced. Beyond the forcefulness of the critiques, what is also remarkable is the extent to which the regime has allowed them to be aired publicly. While there continue to be very tight controls on the political system, and regime opponents remain subject to arrest, the Egyptian press has provided an impressive amount of space for dissenting and critical discourses, and the regime has allowed some demonstrations.

  • Growing consensus in favour of political reform, but disagreement over its content. Both the regime and the opposition appear to recognise that substantial reform is necessary, and the war has prompted them to clarify their respective projects. Otherwise, a significant gap exists. While the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has appeared primarily to favour long-term changes in political culture, opposition viewpoints have converged on a more ambitious constitutionalist agenda, notably a demand for amendment of the undemocratic portions of the 1971 constitution governing presidential selection and prerogatives.

  • Realignment of the opposition. The old fault-line of Egyptian politics - the conflict between the Islamists and their adversaries - appears increasingly to be overshadowed by one in which the more pro-American wing of Egypt's elite is opposed to those deeply suspicious of U.S. motives in the region and critical of Egypt's alignment with Washington. Islamists have stated their willingness to put their more controversial societal projects to one side in order to ally with the secular opposition on two dominant themes: democracy and sovereignty, by which they mean Egypt's effective independence from the U.S., which intellectuals and activists perceive to be at growing risk. That said, the opposition remains mostly disconnected from ordinary citizens and hobbled by its other traditional shortcomings: lack of a credible and practical alternative program and internal divisions. Indeed, the political debates between regime and opposition have largely been conducted within the political and intellectual elite, with little participation by the wider population. For most Egyptians, post-war discontent has focused on bread-and-butter matters such as steep rises in the cost of living, changes in municipal services and relations with the police. Shared opposition to the American invasion of Iraq may at least temporarily have bridged it, but the historic divide between elite and mass still very much obtains.

The Egyptian state has demonstrated remarkable stability over the years, weathering intense regional and domestic crises. There is no evidence of an internal threat to that stability at present and, in particular, on all available evidence, no indication of a resurgence of violent Islamist extremism. At the same time, there is little doubt that the war exposed a confidence gap between citizens and government that could widen as economic conditions worsen. The spontaneous anti-war demonstrations in March 2003 also heralded a new player on the scene: young people unaffiliated to any organised political group but thirsting for an effective political voice. Braving police crackdowns, they demanded more political and economic justice both in the region and at home, and highlighted the dearth of institutional channels for political participation. The absence of effective means for citizens to express their will peacefully is potentially harmful to both citizens and the regime.

Political participation and economic development have been core issues of Egyptian political debate for at least two decades. What is new is the sense of urgency and the general consensus, subscribed to in varying degrees by all actors, that movement towards a more inclusive political system has become a national priority. The country’s elites (in government and in opposition) appear to have realised the importance of effectively incorporating Egypt’s youth. Now they face the daunting task of going beyond slogans and instilling a true sense of belonging and inclusion, a task that would greatly benefit from a real debate on the content of reform as opposed to a sterile confrontation of rival monologues.

Several important lessons suggest themselves:

  • If reformers within the regime and the NDP are to overcome internal resistance to political change, they will need to widen the circle of debate, involve the public and work constructively with significant segments of the opposition. Until very recently, the tendency among NDP reformers in particular has been to single out their reform agenda (to transform Egypt's "political culture") and dismiss all others, namely those involving the repeal of laws that constrain political, associational and press freedoms. In the same vein, by claiming to be the "party of all Egyptians", the NDP has evinced discomfort with genuine multiparty politics and sought to marginalise other reform forces. NDP reformers should recognise that debate with domestic political forces outside the party would be beneficial to development of their own reform program, and that for this to happen, concessions to the opposition parties' demand for progress towards a more liberal political system will be required. If, as the evidence of the NDP Conference on 26-28 September 2003 suggests, the NDP reformers have begun to rethink their attitudes in this respect, this is a welcome change that needs to be encouraged and developed.

  • The legacy of Egypt's present leadership will largely depend on its ability to develop the institutions and processes by which the next leader is chosen. Indeed, with the question of presidential succession now firmly on the political agenda, the regime needs to consider how to secure wider public consent for the election procedure and enact the reforms required to ensure that it is accepted as legitimate by public opinion.

  • For opposition parties to play an effective part in reforming the political system, they in turn will need to consider whether elements in the NDP reformers' program warrant their support. The succession debate is a case in point. Opposition discourse tends to overemphasise personalised criticism of Gamal Mubarak, the president's son, who many believe is being groomed for succession. Far more effective would be a critique that put the question of who will succeed President Mubarak aside and focused on how that person ought to be selected. In other words, the opposition needs to articulate the conditions that the selection of any successor would have to meet to be deemed legitimate. Otherwise, it will be difficult if not impossible for the opposition to develop a strategy of promoting reform that includes selective engagement with the NDP reformers in a manner that might both work in their own favour and enlarge and invigorate political debate.

  • Maintaining opposition unity is another important prerequisite for effective political activism. This will require opposition parties to distinguish between a (preferably small) number of essential reforms on which they can hope to agree and those secondary matters on which they can agree to disagree.

  • The U.S. administration should take seriously the evidence of political damage that American-Egyptian relations have sustained as a consequence of its regional policies, notably its perceived bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its decision to topple the regime in Iraq, and its heavy-handed admonitions to Egypt and other Arab countries to reform. Washington's policies, and the manner of their implementation, have embarrassed a friendly government, aggravated its domestic difficulties and undermined the U.S.'s self-proclaimed reform agenda. Significantly, there is far greater anger directed at President Mubarak for supporting the U.S. than there is at the U.S. for supporting Mubarak. For a growing section of the Egyptian intelligentsia and political class, the cause of domestic democratic reform is increasingly associated with opposition to, rather than support for, U.S. policies. Ultimately, the preconditions for the U.S. to recover credibility as a promoter of democracy with Egyptian public opinion have less to do with its actions regarding democracy than with its regional policies. 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 by both empowering the UN and accelerating transition to self-rule.

Cairo/Brussels, 30 September 2003

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