The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Jackson Diehl outdoes himself

Sometimes you really have to wonder whether there's really a serious anti-Mubarak constituency in Washington, or whether it is simply Jackson Diehl's pulpit as deputy editorial editor at the Washington Post that makes it seem like it. For years now, Diehl has been the most vocal critic of the Mubarak regime and a gung-ho supporter of the Bush plan to democratize the Middle East. This has helped bring some much-needed attention to the situation in Egypt, something that local rights activists have been grateful for. But his latest column presents a problem:
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a former general, practices politics with martial crudeness, so his latest scheme for thwarting the Bush administration's pro-democracy agenda wasn't hard to discern. Under pressure from Washington to hold free and fair elections for his formerly rubber-stamp parliament, Mubarak set out this fall to crush his secular and liberal opposition, which has been growing in strength all this year, while allowing the banned Muslim Brotherhood to nominate a limited number of candidates and campaign relatively freely. The goal was to eliminate all moderate opposition and present the United States with a choice between his continuing rule -- and the eventual succession of his son Gamal -- and an Islamic fundamentalist movement.
OK, that's one popular interpretation of things, but the election is not necessarily a highly orchestrated plot. The secular and liberal opposition has not been growing in strength all year outside of Al Ghad, and that growth has been limited. Diehl does interpret what happened to Ayman Nour (remember him?) pretty correctly, though:
In the first of three rounds of voting last month, the strategy played out beautifully in the Cairo district of Ayman Nour, the liberal democratic runner-up to Mubarak in September's unfree presidential election and the greatest potential threat to his son. The president's party nominated a former state security police officer against Nour; the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate cooperatively withdrew and endorsed Mubarak's man. Some 2,000 government supporters were then illegally registered in the district and, in defiance of a court order, bused in to vote against the local favorite. Nour was declared the loser, and last week the government resumed his criminal prosecution on trumped-up forgery charges.
Diehl describes a crisis of legitimacy for the regime among "moderate Egyptians," whoever those are. I'm not so sure. Everyone is saying the elections' results will seriously affect the Gamal crowd's pull. They seem to believe that elections and democracy really have something to do with Gamal's presence at the helms of the NDP. Watch out for the Gamal Mubarak-led reform process restarting in full swing within a few months, or perhaps as early as 17 December when Baba Hosni is scheduled to make yet another major political speech (according to this morning's press). After all, when these elections are over Gamal will be the only important secular "reformist" politician with pull in parliament, now that Nour, Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour (who seems to now be challenging Wafdist leader Nomaan Gomaa, at last!) and Mona Makram Ebeid have lost their seats.

Anyway, he continues with following policy prescriptions:

Mubarak's 24-year-old autocracy probably won't collapse anytime soon -- but it has lost the support of most of the moderate Egyptians who hoped it would carry out a gradual political liberalization. That should force some hard decisions by the Bush administration, which also has banked on a regime-led reform; its characterization of the elections last week as "an important step on Egypt's path toward democratic reform" was ludicrous, and indefensible.

What to do? First, President Bush should refuse to be spooked by Mubarak's would-be boogeyman. Though the Muslim Brotherhood is indeed fundamentalist, it renounced violence decades ago and has joined with secular opposition groups in calling for a genuine parliamentary democracy in Egypt. "[W]e are serious about pushing forward the process of reform, actualising democratic transformation and building a development renaissance on all fronts," said an essay published in Al Ahram last week by a senior Brotherhood figure, Essam Erian. That's an agenda the administration should be able to endorse -- and promote as an example for other Islamic movements in the Middle East.

Second, the administration should make clear, starting now, that it won't tolerate a future undemocratic transfer of power from Mubarak to his son, or anyone else. The 77-year-old president is just beginning a new six-year term; the United States should explicitly link the continuation of the billions of dollars in official aid that prop up his regime to steps toward the democratic election of his successor. If Egyptian political life is freed, there will be plenty of good candidates by 2011; like Ayman Nour, they just won't be members of Mubarak's parliament.
Will Washington listen? I don''t know, but have some ideas about what they might do. For a future post.