Bush's war and the Egyptian elections

Mubarak's rigged victory shows that right-wing predictions of an "Arab spring" were wishful thinking.

Published September 19, 2005 7:11PM (EDT)

The groundhog did not see its shadow in Egypt last week.

Hosni Mubarak's victory in the Egyptian presidential election of Sept. 7 was about as surprising as a Las Vegas casino fleecing its customers at the roulette tables. Egyptians joked that the only requirement for winning the presidency was 24 years of prior experience. What was surprising was that only 23 percent of the eligible voters bothered to come out for the country's first multiparty elections for the executive since 1952. Despite the conviction of supporters of the Bush administration that Bush's invasion and bloody occupation of Iraq would somehow suddenly make Middle Easterners yearn to join the American Republican Party, the "Arab spring" of political liberalization discerned by the Wall Street Journal has yet to materialize.

In the seven months running up to the presidential elections on Sept. 7, the burly old general Mubarak suppressed popular demonstrations by the Kifayah ("Enough!") reform movement, which demanded an end to emergency powers that the government uses to suppress civil liberties. He also ordered the police to bust up protests by the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned hundreds of its members and leaders. By May 2005, he had thrown 754 members in prison for participating in peaceful protests. He excluded the party, among the more popular in the country, from running for office.

Mubarak tossed Ayman Nour, the popular leader of a major new recognized political party, al-Ghad ("Tomorrow") into prison for 45 days on trumped-up charges. In part because of the intervention of U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he released Nour but kept the indictment hanging over Nour's head. Al-Ghad is devoted to secularism, free markets and improving the lot of the poor, according to its platform. Mubarak finally relented and allowed other candidates to run against him in the presidential elections, but only those from parties approved by his own party. His landslide victory in a lackluster election that allowed only 18 days for campaigning was produced by less than a quarter of the eligible voters.

The bottom line: The outcome of the Sept. 7 elections was never in doubt, a fact recognized by Kifayah, which called for a boycott. The boycott received far more support than did Nour.

How did the Bush administration reply to this litany of authoritarian actions and sad parodies of "democracy"? Bush called Mubarak to congratulate him on his "victory"! Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan was trotted out to say, "This election represents an important step toward holding fully free and fair competitive multiparty elections, and both supporters and opponents of the government have told us that it has occasioned a vigorous national debate in Egypt on important issues." Contrast these reactions to the Bush administration's dismissal of Iran's June presidential election as "illegitimate." In Iran, the ideological difference among the candidates was if anything greater than among the Egyptian candidates. The turnout was more than twice what it was in Egypt, and the president won by a smaller margin. It is true that the Iranian elections were marred by dirty tricks, exclusion of liberal reformists from running, and very possibly fraud. But it is not entirely clear that the Egyptian elections, marred by voting abuses, were any better. To most people in the world, Bush's selective outrage about elections is so egregiously hypocritical that it appears he is intentionally flaunting it.

Western powers have been pushing Egypt on the issue of democracy for centuries, but "democracy" has usually been a cover for Western dominance. In response, Egyptian elites have insisted on doing things their own way. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded the country in 1798 on the pretext of "liberating" it from tyranny. (Egypt was at that time a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire.) Bonaparte set up a National Assembly of Egyptian clerics, though he made the important decisions, including the imposition of crushing tax increases. The ungrateful Egyptians revolted against the French several times and intrigued with the British and the Ottoman sultan to get them out of the country, with success coming in 1801.

In 1866 the Ottoman viceroy of the time instituted a harmless national assembly, which he appointed. But in the late 1870s the delegates began agitating for genuine elections and parliamentary control over the budget, and they succeeded in forcing relatively open elections for the National Assembly in 1881. The British and French, afraid that a sovereign parliament might default on the massive high-interest loans that the modernizing viceroys had contracted for, agitated against the new order. The British also coveted Egypt for its lucrative cotton production and for the Suez Canal, which from its opening in 1869 became the primary means for Great Britain to access its colonial Indian possessions.

In 1882 the British invaded to overthrow the parliamentary reform movement, and the Europeans ruled the country directly until 1922, careful to ensure that the London bondholders got paid by the sweat of Egyptian peasant labor. Needless to say, they did not allow anything like genuine elections during those decades. Present-day complaints by Western intellectuals that the Middle East has resisted democracy are the height of hypocrisy, given how many times Western powers intervened to stamp out any incipient signs of parliamentary sovereignty that might challenge European economic and political dominance.

After experiments with constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary life mainly dominated by the big landlord class from the 1920s on, Egypt underwent a military coup in 1952. The military-dominated republic -- which sent the playboy King Farouk into exile, challenged continued British hegemony over the country, and pursued land reform and socialist industrialization -- is with us to this day. The rural middle class created by the land reforms has been a backbone of the state. Hosni Mubarak is an air force general trained in Moscow when Egypt was allied with the old Soviet Union. Despite the camouflage of business suits and the window-dressing of a national Parliament, Egypt remains a military dictatorship 53 years after Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser and other young officers overthrew the corrupt big landlords of the old Wafd Party.

At some 77 million, Egypt is the most populous Arab country, making up an estimated third of the Arab world. It was the most formidable of the military enemies that Israel faced, and in both the Suez War of 1956 and the October War of 1973 its military acquitted itself better than its enemies had expected. In 1978 Egyptian President Anwar Sadat concluded the Camp David peace accords with Israel and the United States. Israel thus achieved the neutralization of its most important Arab antagonist. In return, Egypt got back all the territory Israel had conquered from it in the Sinai in 1967 and received a pledge of $2 billion in aid every year from the United States. Half of that aid was military, but had to be spent on American weaponry. Even the half dedicated to civilian purposes had to employ American companies, contractors and materiel.

The aid reinforced the Egyptian regime but did not help economic development. The Egyptian economy has for the most part stagnated in the face of high population growth and the "socialist hangover" of high tariffs and bloated state-owned companies. Sadat paid for the new alliance with the U.S. and Israel with his life, when the radical al-Jihad al-Islami, with which Ayman al-Zawahiri was involved, and the Gamaa Islamiyah of the blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, arranged for his assassination.

Beginning in the 1970s, Sadat had allowed carefully controlled parliamentary elections. His own National Democratic Party was founded in 1978 and has dominated Parliament ever since. The lower house, or People's Assembly, has 454 seats. (The upper house is an advisory body.) In the 2000 parliamentary elections, the NDP garnered 388 seats in the People's Assembly. The leftist Tagammu Party got six seats, the New Wafd Party of the secular-leaning middle class received seven seats, the Nasserists (Arab nationalists and socialists) received three. Some 37 seats went to independents. Another 10 were appointed by the president. No one believes that the NDP is so popular that it would naturally receive 85 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections. It is not, however, impossible that it would receive a majority even in a fair election. In one recent opinion poll, 64 percent of Egyptians said that they were satisfied with their government. The NDP is a "goat barrel" (the rural equivalent of a pork barrel) party, doling out services and resources to its constituents in rural areas and among some urban groups.

The Egyptian system, like the French, has both a president and a prime minister. But Parliament is far less powerful in Egypt. In the old days it nominated the president, on whom a national referendum was held. He did not have to run against an opponent, and it was not clear how you could lose in the referendum if you were the only candidate. Hosni Mubarak won four six-year terms this way. As democracy, the system was largely a façade, though parliamentary deputies did often in some way represent their districts.

In May of this year, a national referendum approved a constitutional amendment that set up presidential elections as an actual election, with more than one candidate allowed. Only parties certified by Parliament, however, could field presidential candidates. Parliament in turn was massively dominated by the NDP of Hosni Mubarak. He warned last March, "If we open the door completely before the people, there will be chaos." So the dominant party got to decide against whom it would run its candidate. This way of proceeding is not so different from that in Iran, where the dominant clerics vet presidential candidates.

Egypt and Iran are undemocratic in ideologically opposite ways. In Iran, the clerics exclude secular candidates from running for president. In Egypt, the NDP forbids the Muslim Brotherhood to run candidates, not only for the presidency but for any political office. Egyptian law makes it illegal for a political party to be based on religion, just as Iranian law outlaws secular parties.

Mubarak agreed to run against other candidates for a number of reasons. He faces a restive Muslim fundamentalist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, that continually detracts from his legitimacy. He often deals with the Brotherhood by simply rounding up the more vocal leaders and jailing them for a while. Winning a real election would counter the Brotherhood's charges that he is little more than a (secular humanist) military dictator and American puppet. The Egyptian middle classes, many of them highly educated and with entrepreneurial ambitions, chafe at the government's heavy-handed interference in the economy (mostly for protectionist purposes), which they believe limits their opportunities. They and other groups have formed the Kifayah ("Enough!") movement, which has held protests against the regime.

The new middle class is represented by the New Wafd Party and by its new competitor, the Tomorrow (al-Ghad) Party. The government recognized al-Ghad in October 2004; many observers believed it did so to weaken the Wafd and to split the urban middle-class vote. Ayman Nour, a cheeky activist lawyer who leads the al-Ghad, uses modern campaigning techniques and gives blunt speeches about Mubarak that would never have been tolerated in the 1980s. He said of the presidential election, "It will be neither free nor fair." As it is, Nour was imprisoned for a couple of months in the winter of 2005, but was let go and allowed to run for president because of the resulting outcry in Egypt and abroad. He won 8 percent of the vote. American pressure is also no doubt behind Mubarak's new openness to pluralism, but for the moment, he has finessed Washington with merely cosmetic changes.

Critics have long suspected Mubarak of planning to install his son, Gamal, in the presidency after him. Sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim once quipped that the republican dictators of the Middle East, most of whom were grooming sons to succeed them, had invented a new form of government, "monarpublicanism," which has the dynastic aspect of a monarchy and the outer trappings of a civil republic. Mubarak, thin-skinned about his family and his son's ambitions, tossed Ibrahim into prison in 2000, sentencing him to seven years, but released him early in the face of international pressure.

The president's touchy overreaction demonstrates pretty clearly that Ibrahim was perfectly correct about the plan. At the very least, it seems clear that Mubarak intends on perpetuating into the far future the dominance of the military and the National Democratic Party, which, like most other such authoritarian organizations, contains three lies in its name, being neither truly national, nor in any sense democratic, nor even really a party as opposed to a set of Mubarak cronies.

The United States has only limited leverage with Egypt. It supposedly gives the country about $2 billion a year in aid, but the military half of that sum is really just a subsidy to the U.S. weapons industry, since it has to be spent on U.S. arms. A lot of the civilian half of the sum also makes its way back to the United States. The regime likes getting the money and arms but knows that they are a bribe to keep Egypt at peace with Israel, and that they are therefore unlikely to be withdrawn, lest the large and important Arab state of Egypt become unstable or begin to play the spoiler. The United States does have the ability to pressure the Mubarak government behind the scenes, which is the only tactic that has much hope of success. After so many decades under direct or indirect British rule, Egyptians bristle at being ordered about by Western powers like so many waiters in a kebab restaurant and would stubbornly dig in their heels in the face of direct pressure. The Egyptian public would suddenly rally around the Mubarak regime if it looked as though it were being targeted by neo-imperialists.

In any case, the U.S. government appears to be ambivalent about pushing Egypt too abruptly toward true democracy. The career State Department Foreign Service officers generally fear that such a move would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power. Such fears may be overdrawn, but in Washington only the more reckless neocons want to take such a risk. Given how badly their gamble in Iraq went awry, they have lost much of their influence, in any case.

Egypt watchers may as well take a nap for a while, since Mubarak is unlikely to permit much change anytime soon, Bush or no Bush. A people who figured out how to get rid of Napoleon Bonaparte within a year is hardly flummoxed by a mere Texas poseur. Perhaps the Wall Street Journal will be so kind as to wake us up when spring comes.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Egyptian Protests George W. Bush Iran Iraq Middle East National Security