Constitutional Change in Egypt

Reform Fever Induced by External Powers?

The Lebanese journalist Ghassan Moukahal analyses the motives behind President Mubarak's surprise opening up of presidential elections and the constitutional debate in Egypt.

photo: AP
The opposition has campaigned tirelessly for reform over the past few months - "Kifaya"-supporters demonstrate in front of Cairo University.

​​Has reform really started in Egypt and the Middle East? And can we date the beginning of this reform to President Mubarak's announcement that the constitution will be amended to allow for the president to be selected through competitive elections?

A few months ago Newsweek's cover article argued that meaningful reform in the region should begin with Egypt, not Iraq, or any other country for that matter. It is not a new argument. Egypt's cultural and political weight in the region dates back centuries.

Over the past few months President George W. Bush has been calling on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to take the initiative for reform in the region and most analysts agree that reform measures in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East have come in reaction to US calls.

Reforms as a crucial issue

This does not mean that there are no domestic pressures to reform Egypt and the region. Calls for democracy, power sharing, plurality and respect for human rights have frequently echoed around the region. Regardless of whether the motives for reform are internal or external, reform is a crucial issue and Mubarak's statement should be seen as nothing short of the declaration of a second republic.

The election of Egypt's president through public suffrage has never been a popular domestic demand but rather that of a small group of Egyptian intellectual and opposition figures. For the Egyptian public employment, improved living conditions and elimination of corruption and red tape are what matters.

But the fact that the government offered this concession on elections indicates its concern that the opposition would grow and attract the support of groups with less benign agendas.

President Mubarak has for some time been worried about the escalation of foreign pressures on countries in the region. Recently he told Bashar Al-Assad of Syria that it was best to comply with UN Resolution 1559. Damascus, he said, was in no position to withstand international pressure.

It should be remembered that the region has been grappling with modernisation since Bonaparte arrived in Egypt two centuries ago. But most of the reform that has taken place in the region since then has been a reaction to foreign influences rather than an outcome of domestic pressure.

No revolution for the sake of democracy

The Arabs have fought hard against foreign occupation and injustice. They moved from one revolution to another, always fighting against foreigners. They never mounted a popular revolution for the sake of change, domestic reform or democracy.

Since the mid-20th century change in this part of the world has involved military coups and most produced heavy-handed governments. It is not surprising, or even undesirable, therefore, for reform in the region to come as a result of international developments or foreign pressure.

Mubarak's request for a constitutional amendment establishing a direct and secret ballot as the means of electing the president is the boldest reform the region has seen in years. For decades it has been ruled by presidents elected through undemocratic methods.

Mubarak himself has been in power since 1981 and does not face any credible challenge in the September 2005 elections. Mubarak's surprise move came only a few days after Bush's call for Egypt to lead reform in the region.

Under pressure

The US administration has not been satisfied with the reform measures taken earlier or the reform conferences that were held in Egypt over the past two years. In initiating such a political change Mubarak weighed several considerations.

He knew the move would help improve relations with Washington at a time of international and regional tension and aid in establishing Egypt's role as a leader of regional reform, something the reform conference in Alexandria had failed to achieve.

He knew, too, that the move would take the wind out of the opposition's sails. The opposition has campaigned tirelessly for reform over the past few months.

And though the bulk of the Egyptian public has yet to be politicised the government feared that the increased audacity of the opposition could finally catch the imagination of a nation that has plenty to complain about. The opposition was becoming increasingly bold, having sensed that international and regional conditions are in its favour.

Mubarak and his advisers are confident that no rival candidate will be able to unseat the president in an election. One of the reasons for this confidence is that the Egyptian political system prevents other parties or politicians from becoming powerful enough to challenge the government.

Maintaining control

The regime maintains control of much of the media. And even within the ruling party no politician is prominent enough to challenge the president. It would be naïve to assume that Nawal El- Saadawi or Saadeddin Ibrahim could attract more than a fraction of the overall vote.

Most of those contesting the presidency will be doing so to make a point, not because they are credible candidates. It is unlikely that a figure will emerge in the next few months capable of posing a convincing challenge to the incumbent.

The opposition has complained that Mubarak's move is insufficient. If anything, this betrays their realisation that they have now lost the central plank of their months long campaign.

That the president will be elected by secret ballot deprives the military of any opportunity to control who eventually assumes the office. Now prominent politicians and businessmen will be able to run for the country's top office in future elections.

Gamal Mubarak, for one, would have the chance to run. No one can possibly object to him doing so in fair and free elections. The move will also satisfy such religious forces as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Copts, who have for long felt discriminated against.

Mubarak's move does not necessarily mean an end to the US campaign against his regime, for Washington is targeting not Mubarak as a person but the Egyptian state. Egypt retained its regional influence even after it signed a peace treaty with Israel, and its regional role has not been always beneficial to Israeli and US policies.

As for the Egyptian opposition it is likely to seek new demands allowing it to continue its anti-government campaign. The opposition will see Mubarak's recent move as a validation of its own power.

The opposition will also continue to follow closely future US reactions concerning reform. Washington, for its part, seems determined to tighten its control on Egypt's political scene, as intent as ever on redrawing the region's map.

Ghassan Moukahal

© Al-Ahram Weekly

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