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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Middle East & North Africa > North Africa > Egypt > Reforming Egypt: In Search of a Strategy

Reforming Egypt: In Search of a Strategy

Middle East/North Africa Report N°46 4 Oct 2005

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY AND RECOMMENDATIONS

Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election, a response to U.S. pressure, was a false start for reform. Formal pluralism has never seriously limited the dominance of President Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP); extension to the presidential level is a token so long as the opposition is too weak to produce plausible candidates. If the further reforms Mubarak has promised are to be meaningful, they should be aimed at recasting state/NDP relations and, above all, enhancing parliament's powers. As a start, Mubarak should ensure free and fair November legislative elections. The legal opposition must make the case for these changes and overcome its divisions if it is to become relevant and be able to compete with the Muslim Brothers for popular influence. The U.S. and others should support judicial supervision of elections, refrain from pressing for quick, cosmetic results, and back a longer-term, genuine reform process.

Mubarak's decision to revise the constitution to permit multiple-candidate presidential elections was unexpected, an effort to neutralise especially external demands for change with a dramatic move. But because it preceded reform at other levels, the legislation bore the stamp of entrenched NDP interests and bitterly disappointed the opposition parties. It did galvanise debate: several taboos went by the board as opposition movements demonstrated in disregard of the Emergency Law and opposition newspapers published outspoken criticisms of the government and the president.

But all this distracted attention from the need for deeper political reform. The outcome was a set of constitutional and legislative changes which fell far short of what was required. Instead of permitting an orderly opening up of political space after years of authoritarian rule over a lifeless political environment, it confirmed the NDP's domination and determination to allow no serious opposition within the system. The low turnout on 7 September 2005 suggests that Egyptians clearly saw it as such.

After this false start, it is urgent to persuade the authorities to chart a new course capable of recovering public confidence and to prepare the post-Mubarak transition. They are unlikely to be convinced by mere exhortations or doctrinaire criticisms. Opposition forces, therefore, need to reconsider their approach and overcome the shortcomings that their failure to influence developments since February has highlighted.

Outside the legal opposition parties, the running chiefly has been made by a new organisation, the Egyptian Movement for Change, known by its slogan Kifaya! ("Enough!"). But Kifaya has remained essentially a protest movement, targeting Mubarak personally and articulating a bitter rejection of the status quo rather than a constructive vision of how it might be transformed. This has harmed its relations with the parties and precluded an effective alliance for reform. Kifaya has agitated in the streets without seriously attempting to influence parliamentary deliberations on the government's agenda, while the opposition parties in parliament have lacked effective relays outside it and have been predictably outvoted by the NDP. The result is that neither wing of the secular opposition has been able to make appreciable gains, leaving the Muslim Brothers, despite the handicap of illegality, still the most substantial opposition force in political life.

Because the conditions for a genuinely contested presidential election simply did not exist, it would be a mistake for external actors, notably the U.S., to attach much importance to the way it was conducted. In the short term, progress hinges rather on the legislative elections that will be held in the next few weeks. The election of a more representative and pluralist People's Assembly in particular could become the point of departure for a fresh and more serious reform project, redound to the government's credit and provide an effective response to international pressures. It is doubtful that such an outcome can be secured by international monitors; the Egyptian judiciary is far better placed to oversee the elections effectively, as they demonstrated in 2000. It is important that they be authorised to play this role fully.

President Mubarak can do most to ensure that the legislative elections are conducted properly. In announcing his candidacy on 28 July he committed himself to an agenda of further reforms, and he has won a fifth term on this platform. Both internal opposition and external actors should seek to persuade him that it is in the national interest that a truly representative, legitimate parliament be elected and that he can most effectively preserve and even enhance his own authority and legitimacy, not to mention his place in history, by ensuring that this happens.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To the Egyptian Movement for Change and Other Extra-Parliamentary Groups Calling for Reform:

1.  Devise a strategy aimed at influencing both the main opposition parties and the governing authorities with a view to promoting genuinely representative, law-bound government and protecting themselves and associated movements against repression.

2.  Make the centrepiece of this strategy the demand for a genuinely democratic parliament and advocate this by:

(a)  advancing a practical, political case;

(b)  engaging reform-minded members of the ruling NDP as well as other parties with the aim of securing the broadest possible support; and

(c)  reaching out to other associations and movements of civil society, especially professional associations, syndicates, trade unions and women's groups.

3.  Reaffirm that the movement is not a political party, is not in competition with any existing political party and will not itself contest elections, and refrain from personal attacks on office-holders at any level.

To the Egyptian Government:

4.  Recognise that the most important reform required is of the national parliament, in the first instance the People's Assembly, so that it can play its full role by:

(a)  providing for the proper representation of the people and their orderly participation in the political system;

(b)  holding government accountable by critically scrutinising policy decisions and the performance of the government and individual ministers; and

(c)  supporting independence of the judiciary by acting as a counterweight to the executive.

5.  Take necessary measures to ensure that the coming legislative elections are free and fair, including:

(a)  authorising the judiciary, on conditions (including the duration of balloting) to be agreed with the Egyptian Judges Club, to supervise the election process across the country and at all levels;

(b)  authorising the presence of accredited representatives of all competing parties and independent candidates at polling stations and during the vote-counting; and

(c)  suspending all clauses of the Emergency Law that impede peaceful, constitutional political activity, including public meetings and demonstrations, for the duration of the election campaign.

6.  Recognise the need, as an integral part of the wider process of political reform, to regularise the status of the Muslim Brothers to permit them to participate in political life and take preliminary steps to prepare for this, notably by:

(a)  legalising the Brothers as an association and, pending this, ceasing the arbitrary arrest of Muslim Brothers on the grounds of membership of a banned organisation and releasing all Brothers currently detained on those grounds alone;

(b)  considering revisions to the laws on political parties and non-governmental organisations to allow the Muslim Brothers (and other non-violent organisations with a religious reference) to participate collectively in politics;

(c)  considering how state supervision of religious endowments and institutions can be dissociated from the governing party; and

(d)  engaging the leadership of the Muslim Brothers in an open dialogue on these issues.

7.  Repeal the Emergency Law without delay and allow the fullest public debate over and parliamentary scrutiny of any proposed anti-terrorism legislation.

To the Main Opposition Political Parties (the Wafd, the Nasserist Party, Tagammu', Al-Ghad):

8.  Contest the legislative elections on a "democratic unity" platform of political reform that prioritises the establishment of an empowered, representative parliament, by forming a united block (kutla) which:

(a)  endorses a single platform and electoral strategy;

(b)  negotiates agreement on which party's candidate will be backed in each constituency;

(c)  designates party members at local and regional levels as accredited representatives of the block's candidates to observe polling and vote-counting procedures;

(d)  seeks participation of the smaller legal parties in the block where possible; and

(e)  considers where appropriate the option of supporting genuinely pro-reform NDP candidates.

To the U.S. Government, the European Union and its Member States:

9.  Recognise that the advent of a genuinely representative and empowered national parliament is the fundamental strategic reform needed to permit real progress towards the rule of law and democracy and declare support for this objective.

10.  Recognise that the best way to ensure free and fair legislative elections in the coming weeks is for the Egyptian judiciary to exercise effective supervision of the entire process and for accredited candidates' representatives to witness the balloting and vote-counting and, accordingly:

(a)  encourage the Egyptian government to agree to this and to make the necessary arrangements with the Judges Club and the political parties to facilitate it; and

(b)  offer to provide technical and logistical support if this is requested.

Cairo/Brussels, 4 October 2005

 
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