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The Road to Egyptian Democracy

Amidst reports of violent confrontations and allegations of irregularities, Egypt's electorate voted in a national referendum in favor of the amendment allowing the multiparty election, Article 76. Opposition demonstrators rejecting the amendment were attacked and beaten in bloody clashes that drew criticism from local and international leaders, including President Bush who said, "The idea of people expressing themselves and in opposition to the government, then getting beaten is not our view of how a democracy ought to work. It's not the way that you have free elections."

Egyptian officials, who have condemned the attacks, deny involvement, saying western media reports were exaggerated. They say the clashes were between government supporters and the opposition group, Kifaya, which in Arabic means "enough". Kifaya Coordinator George Izhak says his group considers Article 76 unconstitutional. He adds, "When you undermine part of the constitution which says all citizens share equal rights and duties, and then you let him [President Mubarak] run as a party member without conditions, while you tell an independent candidate he is required to have the support of sixty-five lower house members, and twenty-five Senate members, and ten of fourteen provincial officials. Is this justice?"

Some analysts agree that these conditions will make it impossible for independent candidates, such as former parliament member Muhammad Farid Hasanain, to garner the political support necessary for the election. Amr Hamzawi of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace adds that it will be difficult to mount any serious challenge to President Mubarak's twenty-four year rule. He says, "Looking at the constitutional amendment itself, and taking into consideration the irregularities of the referendum day, both of them mean that what we have to expect in September 2005 is a clearly less transparent, less competitive, less monitored - maybe not monitored or partially monitored presidential election in which Mubarak is going to win."

But Egyptian officials insist the presidential elections will be transparent and monitored by the judiciary, as current rules dictate. While acknowledging the restrictions, Egypt's Ambassador to the U-S Nabil Fahmi explains why it will be more difficult for independent candidates to run. Ambassador Fahmi says, "The reason being is that they want to create the energy for political transformation through political parties and declared programs, not simply somebody who announces he's running and is able to finance his way and run a campaign. But it's not true that for this election it is difficult for political parties to run. They have complete freedom to nominate whoever they want, and there are no conditions, no requirements beyond that they be legal."

At the same time, Egyptian officials say democracy must come from inside the country. Some analysts see this as a ploy by President Mubarak to appease the United States while maintaining his grip on power. Ambassador Nabil Fahmi disagrees, saying President Mubarak planted the seeds for democracy six years ago before President Bush's reelection. He adds, "The fact that President Bush is also raising the freedom agenda is fine with us. We have no problem with that. There maybe some difference in terms of the pace, there may be some difference in terms of what all the details are, but in essence we have agreement that we both want to move toward more democracy. We want to do it as quickly as we can."

Some opposition leaders accuse the Bush administration of waffling on this issue in favor of historically strong bilateral ties. Others, like Egyptian-American democracy activist Saad-Eldin Ibrahim remain hopeful that the west will continue to support the Egyptian people. Mr. Ibrahim says, "Now it is up to other western democracies to get their voice heard that they are on the side of the Egyptian people."

Political observers point out that instead of focusing on the presidential voting, opposition parties may now be looking to the parliamentary elections in November. But opposition leader Ayman Nour says it is premature to speculate on the outcome of September's balloting. He adds, "The Egyptian street refuses any further extensions for President Mubarak after twenty-four years in power, and refuses to bequeath this position to President Mubarak's son. Egyptian citizens have been dealt a blow; and we are pained that this regime and its symbols have remained in power for more than twenty-four years."

Many observers remain skeptical. And while some western analysts believe that change may occur during the parliamentary elections in November, Egyptian observers and analysts foresee popular unrest should Mr. Mubarak remain in power or decide to bequeath it to his son.

This report was originally broadcast on VOA News Now's Focus program. For other Focus reports, click here