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Panel Discussion on Egypt's Parliamentary Elections Held by VOA

(l-r) Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Karim Haggag and Amb. Edward Walker at the VOA panel discussion on upcoming parliamentary elections in Egypt, 16 Nov 2010

On 16 November, VOA hosted at its headquarters in Washington, D.C., a panel discussion exploring the implications of Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections (28 November). Its participants examined some of the particulars of the current parliamentary election process. They also looked at the bigger picture: what is at stake for next year's presidential election? Will opposition parties boycott as threatened? And what do these elections mean for democracy in the region?

Please see below for a transcript of closing remarks by the panelists, as well as audio and video of the entire discussion (approximately 52:00).

The panelists were:

- Karim Haggag - Director, Egyptian Press and Information Office, Washington

- Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim - Egyptian human rights and democracy activist

- Amb. Edward "Ned" Walker - former U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel

- Elizabeth Arrott - VOA Cairo Bureau Chief (via Skype from Cairo)

The panel was moderated by Mohamed Elshinnawi, a 30-year veteran of reporting from and about the Middle East for VOA. In response to Mr. Elshinnawi's final question about the possible impact of the elections in Egypt in terms of leading a democracy movement in the Arab world, the panelist offered the following opinions:

Karim Haggag

Panel Discussion on Egypt's Parliamentary Elections Held by VOA
Panel Discussion on Egypt's Parliamentary Elections Held by VOA

I think the importance of these elections is that they come in the context of a changing Egypt. Egypt is changing. Whereas a few decades ago, Egypt was very much a one-party state, now you have direct elections for the office of the president, open to any political party that has a minimal representation in parliament.

Whereas a few decades ago, freedom of speech in Egypt was merely a slogan, today, if we actually read the Egyptian press, you will find very few red lines there.

A few decades ago, Egypt was very much a centrally-managed state dominated economy, now I think there has been a very remarkable economic transformation that has provided increased opportunities for the Egyptian people.

These elections do matter. They matter for the future of Egypt. Egypt faces enormous challenges, primarily or foremost of which is to sustain that high-level growth to provide jobs for Egyptians. But reform is a difficult task. There will be many difficult trade-offs to be made. And I think that the system that you have in Egypt affords the elected representatives of Egyptians - and that includes the office of the president – to engage in a political process that can mediate those trade-offs. There will be very difficult choices for the Egyptian people. They have to make those choices through their elected representatives. And this is why these election matter.

Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim

Panel Discussion on Egypt's Parliamentary Elections Held by VOA
Panel Discussion on Egypt's Parliamentary Elections Held by VOA

With appreciation of what my colleagues said, we have to distinguish between economic health of a country, and its political and social life. And even though the growth rates have been truly remarkable – the seven percent figure that we heard – yet the past few years witnessed unprecedented riots for bread – bread, the basic staple of daily life.

We [have] witnessed in Egypt more protests, more demonstrations by workers, in the last two years than in the previous ten years combined. When people riot for bread, when workers demonstrate and protest, when youngsters demonstrate and get killed, as we have seen in Alexandria two months ago and, then, last week, it says that there is something wrong, and this is, really, what we should be focusing on.

And, therefore, this coming election should, I hope, produce a kind of parliament that will take into account all of these cries and screams by the Egyptian people, and bring back social and psychological balance to our population, and not just merely economic or financial growth. The disparity between the rich and the poor has widened as never before.

Amb. Edward Walker

Panel Discussion on Egypt's Parliamentary Elections Held by VOA
Panel Discussion on Egypt's Parliamentary Elections Held by VOA

I think you have to look at this in terms of the election cycle, not just this particular election. You would want to take it all the way through to the decision as to who is going to run for president, how the presidential election is carried out, what is the platform and how are the platforms being expressed by the various candidates, if there are various candidates.

This can be a major step forward for Egypt in terms of building its own capacity, its economic capacity, as people have greater confidence in the future. Right now, there are lots of questions, lots of questions need to be answered for a strong economy to develop. People, particularly business people, like to know what the situation will be. Are they going to face a major change or any kind of change in the direction of the government of Egypt?

So those questions will start to be answered through this next election cycle, and I think it will point in the direction that Egypt is going to be taking in the future, and I certainly hope it’s a positive direction, one that [will represent] growing acceptance of the voice of the people in both economic and political terms.

I am highly, highly optimistic about Egypt. I have great love for the country. I have spent some wonderful years there. I really appreciate the Egyptian people and their resilience, and I am sure that they will be the best judges of what is to come in the future, not somebody sitting in Congress or the White House.

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