CAIRO—“We haven’t yet established a Jeffersonian democracy in Egypt,” Dr. Mohamed Kamal patiently explained to the journalists questioning his country’s recent record of police brutality, political repression, and jailing of journalists for criticizing the president and the National Democratic Party.
His answer was calibrated to assure the pushy Westerners that such a transformation cannot be completed overnight and that America ought to be careful what it wishes for in Egypt. He reminded us that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has a partner in calling for democratization: the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s powerful pro-Sharia Islamic radicals.
Kamal is exactly the sort of reformer the West seems anxious to find. A political-science professor who heads the American Studies program at Cairo University, he is a member of the Shura Council (Egypt’s Upper House of Parliament) and the party’s powerful General Secretariat. In 2005, he was appointed Secretary of Political Education and Training in the NDP. He is also a major figure in the party’s widely hailed “new guard,” a faction pushing for greater economic and political liberalization—just so long as it doesn’t empower Islamists.
The ninth General Conference of the NDP was marketed as the party’s next big step in opening itself up to the modern world, but it felt a little like an Eastern Bloc nation had hired a team of image consultants. The NDP replaced its usual two-story posters of Mubarak’s face with pictures of idealized common Egyptians in hardhats and nurse uniforms. The message: we may still be a dictatorship, but we are a dictatorship of the people. Long harangues about the triumphs of the party and the depredations of its enemies were exchanged for PowerPoint presentations designed to track Egypt’s economic growth over the last decade.
But painting a new face on an aging regime isn’t easy. Draping the concrete bleachers of Cairo Stadium in black chiffon failed to transform it into a professional venue. And in the VIP lounge, the party served its guests a stomach-churning mix of old and new: mango juice and lukewarm KFC chicken.
The makeover has even bigger challenges: the party still has trouble maintaining the pretense of democracy. On the first day of the convention, leaders scheduled votes on dozens of amendments to the agenda and constitution. The items were called out speedily, “Numbers 23, 42, 43, 50, 51, 56!” But before they were entirely shouted, all those in attendance raised their hands in assent. Before their hands were fully raised, the speaker declared the items passed. A default red checkmark immediately appeared on the projected television screens. Al Jazeera’s Arabic headline on the first day: “Farce!”
Economic development was the convention’s focus. Despite a 6.9 percent GDP growth rate and direct foreign investments increasing from $2 billion in 2004 to $6.1 billion in 2006, Egypt faces an economic crises: nearly a quarter of Egyptians live in poverty and unemployment is rising. The nation’s population has doubled in just 30 years and is projected to do the same over the next 30, prompting a minister of finance to push for “the two-child home, a model that is in the interest of Egyptian families and the Egyptian nation.” In his closing speech to the convention, the newly re-elected head of the party—and reigning president of Egypt—Hosni Mubarak, imported American rhetoric about “moving from a culture of welfare to work.” Al Jazeera’s Arabic headline, loosely translated: “Boring!”
The desire to incorporate the nation into the international neoliberal order animates other policy changes. Reform-minded party officials told me that Egypt sought to replace direct foreign aid from the United States with free-trade deals. Already Egypt is increasing its trade profile in the Mediterranean and setting itself up as a manufacturing shop for Europe.
But direct aid is only part of America’s investment in Egypt’s pro-Western authoritarianism. Since 1979, the U.S. has granted Egypt $1.3 billion annually in military aid. Owing their livelihood to the NDP’s American-financed largesse, the military forms the strongest block of support for Mubarak’s government and his crackdowns on the Brotherhood. The ascendance of Islamists into power would mean an immediate end to many military careers spent loitering the streets bumming cigarettes off foreigners. Unfortunately for the NDP, there is a clamor to introduce conditions for this aid.
Yuval Steinitz, a senior Israeli legislator from Likud has urged American senators to freeze $200 million in military aid until the State Department certifies that Egypt “has taken concrete and measurable steps to curb police abuses” and “enact a law protecting the independence of the judiciary.”
President Mubarak alluded to this effort in his speech to the conference: “We protect Egypt’s sovereignty and independence and reject any pressure and conditions, and we refuse any interference in our affairs.”
It’s not just old-liners who oppose these conditions. Even the exceedingly pro-American Kamal turned dark at their mention, saying that such a move by the United States would be met with a “sharp response” from the government. This reaction would be understandable for reasons of national pride alone, but Kamal believes conditions on aid would help Islamists. Many of Egypt’s lawyers are loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, which retains great popular support in the professional associations. An independent judiciary would be able to halt the NDP efforts to prevent the election of Islamists.
The NDP cannot help but mix together its self-interest as a ruling party with its justifiable fear that the Muslim Brotherhood would establish a closed Islamic state if allowed to rule. The party faces two choices: impose democratic reform and allow the Brotherhood more power or maintain the status quo and lose legitimacy, thereby granting more power to the Brotherhood.
The NDP is attempting to escape this double-bind by excluding the Brotherhood from Egyptian politics. So far this strategy has proven useless. In 2006, the government reaffirmed laws that make it a crime to “affront the president of the republic” or insult other organs of the regime. But the Brothers elude government authority by preaching their message in independent mosques and on the Internet.
Though the Brotherhood cannot form its own political party—religious parties are banned—and routinely faces mass arrests and an untrustworthy electoral system, its members captured 88 seats (20 percent) in Parliament running as unaffiliated candidates in 2005. Every new election increases their number, causing Egypt’s political elite to wonder whether their unapproved status isn’t a boon to them and should be repealed.
Gamal Mubarak embodies the contradictions in Egypt’s efforts to enact democratic reform while maintaining party control in the hands of non-Islamists. For the past three years, the president’s younger son has been groomed to succeed his father in office. Though his ascent within the party is driven by dynastic concerns, he is billed as a reformer, part of the “new guard.” His affinity for American style-politics is not implausible. He graduated from American University in Cairo and worked for Bank of America while pursuing a business degree.
Whereas Hosni clearly relishes his role as father of the Egyptian people, Gamal wants to be their first modern politician. Whereas the old guard would bully journalists, Gamal smiles and gently deflects their questions and accusations. Hosni models himself on old Soviet leaders; Gamal takes his cues from slippery and successful pols like Tony Blair. In a closed session, he admits that for democratic reformers, “In this region, what counts is not the first free and fair election, but the second.”
Without ever mentioning the Brotherhood, Gamal and other reformers stress that they “are begging for legitimate competition” in the political arena, defining “legitimate” as non-Islamist. Unfortunately, that competition is not forthcoming. Approved opposition parties only managed to carry 14 seats in the last Parliamentary election, and according to U.S. State Department officials in Egypt, genuinely liberal and democratic parties like the National Democratic Front, whose founders split from the NDP, are “interesting to talk to but politically irrelevant.” The NDF has no elected officials.
Islamists have also been encouraged by the “success” of America’s democratization project in the Middle East. Intransigent anti-Western leaders have gained in Lebanon, Iran, and the Palestinian
territories. Hamas’ success in Palestinian elections is a warning to those who encourage free elections without conditions, Egyptian leaders told us. You can have a liberal or a democratic order in the Middle East, but achieving both simultaneously is impossible in the short term.
As an addendum to news coverage about Pakistan’s state of emergency, Secretary Rice’s attempts to increase pressure on Mubarak and the NDP were replayed on Egyptian state-run television: “We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people. … People will watch what happens in Egypt, because this is an important country in the region, a region that is changing very much.”
American efforts at peacemaking are met with a shrug by Gamal Mubarak. “We doubt the U.S. can meet even the low expectation for [the upcoming talks at] Annapolis,” he told private audiences. He couldn’t help sticking the pin in American pretensions. Though he believes Rice was “genuine” in her intentions, he said, this is a “process that has been going nowhere for seven years.”
His desire to be a major figure in the region was on display in his press conference. He alternated between Arabic and fluent English, taking care to give pithy answers and calling on a UPI reporter even though officials had told Western observers that they could not ask him questions. But his party’s basic incompetence seemed to show him up. After Mubarak’s impressive performance, a team of laborers quickly grabbed his podium to return it to the main stage. For all its power in Egypt, the NDP could summon only one lectern for its great assembly.
And Gamal’s ambitions are obscured by the overwhelming presence of his father, the man who has ruled Egypt since 1981. In the hours before President Mubarak’s speech, the temperature of the city seemed to rise. Shopkeepers ignored the business of haggling and turned up their old televisions. Taxi drivers surveyed the sudden gridlock and sighed. At the stadium, VIPs from Sudan, Chad, and Saudi Arabia lined up in limos and minibuses to pay tribute, as did nearly every diplomat in the country.
The speech itself was long on policy and short on applause lines. The theme was Egypt’s need to “achieve social justice through economic development”—a motif popular among Western watchers of the Third World. But Mubarak’s efforts at persuasion translate into English as ominous imperatives: “The people must be convinced to have fewer children” and “For those who are deserving, subsidies will continue. For others, no.” He spoke in a strange, halting cadence, as if he had learned the rhythms of governance from Soviet patrons but now had to sing the hymns of global capitalism.
His voice booming across Cairo Stadium, the president seemed at pains to demonstrate his strength amid rumors of declining health. If he can last until 2011, his son’s election is nearly assured. If he dies, Egypt may be thrown into a constitutional crisis. Kamal’s hope, expressed after the conference, is that Egypt can continue to negotiate the narrow and dangerous path between authoritarianism and political Islam to democracy.
Cairo itself can tell an observer about the perils that Egypt has survived—and those it still faces. The taxis are 30-year-old Soviet Ladas that require repair every few days. The great majority of housing is composed of state-sponsored projects: great, characterless slabs of concrete placed along the highways, often hiding slums behind them. In alleyways all over the city, men can be found bowing their heads on prayer mats, then getting up to buy dates and mangos. In the hectic bazaar of Khan el-Khalili, merchants give Americans a practiced look that excites pity and fear in equal measure, one that says, “Give me your money, I desperately need it. If you don’t, something bad could happen to you.” Along one alley in downtown Cairo, I ask my cabdriver what some graffiti on the wall said. “Islam is the answer,” he informed me. It sounded like a harmless expression of devotion. It’s also the slogan of the Muslim Brotherhood.