Egypt: Settling for Stagnation

When pro-democracy leaders in Egypt start sounding nostalgic for George W. Bush, you might suspect that something is amiss. After all, only 22% of Egyptians had a favorable view of the United States by the end of Bush's presidency, according to the Pew Global Attitudes survey. President Barak Obama's speech in Cairo to the Muslim World in June was received enthusiastically. But a poor follow up has dashed the hopes raised in that speech.
Discussions with a range of opposition, civil society and media leaders during our recent visit to Cairo explain why. The U.S. Embassy decided earlier this year to seek the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity's approval for all grants to civil society, even though this ministry frequently impedes the work of independent groups. For example, a U.S. grant to an Egyptian organization to observe the 2008 municipal elections was blocked for nine months, until the elections were over.

President Obama's silence on issues of human rights and political reform in his two meetings with President Hosni Mubarak has produced further disappointment. Although President Bush, several Egyptian dissidents told us, backed away from his earlier calls for political reform in Egypt, he at least spoke out for the rights of Egyptians. President Obama, in contrast, has neglected to follow up on the commitment to democracy he expressed in his June speech, leading a prominent researcher to comment that President Obama's remarks on democracy seemed to be made "for Americans, not for us."

Egyptian pro-democracy activists are clear that the struggle for democracy in Egypt is their mission, not the United States'. And they have made some progress on their own, for instance in pushing the bounds of free expression. But they don't expect to make much progress in improving Egypt's elections unless the international community backs them up.

Egypt will hold elections for parliament next year and for president in 2011. Unless the electoral process is improved, the upcoming elections probably will be as flawed as the last elections. Hundreds of would-be candidates were arrested in the run-up to the 2008 municipal elections, and judges, who had exposed much of the fraud in the 2005 parliamentary elections, no longer have authority to supervise the process. Moreover, al Ghad party leader Ayman Nour, who ran against Hosni Mubarak for president in 2005, is still being harassed. His party offices were raided on October 21, a week after he joined with a range of opposition forces to announce an "anti-succession" campaign against Hosni Mubarak's possible move to install his son Gamal as his successor. On November 4, the same day as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to Cairo, Ayman Nour was barred from traveling to the United States.

Pro-democracy groups are pressing for fair elections next year. They are already starting voter registration drives and making plans to monitor the upcoming elections. They are looking to the U.S government to give "friendly advice" to its ally Mubarak to let them move ahead with these plans, allow international election observers, and otherwise make the electoral process democratic.

Supporters of the Obama Administration's policy toward Egypt argue that by improving the tone of U.S.-Egyptian relations, it will create a better environment for both securing Egypt's cooperation on regional security challenges and addressing issues of human rights and political reform. The tone of relations has certainly improved, but the Administration has yet to take up these issues seriously.

The U.S. government needs to press for progress on human rights and political reform in Egypt, because they reflect the universal values enunciated by President Obama in Cairo and because they can alleviate the risks of instability associated with Egypt's current political stagnation. After 30 years of Mubarak's rule, the Egyptian government today is ill equipped to fulfill the aspirations of its people, particularly the nearly one-third of the population who are under the age of 25. As one opposition party leader reminded us, "stagnation is not stability."

Thomas A. Dine is Vice Chairman of Freedom House. Daniel Calingaert is Freedom House Deputy Director of Programs.