The upcoming elections for parliament this year and for president in 2011 have raised real prospects for change in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak seems determined to cling to power or engineer a succession to his son Gamal, and left to his own devices, he likely will manipulate the elections to ensure his desired outcome. But, for the first time in decades, voters see an opportunity to have a real choice at the ballot box, and pro-democracy groups are determined to give them that choice and are better prepared than ever to press for genuine elections.
When Mohamed ElBaradei, former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, expressed interest last month in running for president, he was treated to a volley of attacks in the pro-regime press. The intensity of these attacks reflected the concern President Mubarak and his National Democratic Party (NDP) have about ElBaradei's potential candidacy. ElBaradei is a rare candidate with the stature to pose a serious challenge to Mubarak in a fair vote.
But the election laws are stacked against ElBaradei's candidacy. He would have to lead a legally registered political party for one year before the presidential election or run as an independent with the endorsement of a significant portion of members of the national parliament and local councils, which are dominated by the NDP. He therefore has called for reforms to open nominations for president to all Egyptians and put elections under the full supervision of independent judges. Such reforms are fundamental to make Egypt's upcoming elections credible.
ElBaradei has also joined the growing demands in Egypt for international observers to monitor the upcoming elections. While only a handful of groups called for international election observers in 2005, these calls have now spread across the spectrum of opposition and independent pro-democracy groups, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Kefaya (enough).
Pro-democracy groups meanwhile have gained the experience and capacity to conduct large-scale election monitoring. They fielded thousands of monitors for the 2005 parliamentary elections, 2007 elections to the Shura Council, the upper house of Parliament, and municipal elections in 2008. They are adapting new technology for their election observation efforts, and they also have begun to organize voter registration drives. Yet, the challenges they face are significant. Independent groups still are denied permission to enter polling stations, and the Egyptian government holds out the threat that it may block foreign funding, including U.S. assistance, to domestic election monitors.
The demands for genuine elections in Egypt pose a clear-cut choice for the Obama Administration--whether to side with the Egyptian government or with the Egyptian people. Silence will in effect serve as an endorsement of the status quo--of the current electoral system that lacks credibility, denies voters a real choice, and ensures victory to Mubarak and the NDP, no matter how unpopular they are. Egyptian voters are unlikely to exercise a meaningful right to vote unless U.S. influence is brought to bear on Mubarak to remove the barriers to candidates such as ElBaradei, give independent judges the authority to supervise elections, permit domestic election monitors to operate unimpeded, and invite international organizations to observe Egypt's upcoming elections.
President Barack Obama, in his address to the Muslim world in Cairo last June, affirmed his commitment to "governments that reflect the will of the people." Now is the time to make good on that commitment by exerting U.S. influence on Mubarak to allow fair elections. Rather than wait for another flawed election to take place in Egypt, the Obama Administration needs to act now, while there is still time for Egypt to give its voters a real choice.