Reducing tensions as Ethiopia Moves to Fill its Blue Nile Dam
Reducing tensions as Ethiopia Moves to Fill its Blue Nile Dam

Reforming Egypt: In Search of a Strategy

Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election, a response to U.S. pressure, was a false start for reform. Formal pluralism has never seriously limited the dominance of President Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP); extension to the presidential level is a token so long as the opposition is too weak to produce plausible candidates.

Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election, a response to U.S. pressure, was a false start for reform. Formal pluralism has never seriously limited the dominance of President Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP); extension to the presidential level is a token so long as the opposition is too weak to produce plausible candidates. If the further reforms Mubarak has promised are to be meaningful, they should be aimed at recasting state/NDP relations and, above all, enhancing parliament's powers. As a start, Mubarak should ensure free and fair November legislative elections. The legal opposition must make the case for these changes and overcome its divisions if it is to become relevant and be able to compete with the Muslim Brothers for popular influence. The U.S. and others should support judicial supervision of elections, refrain from pressing for quick, cosmetic results, and back a longer-term, genuine reform process.

Mubarak's decision to revise the constitution to permit multiple-candidate presidential elections was unexpected, an effort to neutralise especially external demands for change with a dramatic move. But because it preceded reform at other levels, the legislation bore the stamp of entrenched NDP interests and bitterly disappointed the opposition parties. It did galvanise debate: several taboos went by the board as opposition movements demonstrated in disregard of the Emergency Law and opposition newspapers published outspoken criticisms of the government and the president.

But all this distracted attention from the need for deeper political reform. The outcome was a set of constitutional and legislative changes which fell far short of what was required. Instead of permitting an orderly opening up of political space after years of authoritarian rule over a lifeless political environment, it confirmed the NDP's domination and determination to allow no serious opposition within the system. The low turnout on 7 September 2005 suggests that Egyptians clearly saw it as such.

After this false start, it is urgent to persuade the authorities to chart a new course capable of recovering public confidence and to prepare the post-Mubarak transition. They are unlikely to be convinced by mere exhortations or doctrinaire criticisms. Opposition forces, therefore, need to reconsider their approach and overcome the shortcomings that their failure to influence developments since February has highlighted.

Outside the legal opposition parties, the running chiefly has been made by a new organisation, the Egyptian Movement for Change, known by its slogan Kifaya! ("Enough!"). But Kifaya has remained essentially a protest movement, targeting Mubarak personally and articulating a bitter rejection of the status quo rather than a constructive vision of how it might be transformed. This has harmed its relations with the parties and precluded an effective alliance for reform. Kifaya has agitated in the streets without seriously attempting to influence parliamentary deliberations on the government's agenda, while the opposition parties in parliament have lacked effective relays outside it and have been predictably outvoted by the NDP. The result is that neither wing of the secular opposition has been able to make appreciable gains, leaving the Muslim Brothers, despite the handicap of illegality, still the most substantial opposition force in political life.

Because the conditions for a genuinely contested presidential election simply did not exist, it would be a mistake for external actors, notably the U.S., to attach much importance to the way it was conducted. In the short term, progress hinges rather on the legislative elections that will be held in the next few weeks. The election of a more representative and pluralist People's Assembly in particular could become the point of departure for a fresh and more serious reform project, redound to the government's credit and provide an effective response to international pressures. It is doubtful that such an outcome can be secured by international monitors; the Egyptian judiciary is far better placed to oversee the elections effectively, as they demonstrated in 2000. It is important that they be authorised to play this role fully.

President Mubarak can do most to ensure that the legislative elections are conducted properly. In announcing his candidacy on 28 July he committed himself to an agenda of further reforms, and he has won a fifth term on this platform. Both internal opposition and external actors should seek to persuade him that it is in the national interest that a truly representative, legitimate parliament be elected and that he can most effectively preserve and even enhance his own authority and legitimacy, not to mention his place in history, by ensuring that this happens.

Cairo/Brussels, 4 October 2005

Video / Africa

Reducing tensions as Ethiopia Moves to Fill its Blue Nile Dam

With rains swelling the Blue Nile, Ethiopia is just weeks away from beginning to fill the massive dam it is building. Egypt and Sudan demand that it not do so without an agreement. All three countries urgently need to make concessions for a deal.

Reducing tensions as Ethiopia Moves to Fill its Blue Nile Dam

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