Responses to the US' call for democracy in the Middle East have been tepid at best. Arab governments feel provoked by US President George W. Bush, particularly as he announced his initiative with little regional consultation. Seeking to pre-empt US action, Egypt backed a counter-proposal, the Alexandria Declaration, at an Arab League summit last May, and followed this with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's recent announcement that he will allow opposition candidates to challenge him for the presidency. Is this just another stalling tactic, or an opening to real reform?
What is clear is that the recent elections in Iraq and Palestine, together with the swelling protests against Syria's distorting influence on Lebanon's democracy, have reinvigorated debate about political reform within Egypt. Members of the opposition have argued that the country is compelled to reform itself if it is not to have reform imposed from abroad.
Going further, the managing director of one newspaper claims that delaying political and constitutional reform as if it were a grant to citizens -- rather than their right -- would invite outside intervention in Egypt's domestic affairs. Arab democracy, he claims, has now become a domestic concern in the US, which will make it hard for American presidents to sweep the abuses of friendly Arab regimes under the rug, as they did in the past.
In the Arab world, authoritarian governments have deprived people of political, civil and intellectual freedoms for decades. For young citizens, particularly Islamists, normal channels of political participation have been closed off. As a result, they have gravitated towards underground extremist movements. Poverty, cronyism and official corruption heighten this popular frustration.
In this climate, the momentum for political and constitutional reform in Egypt is gathering pace. There is great nostalgia for the last liberal experiment (from the 1920s until the 1952 Revolution), which was a model for other Arab countries. Egypt's vibrant political life, press and liberal culture were then supported by an ideology of secular nationalism and improved religious harmony. There was a vibrant multiparty parliamentary democracy, with an independent judiciary and one of the world's earliest movements for female emancipation.
The achievements and aspirations of that liberal experiment today unite Egyptians who favor reform. They have even inspired the birth of a new political party, Hizb al-ghad (the Party of Tomorrow), founded by a young parliamentarian committed to democratic reform. The party denies the argument that democracy will foster Islamic extremism and claims that it is the delay of reform that presents a major source of danger.
Hizb al-ghad recently produced a 48-page draft constitution, aimed at reviving Egypt's stagnant political life. Its preamble, which opens with the phrase "We, the Egyptian people," can be read as a scathing attack on Egypt's current political order, and calls for an end to fear and despotism.
Among the document's proposals is an end to the emergency rule imposed since president Anwar Sadat's assassination in 1981. That seemingly endless "emergency" has resulted in the severe restriction, or even suspension, of individual and political liberties. Other provisions include curbing the far-reaching powers granted to the president in the 1971 constitution and introducing direct presidential elections with multiple candidates. The draft constitution would transform Egypt into a parliamentary republic.
The dominant National Democratic Party (NDP) takes a different view, arguing that political change can be achieved without constitutional reform. The NDP appears to believe that democratization must begin with changing the political culture and instilling democratic values. These steps would precede concrete legal and constitutional reforms, such as those proposed by Hizb al-ghad.
So far, however, the NDP has missed every opportunity imaginable to gain popular support by proposing a reform program designed to bring real increases in public participation. This is one reason why Mubarak's call to hold a multi-candidate presidential election failed to galvanize Egypt's electorate. The government, indeed, prefers to offer only hollow initiatives focused narrowly on the economy.
The conflict between the two visions of reform should not obscure the fact that there is a general consensus in Egypt: Substantial reform of some kind is necessary and long overdue. Most importantly, liberal voices in Egypt are not merely a response to US democratic initiatives. They are a homegrown challenge to an entrenched political order, and they are riding a powerful historical current.
Mona Makram-Ebeid, a former member of Egypt's parliament, is professor of political science at the American University, Cairo.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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