One giant leap for democracy in Egypt

Despite the arrests and suppression of dissent, the current presidential race shows how far the country has come

One giant leap for democracy
Moises Saman/The New York Times

Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow last February, following massive protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was stunning in its seemingly definitive resolution: the people rose up; the dictator stepped down.

In reality what was accomplished was more of a leadership shuffle than a political transformation. Mubarak was gone. But the military, through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), held on to power, as it has since ousting the monarchy more than 50 years ago.

“The revolution has so far managed to get rid of the dictator but not the dictatorship,” Maikel Nabil Sanad, an Egyptian activist and blogger, wrote last March in an essay titled “The army and the people were never one hand” (which skewered the Tahrir chant “The army and the people—one hand”). The essay promptly got him arrested and sentenced by a military court to a three-year prison term for “insulting the armed forces.” Sanad was pardoned and released this January, after some 300 days in jail, including more than 100 on a hunger strike. He is one of more than 12,000 Egyptians convicted in military tribunals since Mubarak’s departure—all evidence of the gulf between what seemed within reach during the revolution and what has in fact changed.

This month, however, there is a chance that Egypt’s transition toward democracy will take a genuine step forward. Presidential elections will be held on May 23 and 24, with a runoff vote on June 16 and 17, if necessary. The SCAF has promised to cede power to a civilian presidency on June 30. “It will be really the first competitive presidential election in the history of the country,” says Mustapha Al-Sayyid, a political science professor at the American University of Cairo. “It is very important.”

Yet to Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian revolution has “unpackaged the box of horrors, and everything has leapt out.” All the political forces and ideologies that had been suppressed during Mubarak’s dictatorship are now jostling for power. And indeed the 13 men contesting the presidency represent a broad range of Egypt’s post-revolutionary political currents.

Frontrunners include Amr Moussa, who served as Egypt’s minister of foreign affairs under Mubarak from 1991 to 2001, and was then secretary-general of the Arab League, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a moderate Islamist who quit the powerful Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is running its own candidate, Mohamed Morsy, the party’s second choice; its first choice, a better-known candidate, was disqualified last month. Morsy lacks the popular appeal of Aboul Fotouh and Moussa. But the Freedom and Justice Party dominated recent parliamentary elections, and Morsy will have its substantial organizational support. Egypt’s election commission also disqualified Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, favoured by ultraconservative Salafi Islamists. He was barred from running because of his mother’s American citizenship—a move that prompted violent protests by his supporters.

Though he was never perceived as a Mubarak lackey, Moussa is somewhat tainted by his association with the old regime. Still, most polls put him in the lead. “I have experience,” he said during a televised debate with Aboul Fotouh last week. “I have been tested.” Some Egyptians are tired of the country’s post-revolution instability, says Mostafa Hussein, a psychiatrist, political activist and blogger. They see Moussa as someone who will restore calm and who won’t make radical changes to Egyptian law, such as banning the sale of alcohol, as some hardliners are demanding.

Aboul Fotouh was once a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but was something of a dissident within the group. He made a point of visiting Naguib Mahfouz, an Egyptian writer and Nobel laureate whom many Islamists scorned as a secularist. Muslim zealots tried to kill Mahfouz in 1994.

“To visit Mahfouz demonstrated his respect for artistic and literary freedom,” says Sayyid. “Even when he was a member of the guidance bureau of the Muslim Brothers, he used to stray alone from [its] positions,” he adds. Aboul Fotouh has tried to present himself as the candidate who most embodies the hopes of Tahrir Square. “I represent national unity and the January 25 spirit, without which we cannot build the country,” he said during his debate with Moussa. “Don’t vote for the one who was against the revolution.”

As an Islamist, however moderate, Aboul Fotouh is an odd candidate for Egypt’s revolutionaries. The Tahrir Square protests, especially in their early days, were led by the young and included many secular liberals. Egyptian youth were “very good at instigating protests,” says Sayyid, but “not good at winning votes.” This segment of Egyptian society was unable to produce its own candidate and some are looking instead to Aboul Fotouh.

The biggest question hanging over the election, regardless of who wins, is whether the SCAF will actually relinquish power. “The military is not going to do anything that is against its interests,” says Eric Trager, a fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It decided that it’s in its interests to have some sort of formal handover of power because of mounting protests against its rule.” But it will not give up its authority over foreign policy, he says, and it won’t do anything that might jeopardize the more than $1 billion dollars in aid it receives annually from the United States.

“The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is not going to give whomever is elected the keys to the presidential palace and all the executive power,” says Hussein, the blogger. “They’re going to open the door and allow someone to sit on the chair, but they’re going to stay there, behind the curtains, trying to control things.”

Still, Hussein is hopeful about Egypt’s long-term democratic prospects. “It seems that we’re going to have to make all the mistakes and learn from them,” he says. “It’s going to be a very lengthy process.” Even with all the military trials and the army’s thuggish suppression of dissent, Egypt has come a long way since crowds first thronged Tahrir Square. Ideas are debated. Differences are aired. Last week’s televised debate between candidates Aboul Fotouh and Moussa would have been unthinkable before the revolution.

“Egyptian people are accepting the challenge,” says Mandi Fahmi, a journalist and translator. “The fact everyone is getting to know each other, discuss, and change our minds is the real change.”