Sunday, December 20, 2009

Egyptian Democracy When Pigs Fly

Last week, I went to an event hosted by the Wilson Center that featured Egyptian journalist Heba el-Koudsy discussing American democracy promotion in Egypt. You can see a summary of the event here. Or, for the more visually-inclined, the video is available online here.

During her lecture, el-Koudsy differentiated between external American and internal Egyptian pressure for reform. She argued it has always been the internal push for reform that has prodded President Mubarak into (insufficient) action. As such, the U.S. should focus on ways to support the internal drive for democratization by, for example, bolstering civil society.

At minute 53, I asked her how the potential candidacy Mohamed ElBaradei may provide a new source of internal leverage for reform on the Mubarak regime.

To give a quick background, Egypt will be holding its second-ever multi-party competitive elections for president in 2011. All experts agree that the presidency will remain in Mubarak's hands through manipulation and coercion. The only question is whether it'll be Hosni or his son Gamal who will be the Mubarak in charge.

Enter Elbaradei. Currently, he enjoys broad popularity in Egypt for his service as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. As such, the Wafd party - one of the oldest parties in Egypt and considered an opposition party - asked the historically apolitical ElBaradei to run as their candidate for president.

After mulling it over, ElBaradei announced he would only run in the very unlikely scenario that elections were "free and fair." Shortly after that announcement, he upped the ante again, declaring he would only run as an independent candidate. To translate for you, he basically said he'd run for president when pigs fly.

The Egyptian constitution, while technically allowing independent candidates to run for president, sets an overwhelming number of restrictions and qualifications on an independent candidacy. To give a domestic example, imagine if a candidate declared he/she would only run for president if the electoral college were abolished, and even then, as neither a Democrat or Republican. That's what ElBaradei is doing.

In short, it won't ever happen under the current constitution. And more importantly, everyone - including ElBaradei and Mubarak - know it will never happen. And yet, according to El-Koudsy, something is happening.

Egyptians are no longer only talking about Mubarak versus Mubarak. ElBaradei's announcement has stimulated Egypt's political conscious, sparking new debate and revealing new possibilities. But most importantly, Mubarak's farcical and cynical use of democratic institutions to mask his dictatorship have been laid bare. And that's exactly what ElBaradei sought to achieve by effectively refusing to participate in sham elections.

During his tenure as IAEA chief, he scoured the deserts of Iraq in search for the mythical weapons of mass destruction and negotiated endlessly with the intransigent Iranian regime. Now as an Egyptian politician, he seems to be prepared to put those experiences to good use: to continue chasing fantasy while tirelessly confronting an uncompromising regime.

And if he and other Egyptians persist, maybe one day that fantasy will be fantasy no more.

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