Egypt is entering a densely packed election cycle—for the Shura Council and the People’s Assembly, respectively, in June and November 2010, and for the presidency in September 2011. Unfortunately, it is a foregone conclusion that none of the elections will have an impact on the distribution of power in the country.

Dozens of interviews with politicians, analysts, and members of civil society organizations during a recent visit to Egypt show that nobody expects the elections to make a difference. In fact, the results are already known: at the end of the process, the ruling National Democratic Party will control by an overwhelming majority both the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council, as it does now—in fact, the opposition is likely to have an even smaller presence, because the Muslim Brotherhood is being eliminated from the competition by the arrest of many leaders. There is some uncertainty about the presidential elections, but even there the possible outcomes are limited: a new term for President Hosni Mubarak, who appears determined to run again despite his twenty-eight years in power and his advanced age; or the election of his son Gamal or a figurehead from the NDP, with the security services firmly in control behind the scenes. The results are so predictable because the possibility of true political competition is precluded by the disappearance of the opposition parties. Egyptians are unhappy with the status quo and have been showing their dissatisfaction through a rapidly growing number of strikes and demonstrations, but the political organizations that could transform this discontent into an alternative to the present government no longer exist. Politically, Egypt has become a one-dimensional society where there is no true alternative to the present ruling establishment. Speculation in Cairo today is not about how many seats the different parties will win, but how many seats the government will grant them in order to preserve the fiction that Egypt has not reverted to a single party system.

Politically, Egypt has become a one-dimensional society where there is no true alternative to the present ruling establishment.

In the face of the unrelenting closure of the political space in Egypt and the outright repression exercised by the security apparatus not only against the Muslim Brotherhood but also against liberal opponents who attract some support or even call attention to themselves, the United States and the international community more broadly have been largely silent. After a rhetorically strong beginning, the Bush administration dropped efforts at democracy promotion in Egypt and in the wider Arab world following the 2005 parliamentary election in which the Muslim Brotherhood won twenty percent of the seats. The Obama administration has kept curiously silent about democracy—other than for passing references in President Obama’s speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009 and more recently in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech in Qatar in February 2010. In light of the growing stifling of political activity in Egypt, the Obama administration cannot continue to remain silent, even if it can do little to alter the situation in practice. The normal tools of the democracy promotion kit—including pressure on the regime, assistance to make the electoral process more honest, assistance to domestic election monitors, and the deployment of international observers—are unlikely to make a difference. Even assistance to political parties will not help when, just a few months before the elections, the liberal and leftist parties are moribund and the Muslim Brotherhood is deeply divided, with many of its top leaders in jail and even some of the strongest advocates of political participation calling for participation moratorium. Yet by not speaking out, the Obama administration is sending a message that the United States accepts the travesty of democracy this election cycle represents.

Democratization as Pure Politics

The process of political reform in Egypt that is dying at present was from the outset engineered from the top―it was the result of a political calculus, rather than of changes in the society and the economy and the concomitant emergence of new political players. The reform process began in the 1970s when President Anwar Sadat launched a cautious and carefully managed process of political and economic reform. Economic reforms allowed the revival of the private sector but did not dismantle the subsidized, statist industrial apparatus developed under Nasser. The result was an erosion of the public sector without a real expansion of the private one, as many of the reforms advocated by the international financial institutions during the 1970s and 1980s were implemented only in the last decade. The result was the emergence of a lackluster private sector that is tied the ruling establishment and backs the regime instead of seeking an independent political role.

The publicized side of political reform in Egypt started with the 1976 decision to abandon the single party system introduced after the 1952 coup d’état and to allow the formation of new political parties. Sadat invited hand-picked individuals to set up two moderate parties, one on the right and one on the left, while the old Arab Socialist Union, soon to be renamed the National Democratic Party, would occupy the center. The unpublicized side of the reform was the decision to allow Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to start organizing, particularly on university campuses. It was the old game of playing one enemy (Islamist groups) against the other (the Nasserites whom Sadat saw as an obstacle to the consolidation of his power). The greater freedom to organize accorded to Islamists led to two developments. The first was the emergence of radical Islamist groups who would assassinate Sadat in 1981 and continue their campaign of terrorism in the decades that followed, providing al Qaeda with many recruits, including Ayman Zawahiri, considered by many to be the mastermind of the organization. The second development was changed attitudes in the Muslim Brotherhood that led to its decision to participate in electoral politics. Within two decades, the Muslim Brotherhood had become Egypt’s most important opposition movement, despite the fact that it remained a banned organization and was not allowed to form a political party. In 2005, Muslim Brothers running as independents captured 20 percent of the seats in the People’s assembly—a huge victory by Egyptian standards.

The 2005 election was both a triumph and the undoing of the Muslim Brotherhood, since such a victory was far more than the Mubarak regime was willing to tolerate.

The success of the Muslim Brotherhood was due not only to its embrace of politics and the zeal it devoted to building a constituency, but also to the failure of the liberal and leftist parties Sadat had ordered into existence to establish themselves as credible organizations. Since its inception in the 1920s, the Muslim Brotherhood had taken the task of organizing seriously, originally in the service of dawa (proselytizing), but from the 1980s onward also had the goal of winning parliamentary seats. Barred from forming a political party, it participated in elections through alliances with other opposition political parties or by running its candidates as independents. Liberal and leftist parties did not devote similar efforts to organize.

Election results for the People’s Assembly, the lower and most important chamber of the Egyptian parliament, show clearly the failure of the liberal and leftist organizations and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the election results were undoubtedly manipulated, the weakness of these organizations is blatantly clear. The two parties Sadat had ordered into existence, incongruously named the Socialist Liberal Party and the Socialist Labour Party, never won more than a handful of seats. Other parties that soon emerged on the left, the Nationalist Progressive Unionist Party and the Nasserite Party, only gained seats in the single digit in election after election. On the liberal side, the New Wafd party managed to win a respectable 59 seats (out of 448) in the 1984 election when it was launched as the reincarnation of the historic Wafd Party, but then fizzled. The Wafd had dominated the Egyptian political scene before the 1952 Free Officers’ coup, appealing to the business community because of its liberal stance and to the broader public because of its nationalist credentials. The New Wafd could no longer play the nationalist card and it failed to renew its leadership and its message. As a result it only gained ten seats in the 1987 elections, chose to boycott the 1990 elections in protest over the new election law, and never managed to win more that six or seven seats in later elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, gained strength, although restrictions meant that only a few of its members were elected to parliament initially. The 2005 elections were a turning point. Although it only presented candidates in a limited number of districts, it won 88 seats, up from seventeen in the previous parliament. It was both a triumph and the undoing of the organization, since such a victory was far more than the Mubarak regime was willing to tolerate. The Brotherhood parliamentary delegation participated actively in the life of the parliament, but never had an impact. Its candidates for the municipal council elections in 2008 were not even allowed to register and an unrelenting wave of arrests kept its leaders and many of its financiers in and out of prison on various charges. 

The impact on the Muslim Brotherhood was devastating. Deep divisions appeared in the organization and the reformers who had steered the Brotherhood toward participation in politics lost much of their influence. The conflict played out in the election of a new Supreme Guide and members of the Shura Council in January 2010, which saw the reformers cast aside in favor of a much more conservative leadership.

Politics in a One-Dimensional Country 

Egypt is thus entering the new electoral season without a viable organized opposition. There are still dissenting voices in the country, and they are heard better than ever before thanks to the growth of nongovernmental newspapers—independent although acutely conscious of the redlines they should not cross—and TV channels that broadcast lively political debates. In addition, there are bloggers of all ideological persuasions and an incipient protest movement, including young people who use social media to organize and coordinate their activities—and who cite Otpor, the student organization that played a central role in the defeat of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in October 2000, as a model of what they would like to achieve. The protest movement is weak and divided, however. Kifaya, which gained some notoriety and influence before the 2005 elections, is now mired in internal squabbles as it tries to develop a strategy for the forthcoming elections. The strikes that have become a fixture of Egyptian life focus on salary demands and are not coalescing into a movement with political demands. Courageous human rights organizations document abuses but cannot stop them. And nobody is looking at the opposition political parties as instruments of change.

For all practical purposes, Egypt has turned in a politically one-dimensional country where the ruling establishment has succeeded in undermining the opposition to such an extent that the nominally multi-party system is in reality a single party one.

The lack of confidence in the official opposition is reflected in the sudden wave of support for a bid for the presidency by Mohammed ElBaradei, the recently retired head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei is an unlikely candidate. An international civil servant absent from Egypt since 1980 with no previous political experience, he has not even clearly stated that he wants to run for the presidency. And yet a campaign to get him on the ballot has already started, perhaps more a sign of despair about other likely candidates than an assessment of his chances to win or even to be allowed to run. A petition to put his name on the ballot is being circulated, and his return to Egypt on February 20 was greeted by enthusiastic supporters. But the signatures number in the thousands and the greeters at the airport in the hundreds in a country of 85 million people. 

Confronting this array of feckless political parties, divided organizations, and unlikely candidates is the National Democratic Party, which benefits from access to state resources, close ties to the security apparatus, and a constitution and laws on elections and political parties designed to protect incumbents from competition. Registration of political parties is in the hands of a body controlled by the ruling party. Candidates for the presidency must either be leaders of a party represented in the parliament—none of them a viable candidate at this point—or receive the endorsement of a large number of lawmakers and members of the municipal councils that are also controlled by the NDP. And, as a member of the NDP leadership complacently pointed out in a recent conversation, in the end the security forces will make sure that power remains where in ought to be—in the hands of President Mubarak and the NDP, and, after the president’s death, in the hands of his son or another NDP official. For all practical purposes, Egypt has turned in a politically one-dimensional country where the ruling establishment has succeeded in undermining the opposition to such an extent that the nominally multi-party system is in reality a single party one.

Rethinking Democracy Promotion in Egypt

By not speaking up as Egypt moves toward a meaningless election cycle, the Obama administration is damaging its standing in the eyes of Egyptians and, more broadly, the Arab public without gaining anything in return. Favorable views of the United States in the Arab region started inching upward after Obama’s election, but many are now beginning to question his commitment to changing U.S. policy in the region. And while most Arabs regarded the efforts of the Bush administration with suspicion, viewing democracy promotion as a thinly disguised code for getting rid of regimes the United States did not like, they now interpret the silence of the Obama administration as a sign that the United States stands behind its long-standing policy of supporting authoritarian Arab regimes. Furthermore, it is not necessary for the United States to keep silent about the increasingly open authoritarianism of the Egyptian regime: while Egypt would certainly resent criticism of its politics, it is not going to change its international alignment as a consequence. It will not renege on the peace treaty with Israel, it will not align itself with Iran, and it will not support Hamas and Hizbollah, because such steps are anathema to the beliefs of the Mubarak administration. 

An attempt to relaunch a process of democratization in Egypt thus needs to take a longer- term view, going well beyond the forthcoming election cycle.

On the other hand, the Obama administration can do very little to ensure that the forthcoming elections will be meaningful. After two decades of failure, the present political parties cannot be rebuilt in a few months, if ever. Strong pressure on Mubarak to let some independents run for the presidency, including ElBaradei, is necessary on principle but also futile in practice, because a name can be added quickly to the ballot, but a political organization cannot be improvised, particularly one capable of being effective against the formidable machine the NDP and the security forces can deploy.

An attempt to relaunch a process of democratization in Egypt thus needs to take a longer- term view, going well beyond the forthcoming election cycle, and it should have several components. The first must simply be a statement of principles—the United States believes in the necessity of a democratic process—and an honest assessment of reality—the election cycle opening in Egypt has nothing to do with democracy.

As a second step, the Obama administration must make it a priority for embassy personnel in Egypt to develop in-depth knowledge of all political organizations and protest movements, not because it supports them, but because its own interests require it to understand the nature of political forces in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood must be included in these communications, although it is unfortunately too late for such contacts to help transform the Brotherhood into a democratic political party; the organization is now in disarray and the new leadership less reform oriented. As part of this process of understanding opposition forces, the United States also needs to understand their views on how political transformation could occur. It is true that opposition groups are weak, but they also live the reality of the country from day to day and have their own ideas about the process of change. Since U.S. and Western views of how democratization occurs have not proven useful everywhere, and certainly not in Egypt thus far, it is at least worth listening to what local groups have in mind. Democracy, after all, will succeed and fail on the basis of what organized groups do or fail to do. 

As a third step—and most definitely this should be the third rather than the first step—the United States needs to engage with the government. This cannot be the first step because the Mubarak regime, far from seeking political reform, is terrified of any change that could lead to a lessening of its own control, particularly after Mubarak dies or retires. As a result, it hides behind the threat of a take-over by the Muslim Brotherhood to reject change. Engagement with the Mubarak regime should have two components: first, a very explicit debate about the restrictions of political activity that cannot be justified in terms of security: for example, rules that restrict the field of permissible presidential candidates to a very small number of party officials—as if in a country of 85 million people only a handful did not constitute a security risk; or rules that do not allow the registration of a political party if its program is similar to that of an already registered one. The list of such rules is quite long. Second, the United States also must consider undertaking a more fundamental process of consultation, not just with Egypt but with all countries in the Middle East about the principles that should govern the policies of all countries in the region, including the United States. The Egyptian government is quite adept at fending off criticism of its own policies with criticism of the United States. A discussion of Egypt’s fundamental political shortcomings would require the United States to be willing to discuss its own policies as well.

None of the steps envisaged here is going to make the elections in the forthcoming cycle into meaningful expressions of citizen choice. It is already too late to overcome the one-dimensionality of the Egyptian political scene. But if steps are not taken now, we will find ourselves facing a new cycle of meaningless elections five years from now.