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Cook: U.S. and Internal Pressures Producing First Multi-Candidate Presidential Election in Egypt

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
August 31, 2005

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Steven A. Cook, who was director of the Council’s recent independent Task Force report, In Support of Arab Democracy: Why and How?, says Egypt’s September 7 presidential election marks the first time there has actually been more than one candidate on the ballot. Even though he thinks there is no chance that President Hosni Mubarak will be reelected with less than 80 percent of the vote, the process itself reflects the effects of external pressures primarily from the United States and internal pressures for change from within Egypt.

“Beyond the Bush administration’s very public support for change in the region, which has had an effect on the context and discourse of politics in the area, you cannot discount the fact that there are emerging groups in Egyptian society that are demanding change,” says Cook, the Council’s Douglas Dillon fellow.

He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on August 31, 2005.

Egypt holds its first multi-candidate presidential election on September 7. What’s brought about the decision by President Hosni Mubarak’s—who until now had been in effect nominated each time by his loyal parliament, and “reelected” by a referendum—to actually open up the race to other candidates even though he’s the overwhelming favorite to win?

I think it’s clear there’s a combination of external pressure—primarily coming from the United States—and internal pressure for political change in Egypt. The United States has completely changed its policy toward Egypt. Whereas we once believed that the status quo there was the best way to secure U.S. interests, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made it very clear in her June speech at the American University in Cairo that the status quo was actually a threat to America’s interests in the region.

But beyond the Bush administration’s very public support for change in the region, which has had an effect on the context and discourse of politics in the area, you cannot discount the fact that emerging groups in Egyptian society are demanding change. The most well-known of them, the one that’s gotten the most press attention recently, is this group called Kifaya, which in Arabic means “enough.” It’s officially called the Egyptian Movement for Change. There’s also the Muslim Brotherhood and a variety of other groups that are demanding more open politics in Egypt.

This [internal call for change] actually predates Washington’s interest in democracy in Egypt. But if you bring these two things together, they created enough pressure on President Mubarak that, on February 26 of this year, he announced he was directing the People’s Assembly—Egypt’s lower house of parliament—to alter the constitution to allow for multi-candidate presidential elections.

How many candidates are there?

There are ten, including President Mubarak.

Why so many?

There actually could have been more, but the higher council of the Presidential Election Committee actually disallowed a variety of independent candidates who they said didn’t meet the criteria set in the new regulations. The nine other candidates are representatives of political parties—legal political parties in Egypt. And it’s clear the regime would like to have as many candidates as possible to dilute opposition votes to President Mubarak.

In fact, interestingly, there are only two well-known opposition candidates running. The first is Ayman Nour, from the al-Ghad party, which means the Party of Tomorrow; and Noman Gomaa from the Wafd party, which is one of the oldest political parties in Egypt. Gomaa did not want to run; he was asked or convinced to run by Mubarak’s advisers in order to take votes away from Ayman Nour. Ayman Nour is a breakaway. And his party is a breakaway from the Wafd. So there are all kinds of machinations going on behind the scenes to ensure a Mubarak victory.

What is the “Enough” party?

“Enough” is not a party. It’s a front, in many ways, composed of many different groups that have come together under this umbrella called Kifaya, which includes liberals, nationalists, Nasserites [supporters of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s political ideals], and Islamists.

Nour is with Kifaya?

There is cooperation amongst different groups [within the Kifaya movement], but Nour is not of Kifaya, although his demands are not terribly different from Kifaya’s. In fact, part of his campaign is that he will take the necessary steps to transition Egypt into a liberal democracy within two years of taking office. He’s very young and he’s inexperienced; he’s basically come from nowhere. He’s essentially a creation of the regime because they arrested him in late January, thereby raising his profile immensely.

What’s his background?

He’s a lawyer who is a member of the Wafd. He had a falling out with the leadership of the Wafd and decided to go his own way and establish his own party. This party, al-Ghad, by some standards, has a tremendous amount of promise. It supposedly has 5,000 members and has been legal only since last October. It had a number of prominent activists involved, such as people from the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. But when the regime arrested Nour in late January, fissures developed within the party and they’ve had a number of defections since then. There’s some concern the party will deteriorate into a vehicle for Ayman Nour and his personality, as opposed to a real kind of vanguard democratic opposition group.

There’s been talk about Nour’s arrest and Condoleezza Rice’s role in getting him out of jail.

Of course, the Egyptians would deny that any kind of external pressure led to Ayman Nour’s release. What happened was, in late January—I believe it was January 30 or 31—around the time of the Iraqi elections, the Egyptian security services arrested Nour, charging him with forging signatures that he needed to present to the political parties in order to have his party legalized. They said he forged 1,700 or so of these signatures, maybe even more, when really he only needed about fifty. Of course, the rumor mill in Cairo was that he was also arrested because he had a 45-minute meeting with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who in late January was in Cairo as part of the Council on Foreign Relations’ task force on reforming the Arab world.

This of course is not at all true. Secretary Albright met Ayman Nour for about forty-five seconds. He doesn’t speak much English and Secretary Albright doesn’t speak much Arabic. So through a translator, they exchanged greetings and that was about it. Secretary Rice—this is all a side story—subsequently cancelled a trip to Egypt in protest over Nour’s incarceration for what were widely regarded as trumped-up charges. He was held up until the end of the 45-day period, the amount of time for which he could be held without being charged. He was released, but he is out on bail. The trial ostensibly began in June but has been pushed back until after the presidential elections. So, he campaigns under the cloud of being tried for forgery.

What is the feeling in the Arab world about these elections? Do other governments look to Egypt to see what is going on?

You’re certainly right that Egypt is a bellwether for the region. It is the largest Arab country: One in four Arabs is Egyptian. First of all, the Arab satellite news networks are covering the opposition, so this is being beamed into the homes of millions of Arabs throughout the world, including in Egypt. But I don’t think anybody takes the presidential election very seriously. In fact, the kind of template that people are using is the Tunisian presidential election, where the Tunisian President [Zain al-Abidin] Bin Ali won 99 percent of the election, more or less, and he has a number of competitors but they don’t get any of the votes. Now, clearly the Egyptians are going to make a better show of it. I don’t expect President Mubarak to get 90-plus percent. He may get 85 [percent], 84 [percent], or 83 percent.

I think what people are really looking forward to is the conduct of the October/November parliamentary elections to see how that works. Interestingly, I was in Kuwait on the day of the Iraqi elections, and I said in a private interview with the political adviser to the Kuwaiti prime minister, “What do you think of the elections in Iraq?” And he said, “The elections in Iraq are good for Iraqis, but Kuwait is Kuwait and Egypt is Egypt and Jordan is Jordan. But if these elections were conducted in Egypt it would shake the region.” So it really drives home the point that Egypt is very important, and if there were a genuine political opening—which I don’t think has actually happened yet in Egypt—it would have an effect on the region.

The parliamentary elections, are they going to be more open?

They’re likely to be more open.

Right now, parliament is run by Mubarak’s party?

Right. The National Democratic Party (NDP) has an overwhelming majority in parliament. And we can expect that they will continue to have that. Maybe they’ll have 70 [percent] to 75 percent of the parliament after these elections. But what we can expect is that there will be greater representation of opposition parties in those elections. There have been demands for internal observers. The judges have been demanding they get full authority to supervise all processes and all aspects of the election and the question of international observers remains an open one. When we were in Cairo in late January, we asked representatives in the NDP about international observers, and their position was that they wouldn’t even have to reject it because the Egyptian opposition would. I’m not necessarily so sure that that’s the case any longer.

Bush asked that there be observers for the presidential elections?

Right. And that’s been rejected. But there’s always the possibility it will happen. Could you actually stop President [Jimmy] Carter from coming to Egypt and observing elections? Whether there are international observers or not, groups within Egypt are mobilizing to do election observation on their own. Human rights groups and a network of different civil-society organizations and good-governance groups are banding together to try and observe these elections.

Have there been any political polls in Egypt? Does anyone have any idea what the true feeling is?

No. There’s been some discussion about doing some pilot exit polling in Egypt. But of course, even with all the political foment that’s been going on in Egypt, Egypt is still an authoritarian political system. And to my mind, what little change has actually occurred has been largely cosmetic. I think there’s the possibility this can flower into something more genuine and fundamental down the road, but right now, there’s no clear indication Mubarak and his advisers have really made a strategic decision to undertake fundamental political reform.

What’s your guess: Is Mubarak genuinely popular in Egypt? Does he have a following? Is he a hero?

There’s an interesting mindset in Egypt. When I was living there in 1999-2000, people complained about the regime; they complained about the government; they even complained about Mubarak, but he oddly remained popular amongst many people. I’m skeptical he remains as popular as he would like people to believe he is.

But there is also something that’s very striking: I read an interview with an Egyptian welder in a poor neighborhood in Cairo, and he said that he would end up voting for Mubarak because he is somebody that he knows, who’s been in power for twenty-four years. I hate to describe the Egyptian people as politically apathetic—that’s certainly not the case. And what’s been going on there for the last six months certainly indicates that these people are not apathetic. But there is something within the great reservoir of the masses of Egyptian people, where he remains a symbol for them. Even with all of the talk, discussion, and debate, political agitation is essentially an elite affair within Egypt, and he’s certainly not popular amongst the opposition elite. But among the larger Egyptian public—because there’s no polling there, we really don’t have a way of knowing.

He’s seventy-seven years old. If he were to pass away—he’s not in great health—is there a formal system for finding his replacement?

He has said he will appoint a vice president after this election. He hasn’t had a vice president until now. There is actually a formal constitutional mechanism by which the president is succeeded, and the first in line is not the vice president. It’s actually the speaker of the People’s Assembly. The Egyptians faithfully pursued those constitutional procedures after [former President] Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. The speaker of the assembly at the time became the president of Egypt for twenty-four hours before Mubarak became the president.

How did Mubarak become president?

While the speaker of the assembly was president, the People’s Assembly gathered, they nominated him, and he became the president. They followed their constitutional mechanisms to the law. But even though the speaker of the assembly is the first in line for succession, there was never any question that Mubarak would become president after Sadat’s assassination.

People talk about Mubarak’s son. Is he a politician of note?

He certainly has been positioning himself as a politician of some note and that is a strategy of the NDP young guard, a group of reformers that he leads. He is the chairman and the policy secretary of the NDP; he is one amongst equals, but he’s certainly different because he’s the president’s son. That group is driving new ideas and political reform. And some of the changes that have come about recently in Egypt have come from this group of young reformers.

The problem is that when they come out of the People’s Assembly, a lot of these reforms—when you read the fine print—don’t really look like much reform. He is young, he speaks English beautifully, and he is an amazing contrast to the NDP old guard. I had the privilege to observe the NDP’s annual convention last September and we had the old guard, people like Safwat Sherif [NDP’s assistant secretary general and information minister] and Kamal Shazli [NDP’s assistant secretary and minister of state for parliamentary affairs] give speeches. They stood up at the podium and read directly from their notes. And then we had Gamal Mubarak speak, and he looked like he had been trained by American political consultants. He used a teleprompter; he used the Clinton hand gestures. He is someone who, obviously, has been rumored to succeed his father. Certainly the opposition is against this because, even though he is part of the NDP, he owes his position to his father. There are rumors about Gamal’s corruption, none of which have ever been substantiated in my mind, and there are other competitors for the position.

After the election, I guess the results will come out pretty quickly. What should we look for in the results?

I think it’s unlikely that President Mubarak will cross that 90 percent threshold. Probably, mid to low 80s.

You think that would be a fair and accurate vote?

The problem in Egypt is that nobody actually votes because they really believe the outcome of these things is predetermined. That was certainly the case during the referendum—the last presidential election, which was actually a referendum. I was there, and I asked everybody I knew, and nobody had voted. It’s questionable whether they’ll really turn out 15 percent to 20 percent of the vote. It’s certainly expected that he will receive more votes than the other candidates, whether it’s 85 percent, 83 percent of the vote, there really is no way of telling.

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