Frank G. Wisner, a veteran U.S. diplomat and ambassador to Egypt from 1986-91, says the first-ever multi-candidate presidential election in Egypt marked “an historic day” for that country. Though President Hosni Mubarak will be reelected to another term in office, “it is nonetheless a major development first and foremost for Egyptians and the emerging political class, which will draw many lessons from this day,” he says.
“A page was turned. A first important step was taken,” says Wisner, vice chairman for external affairs at American International Group. “There will be many steps in the future. How Egypt manages those steps—this first one having been taken responsibly by the president and opposition—[will determine] what happens next. That’s really going to matter a great deal to us.”
Wisner was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 8, 2005.
What’s your general impression of the way Egypt’s first presidential election was handled?
I would put it slightly differently. Egypt held its first multi-candidate presidential election. Previously, voters were just asked to approve by referendum one candidate chosen by the parliament. There were nine candidates running in this election to elect Hosni Mubarak for a fifth term.
The final results of the election are obviously not in, it’s too soon. But I think there’s very, very little doubt in anyone’s mind that Mubarak will win this election and win it handily. It is, nonetheless, a major development first and foremost for Egyptians and the emerging political class, which will draw many lessons from this day on how the election was conducted. It was the first step in a process of managed political change and reform that Mubarak has launched. It’s significant for the United States because it marks a major outcome for policies that we’ve advocated strongly—that Egypt, the dominant nation in the Arab world, set the pace in democratization. And the election is being watched very carefully—there’s lively commentary in the Arab press and all over the Arab world. People are watching very carefully how this first and very important step took place.
Mubarak’s been president since the assassination of [former President] Anwar Sadat, twenty-four years ago. What prompted him to open up the race, however faulty or controlled, to other candidates?
I think a number of facts came to bear in the president’s mind, but I can only speculate. There is clearly a sentiment widely afoot in the Arab world, as it is elsewhere around the world, for democratization. Look what’s happened in continent after continent. The pressure to head down a road of democratization has almost a tidal wave of generalized sentiment behind it. Second, I think the influence of the United States has been important. We’ve made it very clear in our diplomacy that seeing Egypt take this step was very important to our relationship. I believe, as well, that once again in Mubarak’s mind, he’d like to be ahead of the game, not behind it—though carefully and cautiously. And he’d like to launch a process that sets the standard for the rest of the Arab world, where Egypt has a commanding position.
What is the information you’ve received on how the election itself went?
The election took place in an atmosphere of calm throughout Egypt. There were very few, if any, instances of violence anywhere in the country. It followed an extremely lively campaign in which Mubarak campaigned in every part of the country, and the opposition, though it only had three weeks to deploy itself, also campaigned. The two dominant opposition parties, the Wafd under Noman Gomaa and the Ghad under Ayman Nour—who was arrested last spring—were out getting their message across and television was open.
One important change from the events of last spring was how carefully the police and security forces handled themselves. There were no instances of repression; there wasn’t heavy police presence on the streets. The atmosphere was not one of police intimidation. The judiciary was deployed throughout the country. There was considerable confusion over whether Egyptian NGO’s [nongovernmental organizations] could monitor the polls, amplified by the fact that they were originally denied access. Then, at ten in the morning, they were given access. I think the important point is they were not deployed as they might have been, but that the precedent has been set for parliamentary elections to take place in November. Despite the boycotts—and there were several announced from relatively smaller parties, the Nasserite party [inspired by the politics of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser]—the vote came out.
The turnout was relatively light by all accounts, for a variety of reasons. First, is the relative unavailability of voter-registration cards, and there will be a fresh registration campaign before parliamentary elections. Second is the sense of skepticism and apathy in a country that hasn’t known active politics and active political persuasion. And, I would say, there is a degree of concern that if a citizen chose to vote, what risks he might run and what he was voting for. If he chose to vote for opposition people, given the extraordinarily strong powers of the Egyptian presidency, in whose hands was the country going to be placed? People like Ayman Nour and Noman Gomaa, respectable upright fellows, have very little political background and experience on which one can make a real choice. So I think the turnout will tended to be a bit low.
Where are you getting your information, from the press or from the government?
From a variety of people. I’ve been on the phone with Cairo—with Americans, with Egyptians, with people who have a lively interest in the outcome.
Mubarak is seventy-seven years old now. Assuming he survives the next six years, he’ll be eighty-three. Presumably this may be his “last hoorah.” What will happen next?
The next steps are what’s really important. After all, what we’re looking at here is a managed political process. The government wants to—as was decided by Mubarak—move Egypt down the road to democratic reform, democratic inclusion. But like everything that has typified his presidency, he’ll be very careful about it.
I think the first benchmark you want to watch for is the parliamentary elections, which will take place in November. They’re very important in their own right. Also, under the present constitution, they will decide what parties can run presidential candidates in the 2011 elections. To be able to field a candidate under present arrangements, you have to have twenty-two seats in parliament. So how opposition parties fare in the forthcoming parliamentary polls for the upper and lower house is very, very important. But I think what we have seen in this very active, visible, television-covered, heavily debated campaign is a great deal of criticism that’s come up about basic conditions in Egypt and even, for the first time, a personal and direct criticism of the president, and of the president’s wife [Suzanne Mubarak]. A Pandora’s Box, if you will, has been opened, and it’s inconceivable to me that it can be closed again. How the government will live with this degree of stridency is a benchmark I’d be watching very carefully.
The third point I’d make is that all the parties, including Mubarak’s, talked about repealing the emergency law that has constricted Egyptian political activity. It’s constricted political activity heavily and it is the single-most visible law that has to be dealt with. Will this law be removed and what will it be replaced with? Will it be replaced with other legislation that will [also] seem to be constricting? We don’t know that yet.
How long has that emergency law been in effect?
Right from the outset [after Egyptian independence]; fifty years, to the best of my knowledge.
And it censorship powers and things like that?
It gives the government extraordinary powers across the board. The next point I would keep an eye on is not just the elections to parliament, but then what’s going to happen in parliament. What will be the emerging balance of relationships in a parliament where there’ll be multi-party and multi-candidate elections? What will be the balance between the president, the executive function, and the legislature? How untrammeled will the legislature be?
I think that leads to a further observation: One thing that will change, and is clearly changing, is the old guard. Those loyalists who’ve been around the president over the years are slipping off the stage. That doesn’t mean they’re people without influence; Mubarak has always managed army relationships carefully. But these have been such factors in Egyptian life that a wary eye would keep a watch on the old guard and the army. These are important facts. This election was run very professionally from the National Democratic Party (NDP), the president’s party. It was run by people who thought very hard about elections, some with real experience in this country. And I suspect, particularly in the case of the NDP, that those examples will be carried in the parliamentary election and they’ll be picking candidates who will be potential winners.
What is the role of Mubarak’s son, Gamal, in all this? I gather he’s a fairly sophisticated political person.
He’s been extremely active. He has a powerful position in the party. He has, behind the scenes, been a key player in the management of this reform and a key player in the president’s reelection. Now, many Egyptians assume he will be nudged forward to be the candidate in 2011, and many have grave differences [with Gamal]. But there’s a lot of time between now and 2011; much will happen. I don’t think it’s worth speculating how matters would play out. I think one just has to keep in mind the issue of succession is going to be a lively one, but the question isn’t answered.
There is no successor built into the government, right?
There is a temporary succession arrangement under which the head of parliament takes over for three months and then a candidate—under the old system—emerges and goes forward for referendum. These will all be issues that will have to be thrashed out now as you go into the next phase of managed reform. But I would point out, underlying the first steps in opening to democracy, underlying the sharp criticism that you’ve seen in the press, is a very considerable degree of frustration in Egypt with low employment, poor economic growth—all issues that were actively debated in the campaign, pledges made by both the president and his opponents. How that frustration will play out to the degree that the president and his able prime minister, Ahmed Nazef, will lay out reforms that take government out of the economy and allow the free market to work—that’s another benchmark that I would look for to see how it plays out in channeling and containing the frustration with generalized circumstances that are [affecting] Egyptians.
Let’s talk about the U.S. role. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went to Cairo and gave a speech urging reform, etc. Should the United States welcome these elections very enthusiastically or, because of some of the limitations, be more wary?
I don’t have an advance brief on what the State Department’s spokesman or the U.S. government will issue today; I haven’t seen announcements from Washington. But I suspect we will come out with a welcoming statement for the process, the first steps taken, but it will be a cautious one, since the results are not known and since there’s still a very, very long road ahead.
What about the impact on other Arab states?
I think the impact is going to be very important, particularly in tightly managed states. The Syrians will be watching this closely, [as will] the Tunisians, even neighboring Libya. The national-security-controlled states will be watching very carefully how Egyptians move forward with Mubarak. And they’ll be watching one very important factor, which we haven’t mentioned, and that is the elephant in the tent: [the Islamist ideological and political movement] the Muslim Brotherhood. How did the Islamist tendency fare? What did it do? What will happen to it in the future? As far as these elections are concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood as an outlawed party did not participate directly. In its statements, however, it urged Egyptians to vote, but not to vote for the president. What will happen in the future? To what degree will they be included? Will they form alliances with existing parties? Will the system open so they can make a more direct play? How do they manage themselves and how does government manage the Islamic tendency? I’d add these to my list as benchmarks as we measure the progress Egypt makes, and as Arabs assess what the effect on their societies would be if you introduced a managed reform and a managed opening.
I think it’s worth remembering, as far as we Americans are concerned, that what happens in Egypt is extremely important. This is the nation we have had the strongest possible ties with for nearly thirty years. It is a nation that has been key to peace-making in the Middle East. It’s a nation that is critical to the future of the Palestinian-Israeli equation. It’s a nation with influence in what happens in the months ahead in Iraq and inside of Arab councils in how Iraq is seen. Egypt is still, despite its more relative power, a center of Arab thinking, Arab culture, and Arab considerations of reform.
My own view is that we have played a helpful role in encouraging the move to democracy. But we are not well-advised to hector. This is a time to let Egyptians, who’ve got the bit in their teeth for the first time, to score their own goals and to nudge things forward quietly and through diplomatic channels. There’ll be many opportunities in the years ahead for the United States to create a dialogue with political parties, with candidates, with the judiciary, with the press to strengthen the institutions of democratic process. That’s the way I’d like to see our official cards play.
I’d close on one note. The newspapers today sort of bounce around with a bit of frustration and modest welcoming of the process and some use of the words, “these elections are not free and fair.” I’m not going to be party to that debate. I don’t know how to judge free and fair in an absolute sense. I think the point I want to make is that an historic day occurred yesterday in Egypt. A page was turned. A first important step was taken. There will be many steps in the future. How Egypt manages those steps—this first one having been taken responsibly by the president and opposition—[will determine] what happens next. That’s really going to matter a great deal to us.