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Egypt's Third Alternative

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For the last thirty years, President Hosni Mubarak's regime has controlled all political discourse in Egypt. He resists domestic and international calls for democratic reform by claiming that the only alternative to his rule is the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamist force in Egypt, who is too radical to govern. Mubarak has been remarkably successful in convincing the West, and the US in particular, that his regime is necessary for Egypt, and for the stability of the Middle East.

Mubarak played into American fear by arguing that any free elections in Arab countries are likely to result in anti-Western regimes. The Algerian parliamentary election in early 1991 and lately the 2006 election in the Palestinian Territories resulting in Islamist victory, supported his argument.

Stability is certainly critical for Egypt, the most populous nation in the Arab world and a central player in any Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But after decades presiding over a country plagued by food riots and labors strikes, where a "state of emergency" has been in effect since 1981, more than a third of the citizens are still illiterate, and 44% of Egyptians live on $2 a day. Mubarak can hardly claim to have made Egypt more stable, nor prosperous.

When the former director of the International Atomic energy agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, expressed serious interest in running for the Egyptian presidency, Egyptians met his desire with unprecedented enthusiasm. ElBaradei who led the IAEA from 1997-2009, winning a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005, invited all those who seek a change from Mubarak's regime to join him. He announced "a national association for change" in Egypt, since the formation of new parties in Egypt is tightly controlled.

There are several legal barriers that stand in the way of ElBaradei's call for change. Under Article 76 of the Egyptian Constitution, a presidential candidate must have been the head of major parliamentary political party for at least a year, and that party must have existed for at least five years. There are currently twenty-four parties in Egypt, a number used often by Mubarak's regime as a sign of healthy democracy, but they hold little actual power. An independent candidate, such as ElBaradei, must collect 250 signatures from both legislative houses and local councils. These requirements are highly prohibitive, since both houses are controlled by President's Mubarak's National Democratic Party.

Change is a magical word for these Egyptian youth, who have never known any President but Mubarak. The Facebook group "ElBaradei for President of Egypt 2011" has over 120,000 members, and helps ElBaradei's supporters coordinate their efforts.

ElBaradei appeared to be able to unite all local forces seeking real change in Egyptian stagnant political theatre. The fanfare surrounding ElBaradei's return has caused undeniable panic for Mubarak's regime. The 82 year-old Mubarak has not indicated a successor, and claims that the next leader of NDP will only emerge through popular support. Many consider Mubarak's younger son, Gamal, who rose quickly and softly within the ruling party, to be a likely Presidential candidate.

The Muslim Brotherhood, whose members hold 20% of the seats in the Egyptian Parliament, are also threatened by ElBaradei and his growing popularity, but are cautiously willing to engage. The Press Spokesperson Mohamed Saad El-Katatni has allegedly met with ElBaradei, and a Muslim Brotherhood MP attended the informal gathering at El Barradei's house. Although ElBarradei supports the Muslim Brotherhood in their call for constitutional reform and transparency, he is unlikely to align himself too closely with the Brotherhood, whose stance on women's rights and the Christian minority counteracts his secular, democratic message.

An important factor in the Presidential election process will be the role (or hopefully, absence) of the United States. The United States must understand that in order for democracy to thrive in the Middle East, it needs to succeed in Egypt. 2011 represents Egypt's best chance for a grassroots democratic reform: the country will hold its second-ever contested Presidential election, and there is a critical mass of citizens who are clamoring for reform.

In a very encouraging sign, during an interview with the State Department's Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Public Affairs, P. J. Crowley, on Egypt's upcoming election, I asked Crowley what he thought of ElBaradei as a candidate. Crowley avoided mentioning ElBaradei by name and merely said, "We always encourage the Egyptian government's political reform and opening in order to have more representation and participation. Therefore we encourage electoral reform that comes from inside Egypt." This is exactly the right line from Foggy Bottom. If the US government were to publically support ElBaradei, even in a mild statement, it would immeasurably hurt his campaign.

Let us hope that American policymakers are thrilled by the opportunity ElBarradei's represents for Egypt. --and know enough to keep their mouths shut