By James M. Dorsey
Egyptians head to the polls on November 28 to vote for their next parliament amid criticism of systematic repression. Will Western nations step up their support for political reform or simply stand on the sidelines?
The parliamentary elections in Egypt are shaping up to be as much an indication of US and European commitment to human rights and democracy as they are a dress rehearsal for next year's Egyptian presidential election.
Michele Dunne, a Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said people in Egypt and other Arab countries were watching the West closely to see to what extent they press for free and fair elections in the Arab world's most populous country.
"They will take that as a sign of whether the US and Europe are serious about these issues or whether they have relegated them to the sidelines," Dunne said.
For much of the past year, the US and the European Union have largely been quiet about the deterioration of human rights and prospects for real democracy in Egypt. These issues were glaringly absent from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's agenda when she met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit earlier this month in Washington. Similarly, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's poor human rights and democracy record has not figured prominently in recent high-level contacts between the EU and Egypt.
Crackdown on opposition
The western stance appears to have led Mubarak, in power since 1981, to conclude that he has a free hand in shaping the electoral process. For weeks, police and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement, have been clashing. The banned group controls a fifth of the seats in the present parliament by running candidates as independents.
According to Human Rights Watch, security forces have so far arrested over 1,300 Muslim Brotherhood members, including five candidates. The government has also shut down several independent media organizations.
"The regime is sending a message that there will be no election," said Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, the head of the Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc.
Monitors? No, thank you
The US has, however, called for free and fair elections. Earlier this week, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley appealed to Egypt to allow peaceful political gatherings, open media coverage and admit international observers to the polls. The foreign ministry in Cairo countered in a statement that this constituted meddling in Egypt's internal affairs.
"The latest positions taken by the administration toward internal Egyptian affairs is something that is absolutely unacceptable," the foreign ministry said in the statement, quoting an unnamed official. "It is as if the United States has turned into a caretaker of how Egyptian society should conduct its own politics. Whoever thinks that this is possible is deluded."
The statement said Egypt would honor the tradition of mutual respect as long as the United States did the same.
The heated discussion over the Egyptian political scene is nothing new and has been going on for some 20 years, said Adel Iskandar, a professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. But it was crucial for the US and Europe to foster debate about democracy and human rights.
"The regime has taken two steps forward and five steps back," Iskandar said. "Instead of focusing on how much progress has been made, the debate should revolve around how little progress has been achieved."
Weighing the pros and cons
It is a fine line, though, considering the volatile, geo-strategic part of the world. Western governments fear that taking Egypt to task for its dismal democracy and human rights record could prompt Mubarak to withdraw support for the stumbling Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt also supplies valuable logistics for allied military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Some analysts argue, however, that the long-term risks of the US and Europe being perceived as perpetuating authoritarian rule in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world could prove costlier than the short-term benefits of turning a blind eye to flagrant violations of human rights and democratic deficiencies.
But Edward Walker, a former US ambassador to Egypt, said changes were up to the Egyptian people.
"It is not something that the US can or should dictate, but neither should we be quiet about what we believe in," Walker said. "So I think it is appropriate for the administration to review what is going on."
In addition, western powers may just have more leverage than they assume. Analysts said Egypt had a vested interest in continued support of US policy in the greater Middle East.
The Arab nation would not backtrack on support for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and risk US congressional favor for its substantial annual aid package. The government in Cairo uses much of the aid to strengthen its domestic security and ability to confront opposition groups. Putting that in jeopardy could spark unrest in the military concerned that it could lose its prerogatives at a time that Egypt is gearing up for a battle over who will succeed the country's octogenarian leader.
The government is also unlikely to risk its control of all US and European democracy and human rights assistance to Egyptian non-governmental organizations. It exercises that control through an agreement with donors that they will only fund NGOs, which are officially recognized and authorized by the government.
Pivotal presidential elections next year
This month's parliamentary polls are of only moderate importance compared to the presidential elections scheduled for next year that could change Egypt's political landscape, many US and European officials believe.
Speculation is rife about whether 82-year-old Mubarak, who is in poor health, will run for a sixth six-year term or whether he will push his banker son Gamal or his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as his successor. Even if Mubarak does opt for reelection, it is unlikely that he would be able to serve another full term.
Proponents of a more assertive American and European stance said the time will then be ripe to address Egypt's human rights record and stifling of democratic development.
By publicly focusing on the issue, the US and the EU would shape debate in Egypt prior to a changing of the guard along the Nile, encourage democracy and human rights activists and alter widespread perception in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world that the United States favors authoritarian rule.