TOPICS : Egypt: Democracy and Islamism

Simon Tisdall

Condolezza Rice, the US secretary of state, called on June 20 for a more inclusive, democratic process in Egypt, but sidestepped the continuing ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s biggest Islamic opposition group.

Speaking in Cairo, Ms Rice said President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to allow an unprecedented, multi-party presidential election in September was an “important first step’’, but stressed the need for a more open, competitive contest.

“President Mubarak has unlocked the door for change. Now, the Egyptian government must put its faith in its own people,’’ she said. Her silence on the Muslim Brotherhood’s lack of free choices reflected the strong official Egyptian resistance to legalising the organisation. But it also illustrated Washington’s larger dilemma in calling for greater Arab democracy while opposing Islamic groups such as Hamas in Palestine and Hizbullah in Lebanon with proven electoral appeal.

Muhammad Mursi, the brotherhood’s spokesman, said conditions imposed by Mr Mubarak on the poll meant it would be neither inclusive nor fair. The president is widely expected to win a fifth consecutive term. The brotherhood had forsworn violent means in Egypt, he said, and was committed to “real and comprehensive reform ... through constitutional and legal channels’’. Following a strict interpretation of the Qur’an was not incompatible with a recognised role in public life, he said.

While pledging free elections, Egyptian officials insist that the ban will remain. “The government is not afraid of the brotherhood,’’ Ahmed Nazif, the prime minister, said last week. “We won’t allow them to create a political entity that is based on religion.’’ Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son and a leading member of the ruling National Democratic party, said there were contacts with the brotherhood. The foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, took a more aggressive view.

Pressure on the government to liberalise the political process is building in many other quarters. By allowing a contested election, Mr Mubarak has effectively opened a pharaoh’s tomb of old dreams and modern aspirations. Almost every week, a new political party or pressure group plunges into the fray. Nearly all agree that the reforms so far are not enough. But most are sceptical about how far democratisation will be allowed to go.

The legal, secular opposition parties are weak and divided and the great majority of Egyptians are not yet engaged in the reform process. But diplomats predict that if they do become so, most probably for economic reasons, the momentum for change may prove unstoppable.

But if democracy is truly to take root, diplomats and analysts suggest, the problems of exclusion must be overcome. And that will not be easy while the US, Egypt’s paymaster to the tune of an annual $1.8bn in aid, is seen to be cherry-picking democratic favourites.

If one issue unites Egyptians

of all political colours, publicly at least, it is opposition to meddling by Washington. —The Guardian