At least 500 Egyptians have taken the first step to run for president, a sign of the excitement generated by the country’s first presidential elections in which the outcome is in doubt, election officials said on Wednesday.
The country’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling military are likely to endorse the same candidate, says analyst Khalil el-Anani from the UK’s Durham University.
“Both are conservative, hierarchical, more interested in stability than change and honor the principle of blind obedience to leaders,” says el-Anani, an Egyptian expert on Islamic groups. “The presidential qualities they are looking for are similar: Friendly toward the Islamists, not hostile toward the military and efficient but not charismatic. None of the hopefuls now in the field have these qualities.”
Such an electoral pact will confirm the suspicions of many Egyptian democrats that the Islamists and the military have forged a tacit conservative alliance in an attempt to stifle the emergence of the country’s democratic forces.
Such a scenario could set the stage for an intriguing contest if, as The New York Times reports, many of the country’s secular and liberal activists start to swing behind former Brotherhood leader Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh (above), a relatively moderate figure who has incurred the wrath of his erstwhile comrades:
Aboul Fotouh argues in television interviews, a staple of his campaign, that the Brotherhood should stop calling itself Islamist and instead say it is conservative, since in an open society Islamists can also be moderate or liberal. Of all the presidential contenders, Mr. Aboul Fotouh has been the most outspoken about full civilian control of the military, the protection of civil liberties and government spending on health care and education. His biggest challenge, his advisers say, is the opposition of his former colleagues in the Muslim Brotherhood. Its spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, declared this week that the group would expel any member who supported Mr. Aboul Fotouh.
“Dr. Aboul Fotouh is very dangerous for them — a matter of life and death,” says one secular supporter. “If he succeeds, it means the Brotherhood loses its monopoly on moderate Islam. It shows that there is a multiplicity in Islam big enough to include Marxists and liberals. It tells their moderates that you can leave the Brotherhood and it is not the end of life.”
The election campaign will start at a time of acute political tension and growing concern about the illiberal shift in Egyptian politics, evidenced by the government’s crackdown on civil society, stoking of xenophobic public sentiment and fears that the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party are becoming more vocal and confident about pursuing an explicitly Islamist agenda.
The recent US-Egyptian standoff over the prosecution of pro-democracy non-governmental organizations should not have surprised the American democracy officials facing court proceedings, because the prosecutions weren’t really about them, says one observer.
“The democracy workers had merely become pawns in a bitter domestic power struggle over Egypt’s future, in which rival groups competed by appealing to anti-Americanism,” writes Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“For that reason, the crisis didn’t change America’s core interests in Egypt,’ he notes. “ But it should prompt Washington to develop a strategy for persuading the various political forces in Egypt to cooperate in pursuit of those interests rather than allowing American-sponsored efforts to become political footballs there.”
Observers have attributed blame for the NGO crisis to Mubarak holdover Fayza Aboulnaga, the Minister of International Non-Cooperation, or to a miscalculation of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
But the real cause of the crisis was the incongruity “between the myths of Egyptian nationalism and the need/desire for external assistance,” writes Steven Cook, an Egypt analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Aboulnaga simply played ‘a critical role in trying to square the circle between a regime whose legitimacy rests in part on nationalist claims and whose leaders are ostensibly Egyptian nationalists par excellence, but nevertheless cannot seem to do without American largesse,” Cook writes:
What better way to mask the fact that you are lobbying furiously to maintain U.S. assistance even going so far as to ask Israeli fixers—Israelis!—to press the Obama administration and Congress not to cut the assistance than playing on the fears of an Egyptian population that is wary of foreign influence in their country?
Nevertheless, Aboulnaga’s actions and statement amounted to a full frontal assault on civil society, writes David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House, one of the NGOs targeted in the case.
Rebutting Aboulnaga’s contention in a Washington Post op-ed, “Why Egypt moved on the NGOs,” that Egyptian authorities were simply pursuing a legal case against illegal operations, Kramer cites a statement by 29 Egyptian NGOs which roundly condemned the “ongoing slandering and intimidation of civil society organizations, particularly human rights groups” and described the prosecution of 43 Egyptian and foreign nationals as clearly “politically motivated.”
“Contrary to Aboulnaga’s claims, none of our organizations funds political parties or candidates,” he states:
We are in Egypt to support civil society organizations, encourage respect for fundamental human rights, promote the transition to an accountable democracy and share experiences with other countries that have gone through transitions. We would not be in Egypt were there no indigenous demand for the kind of work we do. Our agenda is an Egyptian agenda.
Aboulnaga’s March 10 op-ed also “overlooked the struggle of Egyptian civil society for a democratic legal framework consistent with international law,” writes Kareem Elbayar, a lawyer with the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law:
Under Egyptian law, individuals must obtain permission from the government to associate or they risk imprisonment. The application process for nongovernmental organizations can take months, if not years, while a group’s founders are vetted by security agencies. Mandatory registration violates international law, and the government uses this requirement to exclude organizations it disfavors. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights waited more than 15 years before receiving a license to operate; many other groups are never registered.
Even if the registration hurdle is overcome, organizations face government interference with nearly all aspects of their activities. In addition, the government can ban funding from practically any source. Recently, the government prohibited the New Woman Foundation from accepting a $5,000 “Nelson Mandela Innovation Award,” citing unspecified “security reasons.”
While the transitional governments of Tunisia and Libya are “reforming antiquated, authoritarian NGO laws,” Elbayar notes, Egyptian officials are proposing legislation to further stifle civil society.
“Casting this issue as a dispute over illegal NGOs is rhetorically clever,’ he concludes. “ But it disguises the fundamental point that Egypt’s policy violates international law.”