Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 October - 5 November 2008
Issue No. 920
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Waiting for Obama

Amira Howeidy canvasses Egypt's political activists for their views on the US elections

Few, if any, US presidential elections have mattered more to Egyptians than next week's. Eight years of the George W Bush doctrine have taken their toll on this part of the world, as elsewhere, for worse rather than better.

In Egypt the highlight of those eight years was probably the so- called spring of democracy in 2005, when a series of demonstrations demanding political reform swept the country. In March alone the recently formed Kifaya held two street demonstrations, followed by the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) which staged its own protest. For two weeks anti-government demonstrations ensued in universities across Egypt.

The peak came in April when 1,200 judges -- members of the Judges Club, the only independent body representing Egypt's judges -- threatened to boycott monitoring the presidential and legislative elections unless their independence and full control of the voting process were guaranteed. It was the first time that the judiciary had openly defied the executive. As if it had been waiting for a signal civil society was suddenly on the move. University professors, industrial workers and journalists all staged their own protests in an unprecedented display of dissent. Groups such as "" (We can see you) and "The street is ours" were established by individuals who had never before engaged in politics but who were encouraged by the anti- authoritarian climate.

The heated atmosphere in Cairo -- which saw Egypt make world headlines -- was not entirely detached from what the US administration in Washington was saying about democratising the Arab world after its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Having failed to find Saddam's alleged weapons of mass destruction the Bush administration's foreign policy suddenly shifted to the issue of democracy. By 2005, and as dissent in Egypt reached the judicial authority, Bush said he had told president Hosni Mubarak in a telephone conversation that "now is the time for him to show the world that his great country can set an example for others". People "ought" to be allowed to vote without being intimidated, he declared "and if the government owns the TV, they need to allow the opposition on TV, people ought to be allowed to carry signs and express their pleasure or displeasure. People ought to have every vote count."

The government denied it was under pressure from Washington. The dissent movement, on the other hand, found itself embarrassed by America's support when only a year earlier it had been protesting against US brutality in Iraq.

When, a few months later, the US administration decided to suspend its call for democracy the effect was immediate. The security apparatus no longer tolerated dissent and reformists found themselves in a tight spot. "The irony of history had placed us in the odd position of being under the protection of the enemy," says Kifaya spokesman Abdel-Halim Qandil of those heady days.

"Bush's U-turn on the importance of democracy was immediately reflected in the 2005 legislative elections," Ahmed Mekki, deputy head of the Court of Cassation, told Al-Ahram Weekly. MB candidates scored a victory in the relatively relaxed climate of the first round of the elections. Their progress was stopped, however, in the second and third rounds when the security apparatus stepped in and interfered.

"The Bush administration's regression on the issue of democracy was clearly visible when Hamas won the elections in early 2006," Mekki adds. And yet, he continues, "regardless of how I feel about the US administration and its interventions, truth be told, US pressure on [Arab] regimes can be beneficial at times".

Egypt's spring of democracy is now a thing of the past. The security apparatus has not allowed demonstrations since 2006. And Egypt's political activists make no secret of their absolute interest in who will succeed Bush. Unsurprisingly, they favour the Democratic senator Barack Obama. In an online poll conducted by the Economist, 91 per cent of Egyptians said they would choose Obama if they had the right to vote.

Says Mekki: "I will be satisfied if he wins, provided he lives up to his views on encouraging democratic practice in countries that enjoy close ties with the US, and withdraws from Iraq."

In an article published in the independent Al-Dostour newspaper on 20 October, MB leader Essam El-Erian said he was "moved" by the "Obama phenomenon". He praised his good looks and "wit" but wondered "if the coming US administration will adopt a different policy towards our country and our issues." Will it "stop supporting authoritarian regimes in the Muslim world?" he asked.

Speaking to the Weekly El-Erian cautioned against placing too much hope on the next American president. "The US works for its own interests. Bush's call for democracy was not ideologically motivated, as many seem to think, it was his way to promote US interests," he said.

"Even if Obama wins, he will be immersed in domestic issues and financial crises, and not what's happening beyond America's borders."

The reason why the election has garnered so much interest here, El-Erian argued, is because America's presence in the region has been so evident in the last eight years.

El-Erian does see one possible "change" in the next administration's approach towards the war on terror should the Democrats win -- a curtailing of the wholesale demonisation of Islamic movements.

The coming administration's four-year term will take in Egypt's presidential elections in 2010. Pundits see the vote as crucial to this country's political future. Will Washington have a say?

It's an issue about which officials appear indifferent. For Alieddin Hilal, the ruling National Democratic Party's secretary for media affairs, "Obama or McCain, it makes no difference".

"The US adopts a double-standard towards human rights, using them as a pressure card that sometimes they play and sometimes not, according to their interests."

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