Egypt's First Real Election at Hand

The breaking news that Hosni Mubarak will step down as president of Egypt when his present term expires this fall has Middle-East watchers, political scientists, and pundits of all stripes now asking questions.  For a country whose monarchy gave way to one-party rule in 1952 and which has since had four presidents who were all generals, there is no precedent for what will be Egypt’s first-ever “real election.”

Assuming that the demonstrators who are still jamming the streets take Mubarak at his word and eventually go home, the stage will be set for the formation of political parties, nomination of candidates, filing deadlines, and a possible runoff between the top two vote-getters.  In short, things that are taken for granted in the U.S. and other republics and democracies of long standing will be suddenly adapted and applied in Egypt—a country with an illiteracy rate of 30% and an average age of 24.

About the only things one can say for certain is that this will probably be the most closely watched election anywhere in the world in 2011.  International observers will abound, their ranks almost certainly including Jimmy Carter and people from his Carter Center.

At this writing, it seems a good bet to say that Mubarak’s longtime intelligence chief and newly minted vice president, Omar Suleiman, will be a candidate.  As unpopular as the Mubarak regime appears to be at this time, Suleiman will be formidable if for no other reason than he has the backing of the only political organization with workers and “shoe leather” (the ruling National Democratic Party).

It is inevitable that Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, will be a candidate.  Almost ubiquitous in news reports from the streets of Cairo, the 68-year-old ElBaradei has raised some eyebrows of late with his statement that the Muslim Brotherhood should be part of any of the “orderly transition” sought by the Obama administration.  ElBaradei, who has been vocally critical of Israel in the past, also hinted strongly that the Muslim Brotherhood might be part of his campaign coalition if he decides to pursue the presidency.

It is in this scenario that one immediately senses the danger inherent in an immediate transition to democracy in a land where it has historically been alien.  Is it not fraught with danger to open the door to militant groups whose desire is not participatory democracy but power—”One man, one vote, one time,” to use a saying heard frequently in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s as fears were mounting that elected President Robert Mugabe would impose just that.  (He did.)

Hamas gained power in elections in the Palestinian Directorate, became part of the government, and then made Gaza a virtual separate state under its aegis.  In Lebanon, Hezbollah was pivotal in toppling the Hariri government and putting one more sympathetic to it in power in Beirut.

“It’s a tough question, alright, whether to promote democracy overseas at the risk of hostile regimes being elected to power,” said veteran Republican political consultant Charlie Black, who has worked in presidential campaigns from those of Ronald Reagan to John McCain.  “The Bush administration said democracy was worth pursuing even if it worked against U.S. interests in some places.  I feel pretty good about Egypt, because it’s a pretty sophisticated country.  But you just don’t know.”

American political consultants doing work for candidates in foreign countries is nothing new.  Both Democrats and Republicans have done work abroad for years.  It is a near cinch that they will be coming to Cairo for the election of the year.

And let’s hope, as Charlie Black, former political advisor to Ronald Reagan, once said, “that the American consultants study hard and do their homework before they put together any campaign plan.”