What to watch for in the aftermath of the Egyptian election
New York: Frank G. Wisner, a veteran U.S. diplomat and ambassador to Egypt from 1986-91, says the first-ever multi-candidate presidential election in Egypt marked "an historic day" for that country. "A page was turned. A first important step was taken," says Wisner, vice chairman for external affairs at American International Group. "There will be many steps in the future. How Egypt manages those steps ... [will determine] what happens next. That's really going to matter a great deal to us."
Wisner was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 8, 2005. This text is published in The Daily Star with permission of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Q. What's your impression of the way Egypt's first presidential election was handled?
A. It is a major development first and foremost for Egyptians and the emerging political class, which will draw many lessons from this day on how the election was conducted. It was the first step in a process of managed political change and reform that Mubarak has launched. It's significant for the U.S. because it marks a major outcome for policies that we've advocated strongly - that Egypt, the dominant nation in the Arab world, set the pace in democratization. And the election is being watched very carefully - there's lively commentary in the Arab press and all over the Arab world. People are watching very carefully how this first and very important step took place.
Q. Mubarak's been president since the assassination of [former President] Anwar Sadat, 24 years ago. What prompted him to open up the race, however faulty or controlled, to other candidates?
A. I think a number of facts came to bear in the president's mind, but I can only speculate. There is clearly a sentiment widely afoot in the Arab world, as it is elsewhere around the world, for democratization. The pressure to head down a road of democratization has almost a tidal wave of generalized sentiment behind it. Second, I think the influence of the U.S. has been important. We've made it very clear in our diplomacy that seeing Egypt take this step was very important to our relationship. I believe that once again in Mubarak's mind, he'd like to be ahead of the game, not behind it. And he'd like to launch a process that sets the standard for the rest of the Arab world, where Egypt has a commanding position.
Q. Mubarak is 77 now. Assuming he survives the next six years, he'll be 83. Presumably this may be his "last hoorah." What will happen next?
A. The next steps are what's really important. After all, what we're looking at here is a managed political process. The government wants to move Egypt down the road to democratic reform, democratic inclusion.
But like everything that has typified his presidency, he'll be very careful about it.I think the first benchmark you want to watch for is the parliamentary elections, which will take place in November. They're very important in their own right. Also, under the present Constitution, they will decide what parties can run presidential candidates in the 2011 elections. To be able to field a candidate under present arrangements, you have to have 22 seats in parliament. So how opposition parties fare in the forthcoming parliamentary polls for the upper and lower house is very, very important. But I think what we have seen in this very active, visible, television-covered, heavily debated campaign is a great deal of criticism that's come up about basic conditions in Egypt and even, for the first time, a personal and direct criticism of the president, and of the president's wife [Suzanne Mubarak]. A Pandora's Box, if you will, has been opened, and it's inconceivable to me that it can be closed again. How the government will live with this degree of stridency is a benchmark I'd be watching very carefully.
The third point I'd make is that all the parties, including Mubarak's, talked about repealing the emergency law that has constricted Egyptian political activity. It's constricted political activity heavily and it is the single-most visible law that has to be dealt with. Will this law be removed and what will it be replaced with? Will it be replaced with other legislation that will [also] seem to be constricting? We don't know that yet.
The next point I would keep an eye on is not just the polls to Parliament, but then what's going to happen in Parliament. What will be the emerging balance of relationships in a Parliament where there'll be multi-party and multi-candidate polls? What will be the balance between the president, the executive function, and the legislature? How untrammeled will the legislature be?
I think that leads to a further observation: One thing that will change, and is clearly changing, is the old guard. Those loyalists who've been around the president over the years are slipping off the stage. That doesn't mean they're people without influence. But these have been such factors in Egyptian life that a wary eye would keep a watch on the old guard and the army. These are important facts. This election was run very professionally from the National Democratic Party (NDP), the president's party. It was run by people who thought very hard about elections, some with real experience in this country. And I suspect, particularly in the case of the NDP, that those examples will be carried in the parliamentary elections and they'll be picking candidates who will be potential winners.
Q. What is the role of Mubarak's son, Gamal, in all this? I gather he's a fairly sophisticated political person.
A. He's been extremely active. He has a powerful position in the party. He has, behind the scenes, been a key player in the management of this reform and a key player in the president's re-election. Now, many Egyptians assume he will be nudged forward to be the candidate in 2011, and many have grave differences [with Gamal]. But there's a lot of time between now and 2011. I don't think it's worth speculating how matters would play out. I think one just has to keep in mind the issue of succession is going to be a lively one, but the question isn't answered.
Q. There is no successor built into the government, right?
A. There is a temporary succession arrangement under which the head of Parliament takes over for three months and then a candidate - under the old system - emerges and goes forward for referendum. These will all be issues that will have to be thrashed out as you go into the next phase of managed reform. But I would point out, underlying the first steps in opening to democracy, is a very considerable degree of frustration in Egypt with low employment, poor economic growth - all issues that were actively debated in the campaign, pledges made by both the president and his opponents. How that frustration will play out to the degree that the president and his able premier, Ahmad Nazef, will lay out reforms that take government out of the economy and allow the free market to work - that's another benchmark I would look for in channeling and containing the frustration with generalized circumstances that are [affecting] Egyptians.
Q. What about the impact on other Arab states?
A. I think the impact is going to be very important, particularly in tightly managed states. The Syrians will be watching this closely, [as will] the Tunisians, even neighboring Libya. The national-security-controlled states will be watching very carefully how Egyptians move forward with Mubarak. And they'll be watching one very important factor, which we haven't mentioned, and that is the elephant in the tent: [the Islamist ideological and political movement] the Muslim Brotherhood. How did the Islamist tendency fare? What did it do? As far as these elections are concerned, the Muslim Brotherhood as an outlawed party did not participate directly. In its statements, however, it urged Egyptians to vote, but not to vote for the president. What will happen in the future? To what degree will they be included? How do they manage themselves and how does government manage the Islamic tendency? I'd add these to my list as benchmarks as we measure the progress Egypt makes, and as Arabs assess what the effect on their societies would be if you introduced a managed reform.