The Catch-22 of democratization in Arab world

December 30, 2005|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Nothing better illustrates the problems of promoting Mideast democracy than the jailing of Ayman Nour in Egypt last week.

Mr. Nour is a 41-year-old lawyer who challenged Egypt's authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak in the September elections. He is a secular, liberal politician who Bush administration officials hoped could demonstrate a political alternative in Egypt to repressive rulers and Islamists. Under U.S. pressure, Mr. Mubarak had opened up political competition.

Mr. Nour came in second in the presidential ballot - with only 7 percent of the vote. Yet he was sentenced to five years of hard labor for supposedly forging signatures on his nominating papers. This was clearly a political prosecution.

What's so depressing about the verdict - beyond its sheer injustice - is the insights it offers into the state of politics in the Arab world.

Authoritarian Arab leaders, including Mr. Mubarak and Syria's Bashar Assad, warn that political reform will open the door to victory by Islamists. Yet instead of encouraging secular parties that might provide an alternative for voters, they crush them. Mr. Nour was a minimal threat to Mr. Mubarak's rule (or his hopes that his son, Gamal, will succeed him), yet this pesky upstart had to be squashed.

I sat with Mr. Nour in his Cairo living room in June, looking out at his spectacular roof garden, as he talked of his political prospects. His journalist wife, Gamila Ismail, was running out to do an interview, and his teenage son was making campaign posters. Then a member of parliament, Mr. Nour had been arrested just before announcing his candidacy for the presidency.

The legislator had been punched, beaten and jailed for 44 days. He rolled up his pants leg and showed me the bruises. He said he'd still have been behind bars had it not been for intense pressure by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Then Mr. Nour offered me a chilling prophecy about his political future. "If I lose," he said, "they will put me in jail. If they thought I'd win, they'd jail me first."

Mr. Nour believed that real political reform would not mean victory for the Islamists: "Our party has inherited the dream of those hoping for an alternative to the Islamists and to military rule."

But the dream of a resurgent liberal party seems to be receding. In parliamentary elections in November and December, Mr. Nour's Tomorrow Party got only one seat and other liberal parties garnered only a dozen. Secular liberal parties clearly haven't figured out how to attract Egyptian voters.

The ruling National Democratic Party, which could bus followers to the polls, took 311 seats out of 444 elected places. (Only 25 percent to 35 percent of voters turned out.)

But supporters of Egypt's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood - which is officially banned but whose members can run as independents - won 88 seats. Had they chosen to run more candidates, they would have done even better, despite police harassment.

So does Egyptian political reform, as Mubarak supporters claim, mean the door is opened for politicians who seek an Islamic state?

Yes, unless Mr. Mubarak's policy changes. His ruling party is out of touch with its people, and its old guard thwarts would-be reformers. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood reaches out to the grass roots through the mosques, dispensing free medical care and education.

Secular opposition parties don't yet have a message that excites voters, and their prospects for improvement are clipped by a regime clinging to power.

"The Bush administration is still engaged in wishful thinking that there is a liberal alternative," says Arab democracy expert Thomas Carothers. "Still, what happened to Ayman Nour is typical of the treatment the Mubarak regime gives to even weak opposition. The weaker the secular opposition the better, because it makes the Islamists look more dangerous."

And so an Ayman Nour behind bars comes to symbolize the Catch-22 of the push for Mideast democracy. Unless the Bush team can persuade rulers such as Mr. Mubarak to tolerate competition, they will repress secular liberal opponents. Meanwhile, Islamists will take advantage of democratic change.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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