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Democratization in Egypt in the 1990s: stagnant, or merely stalled?

Democratization is the process of moving from nondemocratic or authoritarian forms of government to democratic forms of government (Sorenson, 1991, 14). It has been argued by Huntington (1993) that the world is currently in a "third wave of democratization" that has seen the widespread transformation of previously non-democratic regimes toward democracy, especially in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. This wave of democratization has been far-reaching; indeed, over half of the world's current states can now be classified, at least nominally, as democracies (Singer and Wildavsky, 1993). Only one major region, the Arab World, still lags behind in this worldwide movement of democratization. And yet, this region has not been without recent progress, as numerous aspects of political liberalization and democracy, such as elections, multi-partyism, more open media and political participation, more powerful legislatures, stronger judicial bodies, and more autonomous civil society have come about in various countries in the region. This essay examines the state of the democratization process in Egypt as of early 1997, in the wake of the legislative elections of late 1995, the new Kamel El-Ganzouri government of early 1996, and more generally recent years of reported progress in political liberalization.

Perhaps no Arab country has made greater claims to democratization and is a more important test case of its possibilities than Egypt. Long considered a regional leader, Egypt has also been outspoken in its promise to democratize. Since Anwar Sadat opened Egyptian politics and society in the mid-1970s, and continuing in a more publicly explicit manner during the regime of Hosni Mubarak since 1981, Egypt has claimed that it is moving toward democracy. Yet this process has been slow and often retrograde. Furthermore it has been flawed by a blanket refusal to allow democracy to intrude upon certain elements of the Egyptian elite. Still, as the Mubarak era has worn on, pressure from Egypt's Western supporters for real progress in the major elements of liberalization, namely political democratization and economic privatization, has increased. This article explores the progress made in democratization in Egypt during the 1990s.


In order to make a reasonable assessment, it is first necessary to determine what democracy consists of - that is, what characteristics must be present for a state to be said to be democratic? Schumpeter provides a now widely-accepted definition of democracy as "that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people's vote" (1976, 269). Dahl cites eight minimum requirements of democracy, namely:

1. Freedom to form and join organizations

2. Freedom of expression

3. The right to vote

4. Eligibility for public office

5. The right of political leaders to compete for support

6. Alternative sources of information

7. Free and fair elections

8. Institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference (Ibid., 1971, 3).

Numerous studies have subsequently attempted to measure democracy (see, e.g., Freedom House, 1976-1996; Diamond, Linz, and Lipset, 1988, 1989; Inkeles, 1991), and to varying degrees all center on the same conceptual determinants. Democracy is essentially thought to have two clear criteria that center on: 1) the need for widespread participation in governance by most of the population, normally through open and free elections, and 2) real competition between alternative claimants to leadership. Furthermore, citizens must also have basic civil and political rights essential to the fostering of a democratic atmosphere. There may be a number of other factors that foster (or retard) democracy in a society, such as level of economic development or degree of modernity, but competition, participation, and protection of basic political/civil rights are the minimal requirements (Huntington, 1991, 7; Sorenson, 1993, 1213).

A nuanced analysis of democracy and democratization in a society obviously involves many factors, some of which are especially resistant to data gathering. Others may not be essential to the early functioning of immature democracies. In order to assess recent democratization in Egypt within the limits of this short essay, the support for democracy provided by four major variables is examined during the period from 1990 to the present. These variables are the following:

1. Political institutions

2. Political processes and culture

3. Civil liberties and political rights

4. Underlying socioeconomic and demographic realities

Each of these variables has several dimensions.

Political institutions include the presidency, legislature, judiciary, bureaucracy, military, and constitution. In Egypt the struggle between government institutions and informal, often vested interests is critical to understanding political decision making.

Political processes and culture include various aspects of political participation such as elections, political party activity and competitiveness, interest group activity, and media activity. Factors influencing the underlying attitudes and behavior of the population such as political socialization, the status of civil society, economic liberalization, and the development of an autonomous business elite are also involved.

Civil liberties and political rights center on the realization of widespread protection of basic freedoms (speech, religion, press, assembly), protection from the state, and a balance in the ongoing struggle between the rule of law embodied by the constitution and the continuation of Emergency Law dating back to 1981.

Finally, underlying socioeconomic and demographic factors such as the inequitable distribution of wealth and income, increasing deprivation of the poor, an eroding middle class, and rapid population growth, provide a background context that raises serious questions about democracy's salience for the majority of Egyptians at present, especially in light of low legitimacy from the government.

It is thought that these variables are interrelated as expressed in the following model:

As indicated by the direction of the arrows, the key independent variable for democratization in Egypt is political institutions. The democratization of political institutions directly impacts how rapidly or slowly democratization proceeds both directly and through its impact on two other independent variables, civil liberties/political rights and political processes/culture. Influencing these three independent variables are underlying socioeconomic and demographic realities that provide the societal framework within which democratization must occur.

To explore these variables, data comes from numerous sources. These sources include: direct observation of the Egyptian political scene throughout the period, (including poll-watching in the 1995 legislative elections); interviews with leading Egyptian political analysts; information gathered, in English and Arabic, from Cairo research centers and think tanks; data from non-Egyptian organizations that focus on social, economic, and human rights conditions in many countries; Egyptian newspapers, and academic literature on Egypt's political liberalization.

Our analysis reveals that democratization in Egypt is stalled. Indeed, in certain respects the process has lost ground. A brief summation of our analysis by the four variables outlined reveals more precisely the various obstacles involved in the path to democratization in Egypt in the 1990s.


The development of viable and effective political institutions is one of the most important characteristics of any democratic political system, and must be the centerpiece of Egyptian democratization. However, despite a constitution that embraces democratic principles, Egypt's political institutions are dominated by the enormous powers of the executive which overwhelm the legislature and marginalize the judiciary. Egypt has a highly centralized and paternalistic political culture which endorses the dominant presidency. The president has substantial constitutional and legal authority, and controls a large public sector which primarily performs social control and welfare functions.

Furthermore, the military still remains very powerful, and while the cabinet is increasingly staffed by academicians and technocrats, the district governors are still overwhelmingly retired general officers from the police or armed forces. Therefore the analysis of the complex variable of political institutions focuses primarily on the presidency and legislature.

Moreover, in addition to the formal state machinery of the executive branch, which the president controls and in which resides most governmental power, there are also informal ties that bind together the governing elite and supersede Egypt's legal institutions.

Presidential Control And Influence

Egypt is a presidential state, which, despite recent economic and political liberalization, is still characterized by a dominant presidency. The president has enormous constitutional and legal authority in a society that has a millennia-old paternalistic political culture. Almost all influential and authoritative bodies of the state machinery are necessarily affiliated to the Presidential office, either formally or informally. To implement any new project in Egypt successfully, it has to be endorsed by the president or one of the government bodies or persons affiliated to the "Presidential Establishment." As Ayyubi notes, "Any important policy or project must normally have the 'blessing' of the President before it can proceed with a reasonable prospect of success" (Ayyubi, 1989, 2).

The President also has great influence over and through the military and security forces, which in turn perform several roles for the state. Based on universal conscription, and numbering 500,000 men, the military performs control, welfare, and economic functions, as its basic national defense function has not been exercised in a generation. Since the rise of Islamist political violence in 1992, the military and security forces have intervened directly in society. Their powers are extended dramatically by the Emergency Law, in place since 1981, which blurs the fine line that divides the military from the civil sphere in society. The military and security forces also act as a welfare establishment, providing food and shelter for lower and middle class young males who would otherwise further increase Egypt's 20% (or greater) inflation rate. Finally, "the military under President Mubarak has come to play an increasingly important economic role" (Bill and Springborg, 1994, 267), enriching many officers and making them a vital part of the state elite.

The military and security forces provide Mubarak's security, guarding his interests in a socio-political context where the government lacks deep public support and has no insurance of its continued legitimacy. Thus, reducing the size and influence of the military and security establishment is difficult for the Mubarak regime to accomplish.

Cabinet and Bureaucracy

Key government institutions related to the presidency are the cabinet and the bureaucracy. The cabinet supervises the implementation of general policies determined by the president, (who often seems to run a one-man show). The bureaucracy executes these public policies and is primarily responsible for regulating the general social, economic and political activity within the state. Both the cabinet and the bureaucracy are characterized by long-term appointments and minimal change in their functions. In addition, there are numerous important agencies that are directly affiliated to the Presidential office, including: the Central Agency for Planning, Mobilization and Statistics; the Central Auditing Agency; the Socialist Public Prosecutor's Office; and the National Specialized Councils.

The bureaucracy, over four million strong, is widely viewed as bloated, corrupt, and inefficient. Like the military, its primary roles appear to include welfare and economic functions. Because of these functions, and because public sector employees provide an important base of support for Mubarak's dominant National Democratic Party (NDP), privatization and other bureaucratic reform has moved slowly. The cabinet shuffle of early 1996 represented the regime's attempt to appease the public discontent that followed the late 1995 parliamentary elections. The new cabinet reoriented the government's political stance toward alleviating the severe economic conditions of the masses, instead of the previous focus on the financial measures of structural adjustments. However, it did not broaden the membership of the elite to encompass new political cadres from the opposition or the civil society, nor did it incorporate significant changes toward the size and structure of the government bureaucracy.


The legislature and judiciary are too weak to balance the dominant executive branch. Egypt is formally a parliamentary republic, so there actually should be close ties between a cabinet headed by a prime minister and the legislature, but in reality both institutions are dominated by the president. The legislature does not check the executive because the legislature is overwhelmingly controlled by the NDP. After the final round of the 1995 elections and the post-election rush to join the NDP by many successful "independent" candidates, the NDP controlled 417 of the National Assembly's 444 elected seats (94%); as compared to 348 in the 1990 elections and 346 in the 1987 elections. The judiciary, although relatively independent, has had its influence reduced by the shifting of trials of Islamist opponents from the government to military courts.

The representative function of the legislature is further undermined by Article 93 of the constitution, which gives the Assembly authority to determine the validity of its own elections and the credentials of its members. Thus, if the majority of the elected members belong to the NDP, disputes over election outcomes and membership behavior will normally be settled in their favor, thus continuing NDP hegemony over the parliament. This is further exacerbated by the fact that the supposed judicial supervision over the electoral process, stipulated by Article 88 of the constitution, does not fully occur (see below).

The People's Assembly

The Egyptian People's Assembly exemplifies the dilemma of the Egyptian political system, which is the wide gap between the ideal forms of constitution and law, (which are largely democratic in principle), and the reality of political practice, which is semi-authoritarian at best. The People's Assembly is vested with enormous legislative and supervisory powers under Part 5, Section 2 of the 1971 Constitution, and by Law 38 of 1972. These powers are rarely exercised and the People's Assembly is widely viewed as a puppet institution with no independent legislative or supervisory capacities. Moreover, it does not perform the function of representation either, since legislative elections are manipulated by the government. Thus the results of elections are rendered suspect and the legitimacy of the institution as an established democratic framework through which peaceful political, social and economic change could be enacted, is limited.

According to the constitution, the People's Assembly is the main legislative organ of the state, and the president's execution of some legislative tasks, such as issuing laws through a presidential decree, is limited as stipulated in the constitution (Article 108). Ideally, the government's right to present legislative proposals is complemented by the assembly's right to debate the proposals, introduce amendments, and then issue laws. However, the reality of the lawmaking process demonstrates the hegemony of the executive. Kandeel shows that 214 laws proposed by the executive were passed in 1990, whereas only seven laws were proposed by the assembly, of which only one was adopted. Similarly, in 1991, 451 government-proposed laws were adopted, and only one proposed by the assembly was passed out of a total of seven originally presented (Kandeel, 1995, 62). Furthermore, the assembly did not oppose any laws presented by the government or any presidential decree issued. Laws are adopted very quickly and smoothly with very little debate over their content or amendments proposed by assembly members. The People's Assembly is further marginalized by the restriction on the scope of issues open to parliamentary debate, which focuses on services such as "public utilities, housing, food, and supplies" and completely ignores issues related to "foreign policy and national security" (El-Mikawy, 1991, 20). In addition, any proposal to which the government is adverse is blocked automatically. The overriding NDP majority means that, regardless of its organizational features or the outspoken attitudes of the opposition, the parliament can be little more than a rubber stamp for the executive.

As for the supervisory role accorded to the People's Assembly by the constitution (Articles 124 to 132), the right to question has been quite limited in application, and there has never been a no confidence vote in the government or one of its ministers, despite the fact that corruption and inefficiency have always been major obstacles in the evolution of the Egyptian state. Indeed, government officials tend to ignore or dismiss with impunity opposition attempts to implement a supervisory role (Kandeel, 1995, 73). The Assembly has never formed committees to investigate government policies or projects, nor does it exercise its constitutional prerogative to control the government's budget (Articles 115 to 123). The Assembly's supervisory role can never be performed to its fullest potential as long as the NDP controls a super-majority of its membership.

The Judiciary - An Exception

Turning to the Egyptian judiciary, we find quite an independent organ, perhaps the most democratic organ of the state. Court verdicts are generally respected and applied by all parties concerned. The appointment of judges and court members is undertaken by the Supreme Judicial Council which is independent from the Ministry of Justice. The Minister of Justice only has executive capabilities in administering the legal affairs of the state, and cannot intervene in the verdicts of the courts. The independence of the judiciary is further protected by laws making judges and prosecutors extremely difficult to remove from office.

However, a major problem with the judicial system is its inefficiency, brought about by a multiplicity and overlap in the offices responsible for investigations and supervision. The judiciary has also been bypassed in the fight against Islamist violence by the use of military courts to try civilian defendants, a practice that is legal under the Emergency Law. Furthermore, a conflict arose out of the 1995 parliamentary elections between the Higher Administrative Court and the People's Assembly which led to the rejection of the assembly's decisions. Article 93 of the constitution states that the People's Assembly is responsible for verifying the validity of its membership, upon review of this court's decisions. The judiciary has a constitutionally-mandated role to supervise elections, and the Appeals Court must ultimately rule in cases of alleged electoral irregularities. The legislature has continuously rejected the decisions handed down by the court on the basis that "the assembly is the master of its own decision", meaning the assembly is superior to the judiciary, thus belittling the highest court in the country.

The Constitution

The 1971 Constitution is itself in need of an overhaul, as it embraces the socialist philosophy of a bygone era. However, the government has been quite firm in opposing the opening up of a constitutional discussion in parliament, arguing that the country's political environment (due to the Muslim fundamentalists and the structural adjustment program) is not equipped to handle such a major change in the tenets of the state. Yet underlying these arguments are major concerns on the part of the entrenched elite that amending the constitution with regard to the economic orientation of the country might open the door to other, more volatile issues, such as the method by which the president is chosen and his term of office is determined.

Informal Ties

Finally, our discussion of the political institutions would not be complete without some attention to the informal ties among Egypt's governing elites. The power relations which bind the governing establishment in Egypt supersede the legal institutions and mechanisms that are supposed to regulate political life in any democratic state (see Springborg, 1989). Current informal ties influencing elite formation have been a feature of the Egyptian political system since at least Nasser's era. This lack of institutionalization and the continued influence of traditional relationships pose a major obstacle to the democratization process.

However illegitimate, the Egyptian state camouflages its appearance as a legal constitutional system. Palmer notes that, "An essential part of the democratic process is the ability of democratic institutions to guarantee that the procedures of democracy will be honored by all parties concerned and that the political process will be democratic in fact as well as in name" (Palmer, 1989, 226). Based on this criterion, the mere presence of democratic laws and regulations governing institutions is a necessary yet insufficient condition for the application of democracy. Institutional development is thus not merely the presence of the institutional structure and its governing laws, but also the application of institutional mechanisms in administering the affairs of the state, and in resolving the conflicts that may arise in the political process within that institutional framework. Such a system does not resort to undemocratic means or personal relationships to enforce the political elite's agenda.


Our model of political democratization in Egypt necessarily centers on the political institutions, for Egypt's pattern of gradual political liberalization is both led and hindered by its dominant political institutions - especially the presidency. If Egypt is to make substantial progress toward democratization, its political institutions must be able to tolerate significant change. Our assessment of whether there has been progress toward democratization since 1990 with regard to political institutions, however, leads us to conclude that ground has actually been lost. President Mubarak consolidated his power and strengthened the already dominant presidency. He was "reelected" by popular referendum with 94.9% of the vote for a third six-year term of office in October 1993. He still refuses to name a vice-president. He has no obvious successor at the moment, but speculation centers on military officers, reflecting the reality that whoever is selected will have to be acceptable to the entrenched military bureaucracy.

Moreover, the outcome of the November/December 1995 legislative elections saw the NDP emerge with its largest number of seats ever in the People's Assembly. Also during this period, in response to the low-level insurgency and terror campaign of Islamist radicals, the government tightened its control over society in a variety of ways, thus reducing the people's ability to influence politics.


A cardinal feature of any democratic system is that the political opposition has the chance to become the governing party. Despite the greater freedom of expression that has come about during Mubarak's tenure, the opposition has lost ground in its electoral challenge of the NDP. Election results since 1979 provide clear evidence of this trend. After the majority of successful "independent" candidates joined the NDP elections (most of these candidates were NDP members who had been passed over for nomination), the NDP held 89% of parliament's seats in 1979, 87% in 1984, 69% in 1987, 86% in 1990, and 94% in 1995 (Zaki, 1995, 80, 94). After the 1995 elections the NDP held 417 seats, the New Wafd Party 6 seats, Tagamuu' National Progressive Unionist Party (NPUP) 5 seats, Muslim Brotherhood 1 seat, Ahrar Party 1 seat, the Nasserist Party 1 seat, and true independents 13 seats (Al-Ahram, 1996, 386).

Our analysis of Egypt's political processes and culture since 1990, will focus on political parties, elections, civil society, privatization, political socialization, and political culture. Overall, the analysis of these factors reveals a mixed picture.

Repeated NDP Victories

Overwhelming NDP victories are largely accounted for by four factors that bode ill for Egypt's democratization. First, there have been widespread electoral irregularities in every modern Egyptian election. In addition, every election since 1979 has been conducted under different electoral laws (Zaki, 1995, 92). Second, the NDP's dominance is also due to its monopoly of state resources, including the media, for employment in the large public sector, social security, and health and public services. The power of patronage has both direct effects, as public sector employees are mobilized to support the NDP, and indirect effects, as voters know that to receive any services the NDP candidate must win.

Third, opposition parties are weak, poorly organized, internally authoritarian, and most of them have very limited appeal. Egypt has a multi-party system with sixteen legal political parties and the Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal but generally tolerated opposition movement (see U.S. Department of State, 1996). The Political Parties Law of 1977 (Law 40) preventing religious parties, restricts the Muslim Brotherhood or Coptic political organizations from legally fielding candidates for office under their labels. However, besides the Muslim Brotherhood, there is no viable legal opposition to the NDP or the Mubarak regime. The other parties are weak, poorly organized, unable to unite, and discriminated against in campaigning and elections in a variety of ways.

The liberal Wafd, pan-Arabist Nasserist, and Socialist NPUP appeal only to a narrow group of largely urban voters. The Islamist Socialist Liberal Party and the Muslim Brotherhood have wider appeal, but the suppressive legislation governing political activity in Egypt ranging from Law 40 to the more general Emergency Law (Law 50 of 1982, which amends Law 162 of 1958) limits their effectiveness in the political arena. Ultimately, their overall weakness and ideological differences make it difficult for the opposition parties to engage in effective electoral alliances. They often seem to share less with each other than they do with the government.

Fourth, as a consequence of changing electoral laws and opposition party weaknesses, numerous independent candidates participate in elections, only to join the NDP once they have gained victory. These political opportunists appear to be motivated primarily by the personal benefits of parliamentary membership, and bring little to the development of democracy in Egypt (Zaki, 1995, 92-97).


The presence of free and fair elections is one of the basic tenets of democracy, whereby the will of the people is represented within the political system. The 1971 Egyptian constitution guarantees universal suffrage and candidacy without discrimination based on race, ethnicity, language, religion, or ideology. It provides for the electoral process as a mechanism for choosing members of the legislature, the rural popular councils, and the Shura Council. The President is selected by a public referendum, after nomination by the People's Assembly.

Despite such well-sounding tenets, based on their results, conduct, and participation levels, Egyptian elections continue to be a sham. In other words, Egyptian elections fail the acid test of democracy - they are not free, open, and fair. In a variety of ways too numerous to detail in this essay, elections are manipulated and rigged in favor of the NDP. There are many complaints of voting irregularities, some election-related violence, and confusing new electoral rules that are advantageous to government candidates.

Most serious is the conduct of elections. Despite the fact that Article 88 of the Constitution states that voting should be supervised by the judiciary, Article 25, Section 2 of Law 73 of 1956 limits judiciary supervision to the main voting locations and not the subsidiary voting stations. The directors of these subsidiary voting stations are chosen from public sector employees, and Article 24 requires that they be appointed by the Ministry of Interior, which raises the possibility that elections are not administered impartially. Furthermore, according to Article 32 the director of the voting station has to sign the voting certificate validating a person's vote and the station secretary has to sign the voting list, yet the candidate himself does not have to sign the list in order to prevent forgery. The continued extension of the Emergency Law has an adverse effect on the political climate during election time, as it allows the government to undertake exceptional procedures which suppress the freedom of speech, movement, and campaigning, and thus in effect prevents non-government candidates from open electioneering. Finally, in 1995 the government refused to allow international election observers, and the People's Assembly subsequently ignored the decisions concerning election suits made by the High Administrative Court in 1996.

All of these problems with the conduct and outcome of elections reduce people's confidence in the electoral process and contribute to generally low participation. The percentage of the population who actually participate in the elections or public referendums is very low. In the 1995 parliamentary elections the voter turnout was below 50% out of 21 million registered citizens (the government claimed voter turnout was 50%), a figure which is even smaller when we consider the total number of non-registered citizens (30 million) (Al-Ahram, 1996, 385). Nevertheless it is still slightly higher than the 46% voter turnout in the 1990 parliamentary elections. Despite the flaws in the 1995 elections, and the government's jailing of the Muslim Brotherhood's leadership in October 1995, there was high public interest in the process, a record number of candidates (over 4,000), and vigorous campaigning.

Civil Society

There has been some progress over the last six years in the development of civil society, as the public interest in the 1995 elections would seem to suggest. Still, Egypt's present civil society is not fully autonomous of the state, as most of its organizations are controlled by the government in one way or another. In Egypt the civil society is more consenting than participating, yet the recent signs of its growing vitality seem to affirm its further development.

In addition to political parties, Egypt's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) include associations, private voluntary organizations (PVOs), and syndicates (or unions), all of which provide an outlet for political participation and a training ground for future political leaders which is lacking in the formal political system. Of the over 14,000 associations, however, only a very small percentage could be said to be thriving institutions. Indeed, Law 32 of 1964 still requires all such organizations to be approved by the Ministry of Social Affairs and then affiliated to that ministry or another government body. PVOs have been legally established as non-profit civil companies, largely to get around the restrictions imposed by Law 32. Yet, their activities are often restricted by governmental and international institutional regulations due to doubts about their fiscal integrity, thus denying them many sources of funding and support.

The gradual reduction of Egypt's public sector in the move toward privatization has opened up opportunities for the non-governmental sector to operate outside of the long shadow historically cast by the dominant Egyptian state. The government has apparently realized that NGOs can be useful in helping to alleviate the negative effects of the economic reform program, such as unemployment, poverty, and price increases. The move toward privatization, supported by international organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and U.S. Agency for International Development, enabled many NGOs to become perceived as positive agents for development. Thus, the future of NGOs appears bright - indeed, they are one area where real progress toward democratization has been made in the 1990s.

Specifically, in the early 1990s the attitude of the Egyptian government toward NGOs began to grow warmer. Calls to liberate the non-governmental sector from strict governmental rules were voiced in the parliament and the official press. The rate of increase of legally established NGOs rose during 1990-1993; as the government increased its support to NGOs that perform economic and social services aimed at easing the problems of poverty and unemployment, or that provide family planning and motherhood/childhood services. Moreover, international funding for Egyptian NGOs was tolerated and administrative conflicts between the state and the NGOs were regulated.

NGOs, however, have not been fully prepared to play larger social roles after being marginalized for so long. Capacity building, funding, membership and volunteers, and relations with the state are among the main issues that NGOs in Egypt now must face (see Kandeel, 1994).

Privatization and Growth of Economic Activity

In a related development, the movement toward privatization has had some positive effects vis-a-vis democratization. Recently, a growing number of members of the higher and upper middle class have established businesses. The increasing availability of high-technology imports (cellular telephones finally appeared in late 1996), to accompany growing use of the Internet, satellite dishes, and cable television may suggest growth in the middle class, although the persistent high unemployment, especially among the lower middle class and poor, may mean that the disparity in wealth is growing.

Accompanying this growing economic activity has been the establishment or increased activity of numerous business associations, such as the Egyptian Businessmen's Association, the Young Entrepreneurs Society, the Young Businessmen's Association, and the Egyptian-American Chamber of Commerce. These organizations, and the economic forces unleashed by widespread privatization, may foster a more open and competitive public atmosphere that encourages democracy's growth. A new business elite is also being produced, but our research has not yet revealed whether the composition and interests of this elite are sufficiently separate from those of the current elite to have a democratizing effect on the political system.

Political Culture and Socialization

We conclude the analysis of this variable with a brief look at Egypt's political culture and socialization. The Egyptian political culture is by nature authoritarian, according to the geographic determinism of its ancient riverine culture (Hamdan, 1993), and it tends to reinforce the status quo rather than produce change or challenge the political leadership.

Furthermore, ineffective political socialization has contributed to acute political ignorance and apathy among average Egyptians. The agents of political socialization such as the family, educational system, religious establishments, media, government, political parties, and NGOs pay little attention to imparting attitudes that emphasize political participation or the questioning of authority figures. The family, educational system, and religious establishment do not focus on direct political socialization but rather stress ethical and nationalist-oriented values, all within the framework of submission to authority. Moreover, the underground Islamist movement, although it protests against and challenges the government, does not reject the notion of the dominance of legitimate authority and the limitation of democracy.

Similarly, the media is largely distrusted as it is government-dominated and is believed to provide misleading information as well as propaganda for the government. Newspapers owned by opposition political parties do not enjoy widespread readership, and the information they provide is also doubted as their major objective is attacking and discrediting the government.

Finally, political institutions focus their political socialization efforts through the schools and the military, and as noted above, emphasize nationalism and respect for authority. The political parties and the NGOs have also been ineffective in transmitting political knowledge or teaching political practice as they do not enjoy widespread membership, nor do they interact with the silent majority of the population (Abdel-Maguid, 1993).


In sum, our assessment of the progress in political process and culture shows some improvement, primarily in the growing vibrancy of civil society, participation in the 1995 elections, and long-term impacts on society produced by privatization. On the other hand, the continued absence of fair elections, which contributes to the continued weakness of the political opposition, coupled with the government's efforts to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood's control of major syndicates, as well as the authoritarian political culture and ineffective political socialization, are major obstacles to effective democratization.


Although Egypt is more free than just about anywhere else in the Arab World, the third variable, civil liberties and political rights, has worsened since 1990. There are five major areas in which Egypt not only falls short, but in which ground has been lost or no progress has been made: 1) freedom of speech, 2) freedom of religion, 3) police control, 4) freedom of association, and 5) emergency law.

Freedom of speech in Egypt has been damaged or constrained in several ways. First, although the printed press is relatively free and opposition newspapers do exist, the 1995 Press Law sent a clear message that criticism of the government and public figures can only go so far. Radio and television still remain closely controlled by the government. Official censorship of all media, although generally not heavy-handed, is conducted by various ministries (U.S. State Department, 1996). Likewise, the apostasy case and subsequent court-ordered divorce of Professor Nasser Abu Zaid, formerly of Cairo University, demonstrated that limitations on the freedom of expression also come from the "religious right" in Egyptian society.

Second, freedom of religion exists in name only. In reality, the Egyptian government supports Islam as a de facto state religion (the constitution was amended in 1980 to make the Shari'a the primary source for legislation) while numerous laws and practices make discrimination against the Coptic minority (about 10% of the population) the norm. Perhaps most troubling are the blatant differential government legislation and policy for 1) proselytizing (illegal for Christians, legal for Muslims), 2) for construction of religious buildings (new churches are virtually impossible to get approved, even renovations are difficult while new mosques are encouraged), and 3) the decidedly sectarian nature of the continuing violence in rural Upper Egypt. The government is in an awkward position on this issue, as it must adopt a pro-Islamic stance or run the risk of losing ground to the Islamist opposition in the struggle for mass appeal. The current crackdown (January 1997) on a "Satanism" movement among university students is almost certainly an overreaction to some isolated cases of teenage rebellion, but may also have provided the government with an opportunity to arrest students under another label.

Third, the police power of the state is immense and the average citizen is provided with no meaningful protection from it. There have been reports of extra-judicial killings, torture of suspects, detention without charges or trial, and police brutality or incompetence (U.S. State Department, 1996). The continued low-intensity conflict with the violent Islamist fringe, now primarily localized in Upper Egypt, perpetuates an attitude within the regime that the police should be allowed wide latitude to eliminate this threat. In such an atmosphere, any regime opponent can be targeted, as the harassment of moderate Muslim Brotherhood leaders during 1995, culminating in their arrest just prior to and during the late 1995 legislative elections, showed (Al-Ahram Weekly, November and December 1995).

Fourth, freedom of association is still restricted with regard to political matters. Permits from the Ministry of Interior are required for political gatherings and rallies, based on a 1923 law, and it is generally difficult for the opposition to have public meetings (U.S. Department of State, 1996). As discussed above, Law 32 of 1964 and Law 40 of 1977 also limit the organization and activities of NGOs and parties; several human rights organizations are still not officially legal entities in Egypt (U.S. Department of State, 1996).

Finally, the fifth major area in which Egypt's human rights record falls short is the primary reason why the first four areas show little progress. This reason is the continuation for over fifteen years of Emergency Law, which has eroded the constitutional foundation of the government and has undermined its legitimacy. Emergency law gives the government the justification for acting in an arbitrary manner toward citizens, and in response, citizens modify their behavior and moderate their criticism accordingly.


Overall, although the assessment of Egypt's recent performance with regard to this third variable is poor, hope remains. The rating of poor, is a reflection of the government's recent record on civil liberties and political rights, and its very clear attempts to limit personal freedoms. The hope is based on the reality that the information revolution emanating from the West may undermine the Egyptian government's attempts to control people's access to sources of information and knowledge. As noted above, cable television, satellite dishes, fax machines, the Internet, and now cellular telephones are key pieces of information technology now rapidly proliferating among the upper and middle classes. The government will ultimately be unable to prevent the filtering of information from the outside world to the masses.


As Zaki notes, underlying social and demographic realities such as 1) rapid demographic changes, 2) widespread illiteracy, and 3) a sharp division between "haves" and "have-nots" and increasing poverty, makes progress toward democracy a secondary issue to much of Egypt's population. Demographic problems include Egypt's rising population (now over 60 million and the annual growth rate is still 2.4%), which creates a pyramidal age structure (45% population under 15) with a high dependency ratio that exacerbates high unemployment (over 20%) and rapid rural-urban migration (Zaki, 1995, 156157). Secondly, if literacy is the single most important socio-economic predictor of democracy, then Egypt still has a long way to go in reaching a "threshold" level for democratic takeoff. Despite some progress in education, literacy standards still remain low, with barely half of the population possessing basic literacy (Zaki, 1995, 155).

Finally, the problem of inequality in wealth and income is severe, and the existence of a society with fairly sharp class divisions means that much of the population is mired in poverty with no reasonable hope of upward mobility. At least 35% and possibly as much as 50% of Egypt's population falls below the poverty line. Egypt is considered one of the fifty poorest countries in the world, with an annual GDP per capita of just over $600. A very few families and individuals control most of the country's wealth, while much of the "middle class" can barely make ends meet.

The process of economic liberalization, with its heavy dose of structural adjustment and privatization, has so far further undermined economic stability for most people. Only the wealthy few have been positioned to take advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities produced by this policy. The recessionary or inflationary impacts on the economy have hit the poor and lower middle class (i.e., about 70-75% of the population) hardest. These impacts are supposed to be alleviated, at least partially, by the Social Fund. Begun in 1993, its goals are to provide funding for new production projects, as well as social welfare, aimed at smoothing out on the micro-level some of the macro-level dislocations produced by the privatization and structural adjustment process. It is not clear that it has had much impact thus far.


The overall analysis of Egypt's underlying social and demographic factors leads us to conclude that, although change for the better has occurred on some levels since 1990, the sheer momentum of population growth undermines development efforts. The half-hearted implementation of the privatization program has thus far contributed to worsening macroeconomic indicators that reflect growing hardship for many people. The reality is that for most people, democracy is not a high priority now because of their economic struggle to survive.


The continuity and establishment of the process of democratization in Egypt depends primarily upon the broadening of the democratic experience. The process of political liberalization that was launched during the 1970s progressed slowly into the 1980s, but it was essentially halted in the 1990s in the face of the Islamist challenge. Nonetheless, democratization is a process that once ignited cannot be easily halted (although it can be delayed or interrupted) (See Huntington, 1991, chapter 2).

Throughout this analysis, our conclusions have been presented. Since 1990, democratization in Egypt has lost ground, especially due to the political violence of radical Islamist groups, which has encouraged the government to freeze progress in many areas essential to democracy. We can expect no further progress toward democracy as long as the government faces this violent confrontation. On the other hand, continued governmental repression might provoke greater violence by the opposition, so the potential for intensified conflict in both directions exists.

To renew progress toward democracy, we recommend that the government formally open a public dialogue with the moderate Muslim Brotherhood leadership, with the ultimate goal of legally bringing them into the political process. Moreover, more rapid economic development, probably through a renewed commitment to economic liberalization and privatization, must occur. Additionally, the Emergency Law must be lifted, at least for the vast majority of the country. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, President Mubarak must signal his commitment to democracy by indicating his intention to step down at the end of this term and give way to an elected successor.

We are not confident that any of these recommendations will be realized in this decade, thus we conclude that, barring a dramatic change in the situation initiated by an exogenous variable, democratization will not progress in Egypt in this decade.

In light of the limited government commitment to true democratization, two scenarios for the near future (the next ten years) appear most likely. The first scenario is basically optimistic and depends on the continuation of three current developments in the country. The first development is the expansion and growing vibrancy of Egyptian civil society and its role in public affairs, especially through associations and PVOs. Second, the process of privatization should strengthen the role of the business sector in public life and increase the rate of economic development, which in turn should have a trickle-down effect on the masses, thus upgrading standards of living and literacy rates, and allow a larger space for people's political participation. Third, the opening up of Egyptian society to the outside world through the technological revolution will reduce the government's grip on the information sector and its ability to shape the political socialization of the masses.

A more pessimistic scenario is based on an interruption in any or all of the three developments just mentioned, perhaps due to something unexpected (Mubarak's death or disability in office, or war with Israel), but more likely caused by economic decline or collapse in the face of continuing population pressure during this time frame. The response of the government to such negative events would be predictable; a reassertion of the status quo and a rejection of further democratization.

Barring such events in the time period specified, continued political liberalization is likely, but not to the extent of allowing meaningful elections or participation of the opposition in national governance. Egypt will have to wait a little longer for democracy.


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Larry P. Goodson is an assistant professor of political science at The American University of Cairo, Egypt. Soha Radwan is a graduate student in the Faculty of Political Science and Economics at Cairo University, Egypt. An earlier draft of this article was delivered at the Sixth Annual Congress of the International Association of Middle East Studies, 10-13 April 1996, in Mafraq, Jordan.
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Author:Radwan, Soha
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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