Egypt, one of the most powerful U.S. allies in the Arab world, is sitting on a political volcano ready to erupt at any moment. The upcoming presidential elections will be a potential watershed in Egyptian politics and a fierce battle for Egypt’s soul.

The United States can play a productive role in the transformation of Egyptian politics. By not interfering and by nudging Israel away from its hard line, the Obama administration could considerably increase the odds of a transition to substantive democracy in this critical Middle Eastern country.

Far From Democracy

Egypt is still far from a democracy, even in a minimalist procedural sense. Like many other neighboring countries in the last few decades, Egypt has initiated political liberalization, not democratization. The authoritarian system, in other words, has created an opening to accommodate elections for lower-ranking political leaders, such as members of parliament and municipal administrators. But the top political leadership — the president — hasn’t changed over the last 30 years, and no competitive presidential election has ever taken place.

The leadership seems to be allergic to any kind of challenge or major shift in the country’s political system. For instance, security forces harassed Ayman Nour — a popular opposition figure who was first runner-up in the 2005 presidential elections with as much as 13 percent of the vote — and he was subsequently imprisoned that same year. Ironically, such stiff, often brutal anti-democratic policies led to decades of stability and sustained economic recovery, which became the main selling point of Mubarak’s government.

Aware of the chaos that pervades the Middle East, Egyptians cherish the stability that they have enjoyed in recent history. They are not, however, fully satisfied with the current political set up. Intellectuals, university students, and ordinary citizens all have a thirst for political change. Fundamental issues haunt this tenuous stability that has animated Egypt over the last 30 years (since the 1979 peace accords between Egypt and Israel).

Why a Watershed?

The upcoming elections in 2011 can become a watershed in Egypt’s history for several reasons. First of all, President Hosni Mubarak will no longer contest the office of presidency, and his son will most probably take his place in the elections. A simple passing down of power from father to son will likely anger a huge section of disenchanted Egyptian society, which has borne the brunt of decades of poverty and political marginalization.

The cultural discourse in the country, meanwhile, has become increasingly Islamized and critical of westernization and foreign influence. I observed this as I walked down the streets of Cairo several months ago and saw how Islamic revival permeates every aspect of Egyptian society, from women’s fashion to the growing number of mosques in every corner of the city. The Muslim Brotherhood has more social capital than ever — measured by expanded construction of mosques, greater emphasis on head-coverings for women, and strengthened pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli rhetoric — which it can expediently transform into the political capital necessary for challenging the secular authoritarianism that has held onto power for decades.

The issue that has most irritated the Egyptian public is the country’s relationship with the United States, and its increasing cooperation with Israel on the Palestinian issue, especially on Gaza. This is a potential rallying point for any major political transition in the future. When Israel invaded Gaza in 2009, for instance, Egypt stood aside, despite the immense domestic and international outcry for Mubarak to pressure Israel. Currently, Israel controls most of the borders with Gaza. But Egypt has qualified control over the Rafah border, which involves a complex system of coordination between Israel and Egypt over Gaza. Ordinary Egyptians are aware of this. Likud’s current policies on Gaza and illegal settlements in East Jerusalem and West Bank are simply fanning anti-Israeli sentiment. These developments carry dangerous potential consequences for the region, which could influence the upcoming elections.

According to Nabil Shaath, a former foreign minister and acting prime minister of Palestine, during talks on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Egyptian authorities were very nervous about how the public reacted to Egypt’s cooperation with Israel over the Gaza crisis. They know how the Muslim Brotherhood can use this issue as a rallying point to augment political opposition to the current government.

Egyptians are extremely sensitive to U.S. pressure to support Israeli policies vis-à-vis occupied territories and Gaza. If the United States continues to push the Egyptians to the edge — primarily for the sake of Israel — a resulting political radicalization might seriously jeopardize the internally generated pro-democratic movements that have organically built over decades. So the United States must start realizing how its ties with Israel profoundly affect political stability and democratization in Egypt.

Finally, Egypt’s electoral institutions are still highly vulnerable to fraud and political infiltration by the incumbent. The lack of a legitimate and credible electoral institution can result in a questionable electoral outcome, which could fuel post-election violence and instability. This has been a major concern for many independent observers and prominent members of the society, as well as the electorate as a whole. For instance, former International Atomic Energy Agency director Mohamed ElBaradei’s primary condition for taking part in the presidential elections is a government guarantee of the credible conduct of elections under an independent electoral commission. If Mubarak’s son wins the elections, such a huge level of distrust would very likely precipitate a huge backlash by the opposition and people.

The Muslim Brotherhood

On the economic front, despite Egypt’s position among the emerging economies, the ordinary Egyptian has yet to enjoy the fruits of prosperity. For instance, Egypt is still lagging behind in terms of Human Development Index, ranking 123 out of 182 countries, despite three decades of relentless growth. The basic infrastructure is also under immense strain. In 2007, the whole country faced extreme water shortages and, the following year, food shortages that led to violence and protest all over the country.

Yet, these economic difficulties do not mean that the people will automatically shift to the side of the Muslim brotherhood and support a regime change. For one thing, the Muslim Brotherhood hasn’t come up with a viable candidate for the 2011 presidential elections. More liberal personalities, such as ElBaradei, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Ahmed Zewail, and Secretary-General of the League of Arab States Amr Moussa are leading potential candidates to go up against Mubarak’s son. These potential rivals display little interest in supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and each of them presents a more liberal and democratic vision for Egypt.

These potential leaders might not be sympathetic with the Muslim Brotherhood’s vision of political Islam. But, if elected, they might open up the political space for the flourishing of more Islamist political parties. The danger of the Muslim Brotherhood taking over, however, is minimal. Unlike countries such as Iran, Egypt lacks the critical mass of middle-class activists that can risk economic-political stability for idealistic revolutionary changes that guarantee no absolutely favorable outcome. To the extent that the post-election protests in Iran have inspired Egyptians to seize their own opportunity for political self-expression, the change has been more inflected by liberalism. University students and a large number of Egyptian bloggers closely followed the events in Iran, and have become ever more vocal in their critique of the current regime in Cairo.

U.S.-Egyptian Relations

Since the inception of the “cold peace” between Egypt and Israel, the primary U.S. objective has been to support an authoritarian government that is friendly to U.S. and Israeli interests but blocks substantial democratization, violates basic civil liberties, suppresses media, and centralizes political decision-making. Despite Egypt’s extremely sluggish lurch toward democracy, it has remained one of the biggest recipients of the U.S. military aid and enjoyed almost unconditional political support from Washington. This has created little incentive for democratic change.

Egypt, ironically, was the site for Obama’s momentous Cairo speech that signaled a new beginning for U.S. relations with the Islamic world. Yet the United States still continues to expand its ties with a government that stands for anything but genuine commitment to true democratic reform. In such a tense but promising political environment, progressive forces should continue to pressure the Egyptian government to open up the political space, respect the basic political rights of its citizens, and promote an economic agenda that meets the basic needs of ordinary Egyptians.

A democratic political transition could very well take place in Egypt in 2011. But it will happen only if the United States shifts to a non-interventionist policy vis-à-vis Egypt, and prevents Israel through domestic and international pressure from imposing its domestic hard-line political agenda on the Egypt-Palestine-Israel equation. The upcoming election is also the perfect opportunity for progressive forces, inside and outside Egypt, to advance democratic ideals that are more likely than ever to translate into concrete political results. People in Egypt have continuously shown their willingness to embrace a more democratic and even more liberal society. The 2011 elections could be the perfect opportunity for real political change.

FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian is an Iranian observer and analyst of developments in the Middle East. He is based in Manila.

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