US foreign policy in the Middle East historically has been directed towards the support of despotic and autocratic Arab states. Arab states were allowed to apply heavy handed tactics to silence political dissent and engage in the process of electoral engineering; so long as they secured US strategic interests in the region.These interests included provision of a constant supply of oil, preservation of the security of Israel and subduing ideological threats to US interests in the region.
This orientation of foreign policy changed in the aftermath of September 11th, with the emergence of an intellectual discourse linking authoritarianism to the rise of terrorism. As a result, the US began to champion the necessity of democratisation in the region, with pressure being exerted upon friendly states. For example, Bahrain held elections in 2002 for the first time since 1975, Qatar held a referendum on a new constitution in 2003, Saudi Arabia held municipal elections in 2004 and Algeria held another round of elections in 2004. These events in the Arab states were hailed as a major break through by the US.The US also claims it invaded Iraq to build a template democracy in the region that would unleash a process of democratisation in the Middle East as was witnessed in Latin America and Eastern Europe after the end of Communism. The process of constructing an ideal political system in Iraq has been beset by numerous problems, throwing into disarray US plans to create a model democracy in the region. In response to this obvious failure, the US turned to friendly allies to set the bench mark for democracy in the region.The White House’s most influential sources in strategic affairs began to argue that countries in the Middle East characterised as ‘friends’ of the US should be encouraged towards political reform. Charles Krauthammer argued in an article promoting a ‘more mature Neoconservatism’ (Commentary July/August 2005) that friendly states, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, are valuable in the fight against terrorism, thus encouraging democratisation in such states is a key priority for the US. A test case for US commitment to democracy in the Middle East came in 2005 with the presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt. The world media descended upon Egypt to cover the presidential and parliamentary elections and thereby determine US and Egyptian commitment to political reform.
On February 26th 2005, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced that the Egyptian electoral system would be reformed to allow more than one candidate to contest the presidential elections in September 2005 and for an election by direct secret ballot instead of the traditional national referendum on one candidate nominated by the parliament. In an interview which appeared in full in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, President Hosni Mubarak explained his decision to amend Article 76 of the constitution, ‘We began the process of reform twenty years ago. It was necessary to embark upon economic (reform) in order to meet the needs of the (Egyptian) people. We have introduced gradual reforms in order to avoid the anarchy that
we have witnessed in other countries; we have introduced parliamentary elections; and finally, we will hold presidential elections by direct ballot of the people’.
The spontaneous manner in which Mubarak announced the constitutional amendment took everyone by surprise; especially the opposition, who had agreed in a national dialogue with the government earlier in the year to postpone talk of constitutional change until after the presidential and parliamentary elections. As a result, suspicion was rife in Egypt and the region that Mubarak’s announcement was a response to US pressure to embark on political reform. In order to quell growing suspicion of the US influencing his decision, Mubarak said, ‘Some claim that we were under pressure, but this is a mistake. After all, the decision I announced surprised everyone in Egypt and outside it. (In addition) the decision was under consideration for two years and I had intended to announce it in February 2004, but we decided to postpone the announcement since we had to complete some of the economic reform.’
Despite the expected denials of US influence and pressure, doubts remained over whether an autocratic regime could take such a bold step without external pressure. The political opposition were cautious in hailing the constitutional amendment and called for further changes. Bahi Al-Din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, wrote in the reformist magazine Nahdhat Misr, ‘As long as the amendment to the constitution does not allow freedom of expression and equal chances on TV and radio for all candidates, this amendment loses much of its value……because of the NDP’s monopoly of the media’.
The main Islamic opposition movement, the illegal but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood (MB) welcomed the constitutional amendment, but stated that a number of additional steps were necessary to complete the reform process.The MB’s spiritual leader Muhammed Akef issued a communiqué which stated, ‘We believe that this is a positive step toward the desired political reform, which requires allowing liberties, such as the freedom to establish parties, to publish newspapers and to abolish the Emergency Law.