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(photo credit: AP)
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt's leading democracy activist, hangs two photographs in his modest office at the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. One shows him with US Vice President Dick Cheney at the White House; the other is a portrait of Hizbullah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
The juxtaposition tellingly captures some of the surprising ambiguity that characterizes the pro-democracy opposition in Egypt.
Three forces shape the public life of this country of over 70 million: the ruling National Democratic Party, led by Hosni Mubarak; Islamists, who have increased their share of parliamentary seats from 2 percent in 1984 to roughly 20 percent today; and the democrats, outgunned by both the autocrats and theocrats.
The first of these forces is both the most powerful and the most unwavering. In his address last November to the opening of Egypt's parliamentary session, Mubarak, who has been president since 1981, vowed to remain president as long as his heart continues to beat. He has also taken steps to secure the succession of his son Jamal, a move that will likely be introduced as a measure intended to secure Egypt's "stability."
Mubarak routinely imprisons challengers, men like Ayman Nour, runner-up in the 2005 presidential election (with 7 percent of the vote), Talaat el-Sadat, a member of parliament and nephew of Anwar Sadat, who had criticized the Egyptian military, and Ibrahim, jailed in 2000 with a couple of dozen members of his staff and acquitted three years later.
The Islamists' program, like Mubarak's, is similarly intelligible. The Muslim Brotherhood, which continues to gather strength under the slogan "Islam is the solution," is considered by some the real beneficiary of the "democracy revolution." But its electoral achievement also has something to do with the reported 500 million Egyptian pounds it spent distributing blankets and buying votes during the last election. With only 23 percent of registered voters showing up to the polls, such tactics yield disproportionate influence.
THE PRO-DEMOCRACY opposition, however, is altogether more difficult to understand. Although on paper there are 23 opposition parties, in reality only three are of any consequence: the liberal Wafd Party (banned from 1952 to 1978), the Arab Nationalist Nasserite Party, and the leftist Tagammua Party.
Each in its own fashion advocates steps toward genuine democracy and an independent judiciary, free establishment of political parties, privatization of the media, and the abolition of Egypt's state of emergency. Reformers also seek to amend Article 77 of the constitution in order to impose a two-term limit on the president.
They also tend to share a lament for the cultural and economic decay in a country that used to act as a symbol of Arab pride. They point not only to Egypt's glaring poverty, but to its loss of cosmopolitanism, its crumbling bridges to the West, and the abysmal state of its schools. The National Council of Education recently reported that Egypt spends $743 a year on each university student, roughly a tenth of the educational expenditure in developing countries, and a fiftieth of what developed countries spend.
ON ONE POINT, however, Egyptian reformers agree with the autocrats and theocrats: On the surface, at least, they share a critical attitude toward American democratization efforts in the Middle East. They consider American optimistic announcements of an "Arab spring" in 2005 - triggered by Lebanon's "Cedar Revolution," unprecedented elections in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, and Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election in 50 years - wishfully premature.
Judging by the visa lines at the embassy, Egyptians still relate to America as a land of opportunity. But resentment at what Ibrahim, for instance, calls a "misinformed and excessively ideological" democratization strategy runs high.
Refaat El-Saeed serves as an important case in point. A member of the Shura Council (Egypt's upper house of parliament), he heads the leftist opposition Tagammua Party, which advocates equal rights for Christians and women, democratic reforms, and social justice.
And yet he is hardly pro-American. "Egyptians," he said the other day, "cannot imagine that the same people who abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, run the Guantanamo detention camp and endlessly forgive Israeli aggression are also genuine democratizers."
EVEN APART from these sins, El-Saeed thinks the American democracy initiative fundamentally misguided. "Democracy is an inner affair; you cannot export it by the ton."
Fueled by such resentments, Egypt's pro-democracy figures remain critical of American efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East. But unlike the autocrats and theocrats, their resentments are also curiously mixed with something else: a disappointment connected with the disappearance of American pressure on its autocratic allies. Reformers took special note when, during her visit to Cairo and Luxor in mid-January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice conspicuously avoided the democratization rhetoric she had deployed during her last trip in 2005.
El-Saeed concluded our conversation with another criticism: The American democracy initiative in the Middle East, he said, has proved hesitant and inconsistent - if not outright contradictory. It was a complaint, but also a veiled request for steadfastness tempered by a sensitivity to the complexities of a country that is just beginning to develop a political class.
The implication was clear: Rather than abandoning its efforts to foster democracy in the region, the United States ought to listen more carefully to its natural allies in Arab countries and pursue those efforts in a way that is both more consistent and less heavy-handed.
Benjamin Balint is a writer based at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem. Nir Boms is vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East (www.middleeastfreedom.org).