The Egyptian elections – just like the revolution last year – have distracted ordinary Syrians from the difficulties of their day-to-day lives.
In January 2011, Syrians were amazed by the will, might and courage of Egyptian youth. They spent the 18 days of the Egyptian Revolution glued to their TV sets, hoping to see the end of president Hosni Mubarak, someone who happened to be unpopular both with Syrian officialdom and ordinary Syrians.
Syrian officials hated Mubarak because of the bad blood between him and Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon and President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
Ordinary Syrians disliked the man because of his tough and often harsh stance vis-a-vis the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip.
So for whatever reason, all Syrians cheered his downfall in February 2011.
That one voice has vanished today, as Syrians closely monitor the upcoming presidential elections in Egypt. Opponents of the Arab Spring are pointing to Egypt as a “perfect example of a failed state”, claiming that the elections are a sham and subject of ridicule.
Syrian democracy advocates, however, are enchanted by Egypt, seeing it as a dream come true for Arab democrats as the body count mounts in their own country after more than a year of bitter unrest.
Critics have plenty of reasons to trash the Egyptian elections. One is the ambition of unqualified candidates, like pop singer Saed al-Soughayar, who voiced his presidential ambitions last month.
Another is the April 14 decision of the Supreme Presidential Electoral Commission to disqualify candidates who had held senior government office under Mubarak during the past 10 years of his term, like former intelligence chief and vice president Omar Suleiman and ex-prime minister Ahmad Shafiq.
That sounds very undemocratic, critics say, especially amid hopes that despite his human-rights record, Suleiman was a powerful man with experience, plenty of international connections, who knew what it took to pull a country back together and get it on its feet again. Syrian activists are claiming that Suleiman should either get arrested, and face a safe trial, or be given his full rights as an Egyptian citizen.
Also worrying to them is the rising influence of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, via presidential candidates Khairat al-Shater and Abdul Monem Abu al-Futuh. After overrunning the Egyptian parliament, the Brotherhood is expected to produce a president, now that the chains of oppression imposed on them by the Mubarak regime are gone, and after they were empowered by the victory of like-minded Islamic parties in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya.
Seculars around the Arab world, especially pro-regime ones in Syria, are pointing to Egypt with concern, saying that if Egypt becomes Islamic, this will have a domino effect on the entire Arab world. They are using Egypt to scare off Syrian Christians, for example, as to what would happen in Damascus if there were regime change in Syria.
They are critical of the trial of Mubarak, despite the complete lack of respect for him, claiming that a president should be treated with more dignity, arguing that what Egypt needs now is a Mubarak-lite – a strongman who can enforce law and order.
On the other hand, those who admire what is happening in Egypt say that after almost 100 years in the underground, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is entitled to try its hand at the Egyptian presidency. In a true democracy, if they fail to deliver, they will be voted out of office, with little respect or ceremony, in the next parliamentary and presidential elections.
Those who are pragmatic argue that the biggest setback for the Brotherhood would be for them to transform from underground utopian politicians into statesmen and government officials. Government corrupts, after all, and the biggest setback to the Iraqi and Syrian Ba’ath, for example, or to Hamas and Fatah in Palestine, was the minute they were sworn into office.
Overnight, these groups transformed into power-hungry politicians who failed to appease the same street that had supported them during their years in the background. In theory, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood would be no different to the failed example of Hamas in Gaza, the Ba’ath in Syria and Iraq, or Fatah in the West Bank.
Also, in a real democracy, anybody is entitled to run for presidential office, and the best man, or woman, would win at the polls. Political nobodies like Saed al-Soughayar can run for office, in theory, but that does not mean that they will win, and nor is it an insult to the presidential institution in Cairo.
Under Mubarak, that institution became semi-divine, reserved exclusively for Mubarak and his ambitious son Gamal. That aura is now being shattered, as the presidency comes back to life and its original proportions: no more absolute powers and no more president for life.
And finally, when it comes to Suleiman, although he might be capable of running Egypt, his election – if it ever happened – would have been the kiss of death for the Arab Spring.
This same man only one year ago had watched and played a part in the suppression of Egyptian demonstrators. Admirers of Egypt are also pointing to the paramount role that the Egyptian judiciary is now playing, arguing that this is a clear sign that Egypt is on the right track towards a steady, yet perhaps slow recovery.
What is amazing about Egypt is that 15 months ago, nobody would have imagined presidential elections in Cairo without Hosni or Gamal Mubarak.
Nobody would have imagined a Hosni Mubarak behind bars and nobody would have imagined Egypt distancing itself from Israel, after the storming of the embassy in Cairo and the cancelation of an Egyptian gas deal with Israel. The presidential ambition of Egyptian candidates is a healthy sign that democracy is on the rise, and so is a sophisticated feeling of responsibility, good citizenship, and belonging among not only Egypt’s political elite, but its day-to-day citizens as well.
In Syria, nobody imagined that one day young demonstrators would take to the streets, demanding regime change in Damascus, inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Nobody imagined that the state would be forced, under pressure from those same angry demonstrators, to change the constitution (regardless of how feeble that change was) and drop Article 8, which designated the Ba’ath Party as ruler of state and society.
One year ago, nobody imagined that United Nations blue helmets would one day be mandated to monitor a ceasefire in Syria, and that this authority would come through a unanimous UN Security Council Resolution.
Logical analysis spells out democratic elections in Syria, not too far from now. The parliament that will be voted in in Syria in May cannot last, because it is nothing but an assortment of pro-regime officials who speak the same rhetoric, making it no different from any other chamber Syria has had since the 1960s.
Syrians are certain that once the violence stops, Syria will march towards a real democracy, just like Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Egypt, via real parliamentary elections and early presidential ones.
The last time Syrians had more than one candidate in a presidential election was in 1955. The last time an assortment of candidates ran for presidential office, just like Egypt today, was in 1932. Back then, six presidential hopefuls competed for the presidency, exactly 80 years ago. If it happened once in Syria, then it can happen again; it must happen again.
This article appeared in Asia Times on April 25, 2012.