With Egyptian Elections Little In Doubt, Can Its Democracy Survive?

Dr. Mohamed Aboulghar, the leader of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, discusses the upcoming presidential elections in Egypt and the state of democracy more generally in the country.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

At the end of May, Egyptians will vote in the first round of the first presidential elections since the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi. So far, there is not a lot of suspense about who's going to win. The recent head of the military, former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, is the strong favorite. A poll taken in February, before he announced his candidacy, found that just over 50 percent of Egyptians already say they plan to vote for him.

What might a Sisi era in Egypt mean for the possibility of Egyptian democracy? We're going to ask Dr. Mohamed Aboulghar, who is a founder and leader of Egypt's Social and Democratic Party. It's a liberal group that stands for secularism and social democracy.

Welcome to the program.

MOHAMED ABOULGHAR: Hello.

SIEGEL: And first, how important is it to you that there be somebody running against Field Marshal Sisi?

ABULGHAR: Well, I think it's very, very important because otherwise this will be a referendum on one person; something we hated for many, many years during Mubarak, during Sadat and before that, during Nasser.

SIEGEL: Are you concerned that, indeed, Egypt might be heading back to where it was under Nasser, under Sadat, under Mubarak?

ABULGHAR: I am concerned. But I'm confident that this will not happen because the Egyptian people have changed. The Egyptian people will never accept dictatorship anymore.

SIEGEL: Egypt has made it illegal to work with the Muslim Brotherhood, which even in decline, represents a significant part of Egyptian society. Can you have a democratic system that excludes those people?

ABULGHAR: The political party of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is Freedom and Justice Party, was not banned. So this party can run in elections, and can go into the process.

SIEGEL: You said that the Egyptian people are now democratic. Is it fair also to say, though, that many Egyptians would prefer a less democratic country that suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, to a more democratic country in which the Brotherhood could win elections?

ABULGHAR: I don't like to suppress anybody in my country. I'd like everybody to have the right to play a role in the political arena, provided that he will not carry and use arms.

SIEGEL: Is it still up to the Muslim Brothers to say that? I mean, can they do that?

ABULGHAR: Yes - that all depends on the Muslim Brothers. If themselves stop this and announced that they are a peaceful political organization, the whole situation will differ.

SIEGEL: Last week, 529 people were sentenced to death for the killing of a police officer in street violence last year. There were trials in which defendants couldn't consult with lawyers. Sometimes, they weren't even present for their own trials. Can your party - the Social and Democratic Party - or other groups like it, can you advocate effectively for civil liberties? Or do you think most Egyptians would say, well, given what the Muslim Brotherhood has done, that's all the justice they deserve?

ABULGHAR: I mean, if the people all over the world were shocked for this verdict, the Egyptians were 100 times more shocked.

SIEGEL: More shocked, you think?

ABULGHAR: Yes. And there were lots of irregularities in this court case, which is raising a lot of question marks in Egypt, considering this judge and how this happened.

SIEGEL: You mentioned you're concern that Egypt shouldn't have an election that's a referendum on one leader, as it was in the days of Mubarak; and before him, Sadat; and before him, Nasser. Like those three men, Field Marshal Sisi is entirely military; that's his entire background. And it doesn't stand to reason that he would feel deeply about democracy if he's lived an entire life in uniform. What are your hopes for him? Do you really think is a man who would take Egypt toward democracy or not?

ABULGHAR: Well, I think democracy is decided by the people, not by the leader. If the Egyptian people decides to have democracy, they will have democracy irrespective of the background of any leader.

SIEGEL: I mean, you are confident of that...

ABULGHAR: Yeah.

SIEGEL: ...despite what's happened over the last couple of years when there would be elections, the people would vote, and the results would then lead to further chaos.

ABULGHAR: Yes. After revolutions, historically there was always this sort of chaos. In the French Revolution, it took 20 years. But we hopefully, in Egypt, it will only take few months more.

SIEGEL: Only a few months more.

ABULGHAR: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Dr. Aboulghar, thank you very much for talking with us about the situation in Egypt these days.

ABULGHAR: Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Dr. Mohamed Aboulghar is a founder and leader of Egypt's Social and Democratic Party.

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