All is Fair in Egyptian Elections

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Forecasting the results of an Egyptian election is not rocket science. A far more challenging occupation is to determine why Egypt bothers to stage elections in the first place.

It should come as no news that the National Democratic Party won three out four seats in the new National Assembly. This ‘remarkable’ result was achieved by stuffing ballots, buying off some voters, intimidating others and arresting hundreds of opposition activists. ‘Reliable’ voters were targeted at jurisdictions with vulnerable NDP candidates. And NDP partisans lived up to their well-deserved reputation for voting early and often.

Because the voting registries are rarely updated, it is fair to assume that many of the dead were temporarily resurrected to endorse the ruling party. When that didn’t do the trick, party thugs were dispatched to physically assault and harass independent minded voters. As a last resort, police set up barricades to obstruct opposition loyalists from entering polling stations. When the need arose, they were not averse to using their arsenal of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets. A few of the more insistent voters were given a choice between taking a bullet or discarding their ballot. A dozen gave their lives for making the wrong choice. The death toll gave Egypt the dubious distinction of being a more dangerous place to vote than Iraq.

In some cases, voting centers never opened for business. In others, they opened too late or closed too early. Then came the magic hour to miscount and manipulate the final tally. For the NDP, no creative option was out of bounds. All is fair in Egyptian elections and war.

During the short campaign season, the ruling party took full advantage of state owned media monopolies to make their case to a skeptical public. As is the custom, government favors were showered on loyal constituencies. Caesar giveth vital services and Caesar can taketh away a whole bunch of privileges.

Even before the vote commenced, the fix was in. The majority of eligible Egyptians voters are unregistered and the government likes to keep it that way. The law requires potential voters to register a year before elections. Of course, late registration can be arranged for the exceptional citizen who is likely to vote for the ruling party. By government estimates, only twenty five percent of registered voters bothered to show up –” which translates into a little over ten percent of eligible voters. The other ninety percent are cynical enough to watch the whole wretched spectacle from the sidelines.

Put another way, the NDP won this election with the support of about seven percent of the adult population. That said, this election was probably the most transparent election since the Egyptian revolution of 1952. A lot of credit goes to gutsy opposition journalists and a judiciary newly committed to acting as an independent branch of government. While some of the judges monitoring the elections turned a blind eye to systematic irregularities, the vast majority made honorable attempts to act as neutral observers. Even so, there were simply not enough of them to cover all the polling stations.

In any case, the end results of the election were preordained and the NDP won enough seats to resume its official duties as a rubber stamp parliament.

None of this is to suggest that there weren’t a few unwelcome surprises for the ruling party. Despite the best efforts of the NDP faithful, the opposition won a quarter of the seats. The Muslim Brotherhood managed to win sixty percent of the seats they chose to contest.

Word on the streets of Cairo is that a deal was struck between the banned organization and the government to restrict Brotherhood candidates to only a third of the districts. It was a price the officially outlawed group willingly paid to participate in the electoral process. Because Egyptian law explicitly prohibits religious parties, Brotherhood candidates were obliged to run as independents. To avoid any overt confrontation with the regime, the Brotherhood made these necessary concessions if only to demonstrate their political strength –” which they did by winning 88 seats or twenty percent of the total. Despite their impressive show of strength, the Brotherhood is likely to have little influence on government policy.

A few non-Brotherhood candidates ran successfully as independents. Another dozen seats went to officially sanctioned opposition parties –” half of them to the liberal Wafd. Even Ayman Nour lost his seat. Only a handful of women and a single Copt managed to gain a place in the new assembly –” primarily because precious few of them were nominated by the NDP.
By using the same math applied to the NDP tallies, the opposition parties achieved these results with the support of less than 5% of all eligible voters. Because much of the current opposition is motivated by ideological passions, it’s difficult to reach any firm conclusions about what the results would be in a free and fair election. My personal survey of the average Egyptian leads me to guess that the 90% who didn’t show up on election day would cast their lot with the party most likely to deliver clean and accountable government and a better standard of living. The basic appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood is that they are not the NDP, which has failed miserably on both counts.

So much for the predictable NDP ‘victory’ and onto a little speculation about why the ruling party went to the trouble of holding this farce of an election. Aside from the cosmetic value of wearing the garment of a democratic state, there were more compelling reasons to stage this beauty contest –” even against a frail and fragmented opposition. The regime certainly didn’t conduct this charade to gain any legitimacy from their subjects. For one thing, they don’t need it. Their power is secure and they are more than willing to resort to brute force to retain their control of state apparatus. Mubarak’s authority as the ruler of the realm remains unchallenged. He can still count on the loyalty of the army and the police and that’s more than enough to take on any pretenders to the throne.

Still, any casual observer of the Egyptian political scene has to acknowledge that there was something distinctly different about this particular election. For one thing, it was not conducted for domestic consumption but to give George Bush a leg to stand on. The objective of these elections was to lend a measure of credibility to all this nonsense about Washington’s avowed policy to spread democracy to the Middle East. Fortunately for Bush, there is no shortage of credulous fools willing to ignore America’s enduring commitment to Egypt’s authoritarian rulers.

It’s easy enough to explain why the White House was ecstatic with the Egyptian election results. And it’s worth remembering that Bush was equally enchanted with the recent Saudi municipal elections –” a ‘radical’ change that permitted adult males to vote for half of the seats in a few docile city councils.

Spreading the gospel of democracy is the last fig leaf to cover up the real reasons for invading Iraq –” oil, Israel and protecting the almighty dollar from serious devaluation. The Egyptian elections allow the Bush administration to claim progress in redrawing the map of the ‘Greater Middle East’ –” the revisionist cause for the quagmire in Iraq.

As a favor to Bush, the Egyptian regime was willing to risk facing the opposition in what still amounts to the cleanest dirty election in five decades. It was also an opportunity for Mubarak to send a message to Bush. “Don’t push your luck. Apres Moi, Le Brotherhood. Deal with Egyptian realities and find another country to showcase your ‘democratic’ alibis for invading Iraq. Or risk the alternative of a fundamentalist regime in Cairo.”

There is no denying that many Egyptians are increasingly willing to contest the NDP’s monopoly of power. But if there was one external event that inspires them, it was not the American invasion of Iraq but the spontaneous Lebanese uprising in the wake of Hariri’s assassination. Egyptians remain unanimously and vehemently opposed to the America’s military intervention in the region and livid about Washington’s support for Israel and Bush’s complicity in the repression of the Palestinians.

When democratic change eventually comes to Egypt, the United States will be no more pleased with Mubarak’s replacement than it was with the Shah’s abdication. In the meantime, election or no election, expect the NDP to resume business as usual in Egypt.

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