Egypt’s Election All About Image, Almost

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The skies of Cairo are cluttered with strips of cloth daubed in red, blue and green. Hanging in crowded squares and stretching across streets before traffic lights, almost all of the banners proclaim the enthusiastic support of “So-and-So and his family” or “such-and-such shop or hospital” for Husni Mubarak in his quest for a fifth term as president of Egypt.

As the national media seems determined to remind Egyptians every day, the banners are part of the first multi-candidate presidential election campaign in Egypt’s entire history. Article 76 of the country’s constitution, which had stipulated that Egyptians could vote yes or no on the candidacy of one person for president, was amended in the spring so that Egyptians have a choice among several hopefuls, including the nominees of “legal” opposition parties. Nine such nominees are indeed running against Mubarak in the poll to be held on September 7, 2005.

Yet the amendment pushed through by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) automatically excludes from the race candidates from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — the largest opposition force — and makes it very difficult for independent candidates to run. To be eligible, a candidate not affiliated with a party must obtain the signatures of at least 65 members of the lower house of Parliament, 25 members of the upper house and ten municipal council members from at least 14 provinces. Given that both houses of Parliament and most local councils are dominated by the NDP, establishing eligibility would be nearly impossible in practice. The amended Article 76 may have introduced the concept of free and fair elections, opposition forces note, but it robbed the concept of all substance. Add the amendment’s restrictions on candidacy to the mere three weeks allotted by the government for the campaign, and Mubarak’s victory at the polls is assured.

Opposition Dilemma

The flaws in the amended Article 76 posed a dilemma for Egypt’s opposition parties. Only two prominent politicians, Numan Gumaa, head of the Wafd, one of the oldest parties in Egypt, and Ayman Nour, head of the recently founded, liberal Ghad [Tomorrow] Party, decided to challenge Mubarak. The remaining seven candidates in the race are obscure figures from parties unknown to the majority of Egyptians. (A court has disqualified one such figure, Wahid al-Uqsuri of the Egypt Arab Socialist Party, though the government’s Presidential Election Commission says it will ignore the ruling.)

The leftist Tagammu Party and the Nasserist Party, two of the largest officially recognized opposition parties, are boycotting the election on the grounds that the rules of the game are unfair. These two parties, in addition to the Wafd, Ghad and the Muslim Brotherhood, boycotted the May 25 referendum upon the amendment to Article 76 because its terms were so partial to the NDP. The Wafd’s nomination of Gumaa for president therefore came as a surprise. Some critics have suggested that the government struck a behind-the-scenes deal with the Wafd whereby Gumaa would enter the race to undermine Nour’s candidacy in return for an NDP promise that the Wafd will gain seats in parliamentary elections scheduled for later in the fall. The Wafd has vehemently denied the charge.

There has also been much speculation about the Muslim Brotherhood’s position. The NDP and its two main rival parties were all three rumored to be wooing the Brotherhood’s electoral backing with promises to release party members who are political detainees. On August 21, the Brotherhood issued an ambiguous statement: “All the brothers should know that we could not support an oppressor or cooperate with a corrupt person or with a tyrant,” a direct reference to Mubarak, as interviews with spokesmen made explicit. “President Husni Mubarak has been in office for 24 years and yet he didn’t cancel the emergency legislation or implement any kind of true reform,” said leading member Ali Abd al-Fattah. “We refuse to let the status quo continue.”

On the other hand, the August 21 statement called upon Egyptians to give their vote to whomever they think will be a just and fair ruler. Has the Brotherhood received anything from the government in return for urging the public not to boycott the election, thereby conceivably helping to produce the government’s desired high turnout? The Brotherhood denies that there have been any negotiations. In rejecting Mubarak, will they lend open support to an opposition candidate a day or so before the election? Political analyst Wahid Abd al-Magid of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies told the magazine Ruz al-Yusuf that the ambiguity in the Brotherhood’s statement seems like “a tactical exploit because it leaves the option open for convening an auction between the three contestants [on who can offer the Brotherhood more].” Fourteen Muslim Brothers were released from prison in the closing days of August, but the party continues to brush aside allegations of a deal with the regime.

Engineered Imagery

In the meantime, the government has gone to great lengths to give the impression that the election is a genuinely suspenseful affair in which Mubarak must actually work to secure a winning margin. Anxious to be seen as mixing with the public, the normally aloof Mubarak has visited industrial sites and rural villages where the quasi-official press has pictured him accepting tea in a simple peasant household overlooking the fields. His campaign has sought to project an image of a down-to-earth person in touch with the needs and concerns of the average citizen, particularly the poor. According to the World Bank’s World Development Report 2005, 43.9 percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day.

Mubarak’s electoral program is ambitious — too ambitious to be real, according to some critics. The crux of his agenda is the creation of 600,000 new jobs in six years, which he proposes to do by extending loans for the establishment of small businesses, as well as providing loans for 900,000 new entrepreneurs in medium-sized enterprises. Otherwise, his platform does not differ substantially from those of the Wafd and Ghad. All three talk about reform of the education and health sectors and sweeping changes to the political system, with very little detail about how they would actually deliver on their promises. One element that is conspicuously absent from Mubarak’s agenda but features prominently in the agendas of both Nour and Gumaa is a pledge to fight widespread official corruption, an issue that hits home with Egyptians. Transparency International gives Egypt one of its lowest rankings. Another message that has resonated among average Egyptians is “itkhanna’na” [We have suffocated], the tagline of a Gumaa campaign ad showing people huffing and puffing in frustration after 24 years under the same ruler. Rumor has it that state television refused to broadcast the ad.

The widely disseminated NDP-sponsored ad shows Mubarak sitting with pen in hand dressed in a simple shirt and tie. Critics scoff at what they have dubbed “Mubarak’s new look,” which is intended to make the normally buttoned-down president appear more approachable and certainly much younger than his 77 years. Yet the pro-Mubarak banners in the streets have sparked more criticism than the ads. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a prominent NDP member from one of Cairo’s densely populated low-income areas said that his office was told to contact the parliamentary representative of the area, in order to engineer the draping of the streets. Where the district MP is not an NDP member, he said, the party offices were to approach the leadership of the municipality. The MPs and municipal officials were then to instruct businesses, shops and wealthy families in their districts to put up banners supporting Mubarak. So as not to violate the 10 million Egyptian pound ceiling on party financing of the election, under no circumstances were people allowed to make donations instead. Those who do not know how to go about putting up banners could donate the cloth, which was then decorated and hung by the local party branch. The irony, the NDP official confided, is that most of those told to hang pro-Mubarak banners do not even have voting cards.

There is little evidence that the ubiquitous banners are enhancing Mubarak’s profile among the population. As one taxi driver snorted, “You wouldn’t expect any poor person to be putting up these banners, would you? It is those who have money, and God knows why they put them up anyway, since none of them are likely to go to vote in the first place.”

Opposition candidates have pointed to several violations of the election law by the NDP. The Wafd and Ghad parties have filed complaints that they have not had equal access to television time for paid advertisements. Nonetheless, independent watchdogs such as the Cairo Institute for Human Rights (CIHRS) have noted that the time allocated on state-run television to candidates other than Mubarak has been surprisingly large. By comparison with certain national newspapers, observes CIHRS, television coverage has not been blatantly biased in favor of Mubarak.

Breathing Space

Particularly striking, as well, is the degree of freedom of expression tolerated in the opposition and independent newspapers. Subjects that were once completely off limits, such as the Mubarak family, are now covered on an almost daily basis in newspapers such as al-Dustur and Sawt al-Umma, both published by the writer Ibrahim Eissa, and al-Fajr, headed by the highly controversial Adel Hammouda. The role of Mubarak’s wife Suzanne in the country’s political life, the widely suspected grooming of his son Gamal to inherit power and regime corruption are now being discussed in the non-official press. The president himself is under scrutiny not only for his policies, but also for his health, finances and personal values. This greater freedom extends to broader issues as well. Just months ago, for instance, newspapers would scarcely have alluded to the political role of the Coptic Church or the idea that the Coptic minority might have distinct political beliefs. The norm is to reiterate the nationalist theme that Copts are part of the Egyptian fabric and that any distinct identity is expressed strictly within the confines of places of worship, in no way influencing Copts’ political concerns and choices as Egyptian citizens. Now various independent newspapers are publishing far more nuanced articles on these sensitive topics. The significance of this general breaking of taboos cannot be underestimated.

It is not only the press that has taken advantage of the greater political space allowed by the regime. Citizen initiatives have also made themselves heard. The most well-known such initiative is Kifaya, a non-partisan movement comprised of intellectuals, activists, journalists and others, all from a broad range of political backgrounds, which rejects Mubarak’s nomination for a fifth term. The movement also opposes the idea that Gamal inherit power and calls for the abolition of the draconian emergency law in place since the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. Kifaya organizers have staged numerous demonstrations since their first protest on December 12, 2004. Although the demonstrations have been peaceful, many Kifaya activists have been arrested, since the emergency law prohibits demonstrations that do not have a permit from the Ministry of Interior, a clearance that is all but impossible to obtain. Kifaya has called for a boycott of the election, which it feels is nothing more than a window dressing for a highly oppressive regime. Along with other movements like Writers for Change and Journalists for Change, Kifaya challenges the idea that the spirit of political activism in Egypt is dead after 50 years of government monopoly over the public sphere.

Another group of activists has established a new website, shayfeen.com, to monitor election law violations during the campaign. The text on the website is written in simple and clever colloquial language, and its very name is a play on words (“shayfeencom” means “we can see you” in Egyptian Arabic). The activists intend to monitor the balloting on election day as well.

Monitors

During her highly touted speech about Arab democracy at the American University in Cairo on June 20, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice laid down a clear marker that in Egypt’s forthcoming presidential contest “international election monitors and observers must have unrestricted access to do their jobs.” State Department spokespersons periodically “encourage” the Mubarak regime to take Rice’s advice, though usually at the end of disquisitions about how the multi-candidate election is itself an encouraging “step in the right direction.” The regime has nonetheless refused to allow either international or independent Egyptian election monitoring. From Mubarak on down, state officials insist they trust Egyptian judges to ensure the integrity of the voting because a jurist will be placed at every polling station. The Presidential Election Commission’s refusal to countenance independent Egyptian monitors came as a surprise given an earlier announcement by the government-appointed National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), headed by former UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, that civil society organizations would observe the voting along with the NCHR itself. On September 4, a court ruled that Egyptian NGOs have a right to monitor the election, but the Presidential Election Commission promptly refused to enforce the court’s decision.

There are four NGO coalitions that intend to monitor the election anyway. They say they will check whether a judge is truly present near every ballot box and make sure that no one is prevented from entering to vote. In the meantime, pro-government factions have sought to undermine the legitimacy of independent monitoring by accusing the would-be monitors of reliance on suspicious “foreign funding.”

Undue “foreign influence” was also the pretext for the government’s opposition to international observers. Yet the confidence that the government professes in the judicial monitors hides the deep rift between the authorities and the Judges’ Club, an independent body representing the Egyptian bench. In the spring, the judges threatened to boycott the elections unless they were given full supervision of the election — inside the polling stations and outside. Currently, a group of judges is accusing the electoral commission of picking judicial observers on the basis of loyalty to the regime. Moreover, the Judges’ Club embarrassed the government with a damning report shortly after the May referendum that contested the government calculation of 52 percent turnout. The judges’ estimate was that less than 5 percent of the eligible voters had shown up. While the NDP need not worry about Mubarak winning on September 7, a low turnout would be a black eye. The outside world would see that, despite the government’s efforts to sell the election as genuinely contested, Egyptians did not buy it.

What Comes Next

What will the mass of Egyptians do on election day? The tepid popular reaction to the political developments of the past six months has perplexed activists and intellectuals alike. Movements such as Kifaya have failed to attract a mass following, despite the empathy of some with their message. The explanation is certainly not apathy. Fear may be part of it. As one civil servant explained: “I don’t want to be suddenly woken up at dawn by you-know-who, and sent to a prison whose whereabouts nobody knows, and come out years later totally messed up. I have a wife and three children to take care of. If something happens to me, who is going to take care of them?” In the presidential election, meanwhile, there is no doubt about the outcome. “We know Mubarak is going to win,” said one middle-class professional. “We know that the government won’t let anyone else win…so what is the point?” This dearth of hope for any prospect of real democratic change is keeping many Egyptians from raising their voices.

Some analysts fear that the modest political opening tolerated while the government burnished a “democratic” image for the world will be closed once the election season is over. They expect a more systematic crackdown on dissident voices and demonstrations; they say unruly editors will be “dealt with.” Others insist that while the presidential election is of only symbolic value, the parliamentary elections to be held in November have the potential to transform the political landscape in Egypt. The legislative campaigning may see the emergence of new coalitions — possibly including the Muslim Brotherhood — as well as a challenge to NDP hegemony in some electoral districts. Such a scenario, of course, assumes that the parliamentary election is truly free and fair, which in turn depends greatly on what happens on September 7.

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