Gwynne Dyer: Why elections are a charade in Egypt under Hosni Mubarak

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      Egyptian elections are always highly predictable affairs, but the second round of this year’s parliamentary elections on December 5 is completely pointless.

      The first round on November 28 showed that the regime was going to suppress even the marginal role permitted to pro-democracy parties in previous elections. So the leading opposition parties simply refused to participate in the second round.

      It’s hardly news that the Egyptian regime rigs elections: Egyptian voters are wearily familiar with that fact, and the turnout this time was only 10 to 15 percent of the 42 million eligible voters.

      But the rigging has become embarrassingly blatant. The largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members held almost one-fifth of the elected seats (88 out of 508) in the outgoing parliament, won no seats at all in the first round this time.

      It had little hope of winning any in the runoff round either, so it declared that it was withdrawing from the whole charade. The next-biggest opposition party, the liberal New Wafd party, whose parliamentary presence looked likely to crash to two seats, did the same.

      But why, if it was already guaranteed to win, would the regime reduce the elections to a farce by eliminating even a token opposition in the new parliament?

      The reason why is Gamal Mubarak, the second son of the reigning dictator, 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak. The latter keeps hinting that he is going to run for another term as president next year, 30 years after he inherited the job from the assassinated Anwar Sadat. But his health is poor and few Egyptians believe him. They think he is really going to push his 47-year-old son Gamal into the presidency.

      This would not be a first for the Arab world. Syrian dictator Hafiz Assad, who died in 2000 after 30 years in power, chose his son Bashar to succeed him. The ruling Baath Party did his bidding because it was safer than having an open power struggle that might jeopardize its hold on power.

      When Libya’s dictator Muammar Gaddafy (already in power for over 40 years) finally dies, he too will almost certainly be succeeded by his son. But these are shameless one-party states. Egypt is a more sophisticated place.

      The Egyptian regime has always tried to maintain a democratic facade, even though all three of the country’s rulers for the past 56 years have been ex-military officers. Since Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal has no military background, he especially needs some form of democratic process to make his power seem legitimate to the outside world.

      What the Mubaraks do not need, at this delicate time, is a large and vocal opposition in parliament that will denounce next year’s presidential election as a disgrace to democracy.

      Yet that was what they were going to face if they didn’t rig this year’s parliamentary elections, and to do that they needed to change the rules.

      The Egyptian constitution of 1971 required judicial supervision of elections (“a judge for every ballot box”), but this never happened in practice until 2000. That was when the Constitutional Court ruled that preceding elections had been invalid because no judges were present in the polling stations—so in the 2000 parliamentary elections, the judges did show up.

      The presence of judges made it harder for ruling-party thugs to intimidate voters or even to stuff ballot boxes in the traditional manner. As a result, the opposition parties actually won significant numbers of seats in parliament in the 2000 elections, and even more in 2005.

      So in 2007 the regime changed the constitution: judicial supervision of elections was abolished.

      It was back to the bad old days in this year’s election, with Mubarak's National Democratic Party candidates coming in first in almost every constituency. Even Washington, the regime’s main ally, said it was “dismayed” by the chicanery, but at least there will be no criticism from parliament when Gamal Mubarak is crowned as his father’s heir in next year’s presidential election.

      There are those who argue that this will be good for Egypt even if it is undemocratic. Gamal Mubarak is a modernizer who has opened up the economy, they point out, and besides, he represents stability. Egypt’s recent burst of economic growth, after decades of near-stagnation, could not have happened without him.

      Sure, and Mussolini was a good thing because he made the trains run on time. The corruption and nepotism at the top of Egyptian society are breathtaking even by Middle Eastern standards, and the growth does not trickle down even to the middle class, let alone to the poor.

      It is a country ruled by and for a narrow elite, and there is no sign that it will change any time soon.

      Why do Egyptians put up with it? It’s not enough to blame it on American support for the Mubaraks, or on fear of the regime’s police and spies, although those things do play a role. Egyptians have just lost hope, and numbly accept what they feel they cannot change. But there is a lot of anger beneath the despair, and one day it will come out.

      Gwynne Dyer’s new book, Crawling from the Wreckage, has just been published in Canada by Random House.

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      7 Comments

      samer ismael

      Dec 4, 2010 at 2:56am

      Thank you very much It is good analysis of the political situation in Egypt

      netsp

      Dec 4, 2010 at 5:47am

      There is whole other side to this that I think needs to be considered: the main opposition to Mubarak is the Muslim Brotherhood. This is not an incidental detail.

      They are not exactly a democratic movement. Since they're a diverse group and not in power anywhere, it's hard to know what kind of government they would ideally establish. To the extent that a MB government is loyal to its public positions, it would probably strive for somewhere between fully fledged theocracy based and Islamist democracy for its judicial system. Antagonistic towards many democratic states can probably be counted on. The organization's ultimate goals are Pan Islamic. Pursuing that to a serious extent would mean substantial conflict with most other countries in the ME.

      What this means is that democrats internationally and possibly even locally are probably just not too keen on steps towards democracy. Stable secular dictatorship with a thin democratic facade seems preferable to theocracy with a possibility of some genuinely democratic elements and an antagonistic streak.

      Carol B.

      Dec 4, 2010 at 11:47am

      Why do they put up with it? Have you never been there? Most of that 42 million population lives in poverty below 3rd world, and that isn't lives as if you just stepped into the Bible!
      Threat of death and or imprisonment is a powerful motivator for those that "could" oppose him..
      I just re-read your last paragraph..really...you Can Not possibly of been there, lived among them or really know them...or you would Not say something like that!
      Do you really have any idea how scared most of them are of thinking, let alone speaking against the govt. there?
      Living in a safe secure country has obviously clouded your judgement on what people should or should not do.

      Maybe (and I hope it happens too) someday, the people will revolt, but it will cause much death and mayhem.. the people vs the military..ya that'll work out great <NOT<

      How willing to Die and or put your family at risk of torture\imprisonment in an Egyptian prison would YOU be to speak out against them??

      You are right about the people not being taken care of..they are not. I point out again, most are illiterate and poor along with living like Biblical times.

      IMO there is no comparing Mussollini to Mubarak..apples to oranges on that.

      What middle class?? Am I missing something? There was poor and then there was rich....If what I think you are calling middle class is ...exactly how do you figure that? IMO that is still poor, oh sure they have a 'some what' of a roof over there heads and maybe a job...but that is still so far from what I would call middle class..it's not much of a step up from poor.
      just a roof over their heads and some education(which last time I checked was free for all Egyptians) doesn't mean middle class, at least if you are comparing it to 1st world countries?
      I agree the election is pointless, but I point out again...3rd world country, huge population and most of it illiterate and beyond poor with no means or words or power to fight back.

      Mostafa

      Dec 5, 2010 at 2:26pm

      What a silly analysis. Religious parties are NOT allowed to run for government in any democratic government in the world. That is called civilization and "separation of church and state". And this lefty article writer wants Muslim Brotherhood to run for government? LOL.

      Joel Williamson

      Dec 5, 2010 at 8:05pm

      Mostafa,

      While separation of church and state is a policy some democracies support, it is hardly universal. In Canada, home of this fine publication, the Christian Heritage party ran candidates in 59 ridings in the last federal election, and they are a blatantly religious organisation.

      https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Christian_Heritage_Party_...

      Ghenghis Khan and his Brother Don

      Dec 5, 2010 at 11:58pm

      Mostafa, unfortunately, you are not only wrong, but you have misread his article. Lots of democratic countries have 'religious' parties, the CDU (Christian Democractic Union) currently governs the Federal Republic of Germany, for instance, and it would be quite easy to support the notion that the Republican party in the US is de facto a religious party since I can't imagine that self-avowed atheists would get very far within their ranks.

      If you take the pains to reread Gwynne's article, you'll find that he doesn't ever say that the election of the Muslim Brotherhood would be a good thing, but rather that it's quite suspicious in the case of 'democratic' elections that a party that got nearly one fifth of the seats at the last election gets completely shut out at this one.

      May peace and love infuse your lives

      Ghenghis and Don (brother)

      Jan Burton

      Dec 6, 2010 at 5:33am

      I'd say "netsp" has it right.

      While Egyptians don't care for living under a dictatorship they fully realize that the likely alternative is a Muslim Brotherhood regime, which would likely operate on the "one man, one vote, one time" model of elections.

      Egyptians realize that they would merely be trading the Mubarek dictatorship for an Islamist one.

      Sometimes it's better to stick with the devil you know.