In three electoral stages with a double turn each (9/15 November, 20/26 November, 1/7 December) Egypt faces the most important parliamentary renewal of its history after a campaign lasting just over 10 days due to Ramadan. To understand what is at stake we have to observe the geopolitical landscape through the lens of a camera.
A wide-angle on the map of the Middle East shows us a Hosni Mubarak who sends reinforcements to the US military against dictator Saddam, goes after the attackers of Taba and Sharm el Sheick, arbitrates the Isreali-Palestinian conflict and cooperates with NATO to strengthen the surveillance of the strategic channel of Suez.
Incredible overview. The perspective, however, changes when zooming in on Cairo, Sinai and the Nile Valley, with streets filled with soldiers and roadblocks. Here, to make decisively less “photogenic” the Egyptian President, there are the police officers unleashed by the President himself who for 25 years have intimidated, arrested and often tortured innocent citizens in order to maintain his pharaonic power.
An embarrassing ally named Mubarak
Today, for the first time, the skinned image of Mubarak as ally of Western democracies is overlapping with the increasingly embarrassing image of Mubarak as enemy of democracy in his own country.
For the first time, the opposition is seriously organized to gnaw a nice slice of votes of the National Democratic Party (PND), which at the People’s Assembly holds 402 out of a total of 454 (10 deputies are nominated directly by the President). For the first time, the wave of unprecedented mass demonstrations that by the end of 2004 shook the regime has forced the US and Europe to wake up from a prolonged “no comment”.
The 76-year-old Rais was so “invited” to ensure freedom of vote and elections under the law, avoiding to run out on the allegations of electoral fraud that were brought down on him during September presidencies with which he obtained his fifth mandate by universal suffrage Accusations that were not sufficient to allow him to accept the sending of international observers.
Our governments will just have to stay away from the crowd, publicly praising for democratic renewal and then in private welcoming the obvious and reassuring triumph of Mubarak’s PND. That, in addition to relying on Washington’s undoubted support, is now also hugging hesitant European countries. How? Further privatizations and openings to foreign companies (Italian presence has more than doubled in 2004-2005, according to data released by the Foreign Investment Agency in Egypt in October). As well as the recent promise to replace part of the “Made in USA” military aid (which with 1.1 billion euros annually finances 50% of Egyptian defense budget) with a growing share of weapons imported from Italy, the United Kingdom and Germany.
The expectations of the West: democracy … but not too much
The new popular movement “Kifaya” (in Italian: “Now enough!”) has placed the Iron Alliance between the West and Mubarak in difficulties. A spontaneous protest against the war in Iraq unexpectedly turned into a mass revolt against the abuses and social disruption that stifled Egypt since the independence of ’52. Unemployment and inflation at 10%, a wondrous salary of 40 euros a month and ultra-light taxation on high levels that reduces public spending on education and health care. Result: half of 77 million people live in misery. Organising elections, at least formally, democratic, seems to be the only solution to overcome the danger of destabilization.
“The West does not care about democracy in Egypt, but only the political stability of our country, which is essential to that of the whole Middle East,” the local TV reporter Ihab Abd Elhamid commented, “If Kifaya did not exist and if Mubarak was still able to keep order in the country with the iron fist, the international community would not open its mouth, as it has not done so far, even though it has always been aware of the violence perpetrated by the government.”
The state of emergency, never revoked by the assassination of Mubarak’s predecessor in 1981, Anwar Sadat, allows the police to arrest any suspects to indefinite deadline. “Thanks to this stratagem and the pretext of the struggle against extremist groups in the ’90s and today’s terrorists, the government has been holding thousands of people for over 20 years and continues to put in uncomfortable adversaries without even the shadow of a regular process”, explains Ehab Sallam, director of the “Human Rights Association for the Assistance of Prisoners”.
At the beginning of 2005, in search of the Red Sea bombers, Egyptian intelligence, in coordination with the CIA, operated massive crackdowns and indiscriminate torture. “Fighting terrorism can not be a pretext for closing our eyes on the absence of true freedom in Egypt,” says Sallam, “It is not enough that the government is committed to providing free elections. For true democracy to exist, opposition parties must be allowed to play an active role in political life at all times without having to face the constant threat of repression.” Abd Elhamid agrees: “these elections are just the beginning. The Egyptians will have to struggle for a long time to conquer what is right for them.” And the researcher at Al-Haram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Diaa Rashwan, urges: “The US lobbyists are ready to counter the far-flung possibility that the opposition govern the country. The strongest competitors of the PND are Communists and Islamists, both strongly anti-American. Although unlikely, their victory would be totally unacceptable to the Washington administration.”
It is shared that if the elections were really free, it would be the militant group of Muslim Brothers to win them, the greatest opposition force devoted to the idea of making Egypt a sharia-ruled Islamic republic. I am wonedring how Gorge Bush would take it?
The electoral system is however designed to ensure a certain majority to the leading party. One: the reintroduction of the single vote takes out all the opponents in the numerous districts where PND is dominant. Two: the latter monopolizes the election control Committee which authorises the constitution of parties and candidate lists. Three: 50% of the candidates on each list must be made up of workers ‘and farmers’ representatives, who are nominated by local government representatives (PNDs), who choose the most easily controllable. Preferably illiterate.
The challenge of reform and presidential succession
The objective of the opposition forces, however, is not to get an insightful victory. But to reach the fateful 5% at the People’s Assembly (23 seats), which, according to the constitutional reform approved by Mubarak this summer, would allow them to nominate a candidate for the presidential elections in 2011. And to try to hinder the dynastic plans of Hosni in case he decides to name his son, the 42-year-old Gamal, “legitimate” heir of his ten-year reign.
In the current Parliament, all the opposition forces together hold little more than 8% (52 seats, 18 of them to the independents, 17 to the Muslim Brothers and the rest to the other parties).
The choice to stagger elections in three successive stages, each for a different group of districts (first the area of Cairo, then Suez, the Mediterranean coast, the East and part of the Nile Valley, and finally Sinai, the delta of Nile and Assuan) is to ensure that there is at least one judge to control each polling station as provided for by law.
PND is the only one to submit its candidates, 444 (including 2 of the Christian-Coptic minority and 6 women) in all districts. Other 395 are presented by the opposition forces in the newly-formed United National Front for Change (FNUC): the liberal “neo-Wafd”, the left of the National Group for Democracy “Tagammoe”, the nationalists of the Nasserian Party, The Kifaya Movement, the National Union for Reform and Change, and other minor parties. This cross-section has decided to compete with 219 common candidates in 179 constituencies.
The Muslim Brotherhoods who compete with 170 independent candidates because it is forbidden them to form a political party (and therefore to be able to express a presidential candidate) and Aymane Nour’s Al-Ghad (the Tomorrow) aware of his second place at the last presidential elections dissociated themselves from the muti-party partnership. There are also 500 dissident of PND who may be forced to return to the party after being elected, as was the case with the 2000 policies.
Despite its internal ineffectiveness, FNUC has coalesced around a minimum program of reform: fighting corruption, independence of the judiciary, reducing the powers of the President, setting up a permanent commission of magistrates in charge of managing elections, abolishing state of Emergency and torture.
The division between the three main opposition forces is complemented by a more decisive one for the future of the country: that one between old and new guard of the PND. The first one reluctant to any kind of reform, seems to have got by on the second that has managed to get only a handful of candidates. As things stand, it will be difficult for Mubarak to secure the promised rise in wages, accompanied by an industrial relaunch and a more equitable sharing of resources. Unless it was from the beginning an other regime propaganda