Friday, September 09, 2005

Egypt's presidential election: A sham or the beginning of a new era?

Egypt's first multi-candidate election was held on Wednesday September 7 . Less than a quarter of Egyptian voters--23% of 32 million voters--elected Hosni Mubarak for the fifth time to the office of Presidency. Was Wednesday's election, which according to monitors and opposition parties, was marred by widespread abuses and irregularities, a new step toward political openness in Egypt? Let's see what the world's reaction is:

With no doubt that Hosni Mubarak will be re-elected and widespread voter fraud evident, Egypt's first experiment with a multicandidate race for president this week may seem to outsiders like a charade. But the election was important in more than a symbolic way. It showed a country shifting its state institutions, bit by bit, toward a more open society.
The Bush administration, which cites the democratization of the Middle East as one of its top priorities, persists in describing this exercise as "a positive first step." It has some reason to do so: The election campaign, though absurdly short, resulted in unprecedented opposition rallies and criticism of Mr. Mubarak in newspapers and on television. The incumbent promised a long list of political reforms as part of his own campaign, including more freedom for the media, independence for judges, greater power for parliament and a reform of the emergency laws that have made him a de facto dictator. Still, Mr. Mubarak's insistence on heavy-handed steps to control the election's outcome -- despite his inevitable victory -- leaves the measuring glass of this Egyptian election considerably less than half full.
The changes that Mubarak encouraged could bring a more democratic presidential race as early as 2011, notes Middle East expert Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations. At the very least, Egypt's next president isn't guaranteed to be Mubarak's handpicked successor. And there's hope that parliamentary elections this fall will be more open.As many others have learned before Mubarak, democracy is an idea that, once unleashed, is not easy to contain.
...this was a landmark election not because it offered genuine choice now but because, by replacing the system of a referendum for one candidate, it showed in a partial, caricatured way what a real multiparty contest could be like, raising expectations for the future. Ayman Nour, courageous leader of the Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party, was able to voice criticism of unemployment, corruption, emergency laws, human rights abuses and a notoriously unresponsive bureaucracy. It has to be said that this would not have happened without US pressure on its closest Arab ally (and recipient of $1.8bn in annual aid) to flesh out George Bush's vision of a wave of democratic reform rippling out from post-Ba'athist Baghdad. It was also easier than trying to demonstrate progress in Saudi Arabia.
After 24 unchallenged years in power, and control of a vast state apparatus, Mr Mubarak had a huge advantage. A legacy of deep cynicism, the barring of potentially popular Islamist candidates and procedural obstacles to voter registration explained why the turnout was so low. Yet Mr Mubarak's main rivals were able to get their message out in an unprecedentedly noisy barrage of speechmaking and publicity. Indeed, the spectacle of public, often impassioned criticism and the very possibility of choice appear to have opened up new ways of thinking, focused minds on real issues, and emboldened activist groups that were already pressing for reform.