Egypt's Electoral Unrest

Chaos and thuggery plague an already corrupt election process.

Amidst accusations that their government was engaging in rampant acts of voter intimidation and electoral fraud -- allegations that sparked violent encounters between police and protesters nationwide -- Egyptians went to the polls on November 28 to vote in the nation’s first round of parliamentary elections. While it took several days to certify the results, the country’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is headed for an overwhelming victory, claiming the majority of seats in the Egyptian People’s Assembly.

The NDP won 209 of the 508 seats being contested, with a December 5 run-off scheduled for seats where no one received more than 50 percent of the vote. The NDP will run candidates in 275 of the 283 scheduled run-off votes, mostly against other NDP candidates.

Despite charges of widespread electoral malfeasance, the Egyptian government has claimed the election was a “success.” While acknowledging some electoral irregularities may have occurred, the government described them as minor in both nature and in consequence. According to Egyptian Minister of Information Anas El-Fekky, “The Government is confident that they have not affected the overall conduct and integrity of the elections.”

This may have come as news to the vast number of election monitors and opposition groups, who reported an election rife with countless acts of vote-rigging, violence, and harassment of opposition candidates. This feeling was best summed up by Magdy Abdel-Hamid, a spokesperson for an Egyptian local rights group, who declared, “There was no election. There was chaos, there were acts of thuggery and there was violence.”

Unfortunately, the entire parliamentarian campaign itself was plagued with charges of electoral corruption, violent street clashes, and mass arrests, so it wasn’t too surprising to see election day culminate in chaotic upheaval.

While Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party is no stranger to charges of electoral abuse, its actions throughout this political campaign, however, have served to exacerbate an already tense and uncertain political climate.

Feeding this uncertainty has been the news that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981, is preparing to run for a sixth term in next year’s presidential election, despite concerns over both his health and doubts about who will be his chosen successor.

Additionally, there is growing angst among Egypt’s secular liberals that the electoral misdeeds of Mubarak’s NDP are stifling any chance at democratic reforms, leaving the nation vulnerable to internal religious forces. One very formidable force has been the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), a radical Islamist organization that has long sought the imposition of Sharia law onto all aspects of Egyptian politics and society.

Despite being officially outlawed since 1954, the MB has been able to circumvent the government ban by running its members as independent candidates and, as a result, has enjoyed some recent political success, winning 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary election.

However, the 2010 election results showed that the MB lost the vast majority of those same seats, leaving only 26 of its candidates slated to compete in the December 5 run-off election.

Of course, none of the election results comes as much of a surprise to the MB, which, as the main opposition group to the NDP, has been the chief target of recent government efforts to rid the Islamist group of its power prior to next year’s presidential election.

A glaring example of such efforts occurred just before the election, when Saad el-Katani, a senior leader of the MB, was set upon by an armed mob of NDP supporters after he accused the Egyptian government of “rigging the vote” in advance of the parliamentary election.

Although el-Katani was not seriously hurt in the attack, it was just one of dozens of violent clashes between MB members and government forces that resulted in over 1200 arrests.

While the MB cited these incidents as proof the government was “sending a message that there will be no election,” those notions were quickly countered by Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who said the MB was deliberately provoking confrontations in order to “try to implement their agenda, which violates the interests of the state.”

Charges of electoral transgressions against the Egyptian government have long been voiced, with accusations ranging from ballot stuffing to vote rigging, to use of outdated voter rolls.

Despite government assurances of electoral compliance in this election, many Egyptians are doubtful. According to one analyst, Amr Hamzawy, the government's actions have been proof-positive that it has no intention of opening up the political system and that “NDP will continue its dominance over the legislative process.”

The result has been to create what critics call a “culture of despair’ among the Egyptian people, which makes a great deal of sense given the populace has been under the despotic rule of the same man and party for close to 30 years.

However, there are optimists who believe that international scrutiny of the 2010 election may actually hasten democratic reforms in Egypt.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American democracy activist, says, "Egypt is the biggest Arab country in the Middle East. It is the center of the Arab world. It has always led culturally and politically and if the election is carried out freely and fairly, Egypt can hope to lead the democratic transformation of the region."

However, what type of transformation that entails ultimately hinges on the fate of Mubarak and the man who succeeds him. While speculation has centered on Mubarak’s youngest son Gamal as the most likely candidate, others discount it, noting the angry protests that erupted when news of his rumored succession first surfaced.

Even Gamal himself, a forty six year old investment banker, has seemed to rule out a presidential run, stating unequivocally, “Despite what people think, I have no personal ambition."

Of course, in the murky world of Egyptian politics, nobody beyond Mubarak’s inner circle really has a clear sense of who will succeed him or what that process will even look like.

So, without a named successor, fears have begun to ratchet up that once Mubarak’s death comes and no clear successor is forthcoming, political chaos will soon follow. Such an upheaval would have enormous consequences far beyond Egypt’s own borders.

Since the Camp David accords of 1979, the security of the region has rested on Egypt’s willingness to maintain peaceful relations with Israel. In exchange, the Egyptian military has been the recipient of over $40 billion dollars in US aid. However, the aid has depended on Egypt’s promise not to utilize its military in regional affairs, but limit its role to protecting the regime and its own borders. Any electoral gains by the viciously anti-Israel MB threaten the delicate political landscape of the entire region.

Some believe that the rise of the MB to full power is still far-off down the road. They argue that the MB is just marking time, content to use the following years to increase its power to that of the NDP, meanwhile spreading its Islamist message and working its vast social network of charities. According to one former Bush official, the MB thinks that “in 10 or 15 years, they will own Egypt.”

While the MB's ascendency is uncertain at this time, it’s very clear that Egypt now stands at a political crossroads: a growing Islamist movement, an intractable authoritarian regime, and a large segment of reform-minded secularists are all jockeying to determine what road to take.

Frank Crimi is a freelance writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank's work at his blog, or contact him at [email protected].