Analysis: Egyptian vote likely to strengthen Mubarak

Divided opposition parties, unable to govern in any case, fail to overcome government harassment during elections.

Egypt 311 (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Egypt 311
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Egypt went uneasily to the polls on Sunday in what is seen by many as the opening salvo in next year's presidential election campaign.
Opposition parties are divided. A resounding success for the ruling National Democratic Party led by President Hosni Mubarak would make it easier for the aging ruler to push the candidacy of his son Gamal in next year's vote. Democracy in Egypt might well have to pay the price.
Two years ago, it seemed as if opposition parties were getting their act together. They loudly proclaimed they would tolerate no attempt to falsify the results and threatened to boycott the elections unless they were guaranteed not only freedom of expression, but close judicial oversight of both the voting process and the counting of the votes.
The Kifaya (Enough!) movement, set up to coordinate among all opposition parties, was organizing demonstrations and giving its full support to workers in the antiquated textile industry ­ still partially owned by the state and employing hundreds of thousands of people ­ striking for better wages. Young bloggers in the so-called "Sixth of April movement" used social networks to call for demonstrations against the government.
The return of Mohamed El-Baradei a year ago gave a new impetus to the fight. The former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Prize winner presented himself as the savior of Egypt. He set up the Association for Change, and intellectuals and opposition figures flocked to his banner; he tried to organize branches in other Arab states and in America, where there are large Egyptian expatriate communities.
He also attempted to harness the Internet to gather 1 million signatures calling for a change to the parts of the constitution aimed at preventing individuals from presenting their candidacy for the presidency. Only when these were amended, he said, would he formally announce his candidacy. He was hoping to rally not only the masses, but also the opposition parties.
It did not happen. Each of these parties had a candidate of its own; no one was keen on seeing a newcomer brazenly upstage them. Soon they left him, and his popularity began to wane. His Internet campaign gathered "only" 250,000 signatures.
Meanwhile, the government has not remained idle and has worked by means fair and foul, including outright violence, to prevent his followers from setting up branches in Egypt, while Kuwait and Saudi Arabia arrested his supporters, depriving him of the support of the Egyptians living there.
ElBaradei's call to boycott parliamentary elections was also ignored. A boycott would have denied legitimacy to the new parliament and to the government itself.
First to turn down the call was the Wafd, by far the largest party (with only six representatives in the outgoing assembly). Its general assembly, voting by secret ballot, decided ­ by a very slim majority ­ to take part in the elections.
That was the end of the united front. Independent media hinted broadly at a deal with the government that would let 20 Wafd delegates be elected. The chairman of the party "coincidentally" used his own very considerable wealth to acquire the daily Ad-Dustour, the most vocal critic of the government.
Other parties promptly followed suit. The relatively new Democratic Front was the only party to join the boycott. The voice of the venerable leftist Tagamu Party is barely heard nowadays, but the party still hopes that the government will be lenient enough to let a few of its candidates be elected.
And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? Officially, the movement, which calls for the creation of a Muslim state ruled by Shari'a law on the basis of the Koran, is banned; it was to have been dismantled in 1954 by Nasser¹s order after a botched attempt on his life.
But the Brotherhood managed in 2005 to get 88 representatives elected in the outgoing parliament (out of 444) by presenting them as so-called independent candidates. It has a very large following of people disillusioned with the government and looking to religion to solve the country's problems.
This time, 134 candidates are running under its banner and it is hoping to better it score. It does not support El-Baradei, who wants greater democracy in a secular Egypt. But here again, the movement is facing tough opposition from the government, which declared through the minister for parliamentary affairs, that "the 2005 victory was a mistake and will not happen again." Security forces and gunmen from the ruling party disrupt the movement's meetings; a number of candidacies were turned down by the electoral commission under flimsy pretexts, and 1,200 supporters were arrested in recent weeks. Most were later released, but the Brotherhood finds it difficult to campaign in an effective and orderly manner.
It keeps up the fight in the hope that international pressure on the government will help it get enough candidates elected to keep up its strength in parliament; Mohammed Badie, its supreme leader, has called on his supporters to go and vote without fear.
that¹s a tall order when violence is growing ­ all opposition parties have had their activists molested, and some have been killed.
In its all-out campaign to ensure spectacular results, the ruling party has also targeted the media. In October, it shut down 12 channels broadcasting from the Egyptian Nilesat satellite; warnings were sent to another 20. Most of them represented radical Islam or were accused of attacking Egypt.
Restrictions were imposed on live television reporting and even on texting on cellphones; special permission must be obtained to interview political figures. Thus the government enjoys a near monopoly on communications.
The ruling party has made significant progress under the leadership of Gamal Mubarak. The president's son and his youthful team have been able to unite the party and are fielding 800 candidates for the 508 available parliamentary seats (this year including the extra 64 seats earmarked for women).
It will be the first time the party presents more than one candidate per seat. This move, first perceived as likely to cause to strife between members, is strategically motivated. It means that no candidate ­ especially from the Muslim Brotherhood ­ will be able to have an absolute majority in the first round of voting, while in the second, all will rally round the leading candidate from the ruling party.
Posters of President Mubarak and local candidates are everywhere. Gamal¹s people are omnipresent and demonstrating their powers of organization; they used social networks to recruit new partisans and disseminate their message.
This is all the more remarkable since opposition parties have failed miserably to make use of new Internet techniques to harness young people willing to fight the government. This is yet more proof that the traditional parties are getting old.
In 2005, America exerted strong pressure on Mubarak to allow greater freedom. As a result, 88 Muslim Brotherhood members were elected. This time there has been little, if any, pressure. A government spokesman said the United States was hoping for free and fair elections and demanded international monitoring. Egypt reacted angrily, rejecting the demand as unwarranted interference in its internal affairs.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley replied lamely, "We have heard Egypt's reaction, but our position has not changed" As things stand, Mubarak's government seems assured of a resounding victory, spelling both a renewal of the party's strength and the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood. The way will then be paved for Gamal's candidacy next year.
Arab and Western media are complaining about the lack of freedom of speech and warn of massive fraud and threats to the democratic process. They may be right. But is Egypt today ready for the kind of free elections known in the West? The answer is no.
Secular opposition parties are in no position to assume the mantle of government ­ a victory by radical Islam in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood would lead to civil war and plunge the Middle East into chaos.
One can therefore only wait in the hope that the ruling party will find its way, at its own pace, to greater democracy and economic progress.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt and fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.