November 9, 2005 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 249

Egyptian Intellectuals Assess Egypt's Presidential Elections

November 9, 2005 | By A. Shefa*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 249

The Egyptian presidential elections – which for the first time included multiple candidates – generated criticism among Egyptian intellectuals. Prominent shapers of public opinion asserted several arguments: that the elections were neither free nor clean; that the low voter turnout was an indication that Egyptians are turning away from any political activity; that the 10 parties that participated in the elections were devoid of any content, and lacked any infrastructure, organization, or platform that could constitute a basis for popular support; that the committee overseeing the elections was not objective, and that had there been any independent monitoring of the elections, this committee would have exposed the "empire of corruption" of the Mubarak family, which is, according to critics, characterized by its acts of fraud.

Other intellectuals, however, wrote that the Eqyptian public was infused with a new vitality was reflected in the breaking down of the barrier of fear and silence in the Egyptian public and in the growth of human rights organizations and popular movements.

"We are a Society that is Witnessing the Falsifying and Distortion of the Will of Its Members"

Prior to the elections, progressive columnist Hazem Abd Al-Rahman wrote in the Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram: "Over 50% of those eligible by age to vote do not have voting cards and are not registered in the voters' registry. This means that half the [population]... [still] require a means by which they can be translated into a well-defined voice in the elections, [since] the outcome [of the elections] does not reflect the views of all the citizens...

"[In addition,] the period of time between the constitutional amendment and the elections was insufficient. Thus, not enough candidates... had the opportunity to present their candidacy. Nor was there enough time for the people to get to know all the candidates. Moreover, a not insignificant percentage of the citizens eligible to vote do not even know most of the candidates.

"[Also,] let us not forget that [independent candidacy] was conditional upon obtaining the support of 250 members of the elected councils [the Shura Council, the People's Council, and the local councils]... [1]

"...As for the parties, which hastened to present their candidates... we have not found [even] one party that could enlist enough supporters to generate overwhelming public opinion in favor of its candidate..."

On the issue of the monitoring of the elections, Abd Al-Rahman wrote: "...We are a society that is witnessing the falsifying and distortion of the will of its members. Therefore, it is incumbent upon everyone to [work] diligently to convince the people that these despicable acts have stopped or are about to stop, and that the elections have begun to be conducted in a better atmosphere in terms of freedom, neutrality, and fairness..." [2]

A 23% Turnout is an Indication that Egyptians are Turning Away from Politics

In a post-election article, Abd Al-Rahman wrote: "The actual turnout of eligible voters, which did not exceed 23%, arouses greater attention than the results. Of some 32 million registered voters, the number of voters did not exceed 7.5 million. This rate is unacceptable, and it indicates that Egyptians are turning away from politics... and that all the parties have failed to generate excitement and to persuade [the public] to participate in politics. The voter [turnout] in the cities was lower than the rural turnout, despite the assumption that political awareness is higher in the cities... [The parties'] main activities in the largest cities revolves around the newspapers they publish.

"Among those contending against Mubarak, there was nobody who could win [a majority] in [even] one province... The most the Al-Ghad ['Tomorrow'] candidate, Dr. Ayman Nour, could do was to win the [majority] vote in Nabaruh, his main stronghold in the Al-Dakhaliya district, where he gained only 62 votes more than Mubarak. Such weak management of the elections does not enable any candidate to win a mayorship, [let alone] the presidency... In any dynamic political sphere, such dead parties are destined to disappear. If this is these parties' influence on the public and this is the extent to which they can attract [the public's] vote, then it is time [for them] to go so that new parties can develop in their stead, [parties] that may be more influential...

"...It is not enough to explain away the feebleness and weakness of the parties merely by the claim that the NDP [exerted] pressure and restricted [the activities] of the [other] parties. This argument is a justification which is worse than the offense itself. The truth is that these parties do not have any real viability. This is an issue that requires serious and different treatment. A party is not merely a newspaper, a TV appearance, or an appointment to the Shura Council. We are not saying that the NDP is innocent of such matters. But why did the [other] parties give in to this? And why don't they resist it?..." [3]

The Parties are Devoid of Content, Infrastructure, Organization, and Platform

Progressive Egyptian intellectual Gamal Al-Bana [4] wrote in the reformist Egyptian daily Nahdhat Misr: "The most significant outcome of the September 7 elections is the parties' lack of preparedness... [These parties] lacked an infrastructure, organization, or platform that would make them worthy of the people's support... [but] the people preferred to boycott the elections. By doing so, it expressed its disappointment and loss of trust both in the regime and in the parties. This is a natural outcome, since some of these parties... are not worthy to be called [parties]... These are tiny parties on paper, devoid of content, [composed of] people who [only] discern one aspect of reform. It was not difficult for them to find 50 or 100 of their friends, relatives, and village members to sanction the establishment of the party and to obtain the approval of the [Political] Parties Committee. Thus emerged the tiny, 'private' party, which was restricted to the family of its founders... Each of the nine parties that participated in the elections received 500,000 Egyptian pounds and got 200-500 votes. The strange thing is that one of these parties, which announced that it would vote for President Mubarak, received this sum as a gift...

"If we make it to the People's Council elections or to the next presidential elections with these parties, the tragedy will be repeated and no progress will be made... Most of these parties lack the foundations of a party, and there is thus no hope for them... The freedom to establish a party is part of the freedom of expression that is one of the [basic] human rights. A country that calls for freedom and for protection of human rights cannot violate this right, from which democracy is derived.

"If this demand [for the freedom to establish parties] is realized in coming months, it will be possible for groups believing in a comprehensive idea... to emerge. [After all,] parties are the bodies authorized to deal with problems of government. These parties will inject new blood... and will treat [the citizen] justly and loyally, out of deep-seated belief [and a desire] to safeguard the interests of the homeland, when the goal of the government and its policy is to serve the [Egyptian] people.

"If this hope is not realized, pressure will gradually grow until it reaches the boiling point. And what [will happen] then? There will be only coups, or anarchy, or straying from the [right] path, or deprivation of [the citizen]...

"What is termed 'terrorism' is merely the result of suppressing liberties and denying the legitimate right of groups from among the people to freedom of expression. When this right is denied, [these groups] are forced to act in secret. And when an obstacle is placed between them and [the possibility] of making their voice heard in a legitimate manner, they are forced to express their protest through violence. That is what awaits us if this [Political] Parties Committee remains, like a boulder blocking democracy..." [5]

The Parties that Led the Boycott of the Elections Can Claim Victory

Dr. Abd Al-Mun'im Sa'id, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, wrote in the reformist daily Nahdhat Misr that the main, serious problem is that the vast majority of Egyptians have become passive regarding what is happening: "This situation should be monitored and analyzed by the NDP and the various opposition parties. There are a number of simple theories on the subject, according to which the Egyptian people is passive in general, and in politics in particular. Evidence of this is the [low] voter turnout in trade union elections as well. Another theory, [based on] the experience of the past 50 years, suggests that the presidential elections are [pre]determined by the intervention of the state, the ruling party and the local [councils]. In these elections in particular, it was clear to all that President Hosni Mubarak is the unrivaled victor.

"According to a third theory, the electoral system that resulted from the amendment to Article 76 of the constitution prevented existing forces in society from participating... The severe restrictions created [a situation] in which independent candidates could not run, and removed dynamic forces, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the leftist Nasserite parties, and others, from the political arena. Of course the supporters of the Kifaya [Popular] Movement [for Change] and the national democratic party Al-Tagammu' – which led the movement to boycott the elections – can claim that their onslaught [against the electoral system] was successful, and moreover, that they were the most prominent victors, since after all, 77% of the people did not go to the ballots...

"There may be some truth in all these theories... The fact is that most people adopted a spectator's stance at the moment when the accelerated process of political reform began. [Therefore,] as long as the people do not participate seriously in this process of political reform... the outcome will ultimately be a bureaucratic process of reform which does not differ very much from [the process that led] to the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution..." [6]

The Commission Overseeing the Elections Was "Qaraqushian"

Egyptian human rights activist and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim, sharply criticized the Presidential Elections Commission in an article titled "Qaraqushian [7] Commission for the Presidential Elections": "The commission appointed by President Mubarak to monitor the presidential elections, headed by advisor Mamdouh Mar'i, includes a number of legal experts and public figures. The commission is supposed to fulfill the mission designated by the constitution and the law by overseeing that the elections – which, for the first time in Egypt 's history, were competitive – will be just. It is also supposed to operate in a way that will give people the feeling that its decisions are clean and unbiased.

"Is this how the commission operated? Unfortunately, the answer... is in the negative. The Presidential Elections Commission did not manage to give most Egyptians the sense that it is a true, objective, just, and clean committee... The law bestowed upon the commission broad and unlimited authorities, [according to which] its decisions are final and are not subject to supervision or appeal - authorities tantamount to divine authority!

" Egypt 's good fortune, however, is that it enjoys popular supervision. This is [only] partly organized and reflected in the NGOs, but is mostly fortuitous and spontaneous, reflected in jokes and popular sayings. True, this popular supervision is indirect, and does not have legal or clearly defined administrative consequences. But it destroys and dishonors the [regime's] legitimacy, and censures whoever renounces the public good or underestimates the people's wisdom. A moral denunciation becomes an eternal denunciation. We must bear in mind how the Egyptians viewed the cruelty of Al-Hakim Bi-Amri Allah, [8] or [the cruelty] of Qaraqush...

"The Qaraqushian quality of the commission is highlighted by the declaration made by head of the commission to [the daily] Al-Masri Al-Yawm, that he will not permit NGO representatives or representatives of the candidates to [observe] the voting committees on the day of elections. Thirty-four NGOs denounced the statement by the head of the commission, and wrote to him [along these lines] immediately after his announcement, but he refused to receive their messages... The head of the elections commission spoke like a general or a military marshal, who commands and forbids, and does not permit..." [9]

Persistence in Cheating and Fraud are Inseparable Traits of the Mubarak Family; The Article 76 Amendment, Which Was Meant to Offer Pluralistic Candidacy, Made it Harder for Egyptian Citizens

In another article in the Qatari daily Al-Raya, Dr. Sa'd Al-Din Ibrahim wrote: "There is a consensus from which nobody departs except the Mubarak family itself: that the elections, despite being historic ones, were not free or clean... [True,] this was the first time that Egypt's [citizens] had the opportunity to elect the country's president from among more than [one] candidate, but... presenting one's candidacy... involved impossible restrictions. This ultimately limited the [presidential] race to [one] heavyweight candidate and to nine candidates... with no weight at all. Thus, the formulation of the amendment to Article 76, which was meant to open a door to offer pluralistic candidacy, made it harder for all [Egyptian] citizens...

"Free and clean elections could break the monopoly [of the Mubarak family] merely by means of the people's participation in them, even if they do not lead [the Mubarak family] to lose their reign... It was for this reason that they opposed independent monitoring of the elections by international observers, even if these were, for example, on behalf of the U.N. The Mubarak family would want there to be no competition...

"The majority believes that the scenario of bequeathing the regime [within the family]... is what underlies [the Mubarak family's] control over the regime without [any] partner or [any] supervisor or overseer. The Mubarak family greatly fears that any supervision, even over a small part of the regime, would threaten... the exclusivity of [their regime] and would threaten to expose the empire of corruption that has reached monstrous proportions during their reign. This [will lead] to a demand for a reckoning, for returning things that they plundered, and for their being punished for what they and their angels of evil have done for over a quarter of a century...

"True, [such] supervision would have still determined [Mubarak's] victory in the elections – but with a much smaller lead than that announced by the regime or by the private committee appointed by the Mubarak family to run the elections. As agreed unanimously by the NGO monitors, Mubarak gained approximately 65% of the vote... – 20% lower than the figure announced by the private committee [he appointed]. This is a victory by a significant difference, but the persistence in cheating and fraud have become inseparable traits of the way of life of the Mubarak family... It may be that all of the above also account for the Mubarak family's refusal to announce its [contributors] and to reveal the extent of its wealth – despite the fact that Ayman Nour, one of the main contestants... announced who his [contributors] were and demanded that the Mubarak family do the same..." [10]

The Barrier of Fear Has Been Crossed

Egyptian Islamist Fahmi Huweidi wrote in the London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat: "It is clear that the [political] discourse in Egypt has intensified in the elections propaganda. The opposition press and the independent newspapers have gone very far in their criticism of President Mubarak's policy and of his family's influence. [These] papers did not spare [words] in their criticism of his circle and his aides, and this has created a special brand of democracy: it provides these people... with a broad margin of expression, [but] with no right to participate...

"Nobody denies that Egyptian society has witnessed – perhaps for the first time in half a century – a noticeable vitality, which is reflected in crossing the barrier of silence and fear, in breaking through the red lines which protected the regime... from criticism and from accountability. [This vitality is also reflected in] the growing power of the NGOs, which have exhibited an important presence in the political arena.

"The paradox evident in this atmosphere is the pale and feeble functioning of the 21 legitimate parties, with the exception of the ruling NDP, while the non-legitimate political groups [demonstrated] a greater presence. This is manifest in the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and the Kifaya movement.

"Whether these developments stem from the broad margins of freedom... or whether they stem from the pressures of a society whose elites were oppressed as a result of the political stagnation in Egypt, [these elites] have taken advantage of the elections... to express their strong desire for change... The fact is that a new vitality has permeated the Egyptian public, which has not been given [the chance] to change a thing in the high level [of government.] The renewal of President Mubarak's regime was preordained, and there was no true elections campaign. The parliamentary elections, to be held in November, will see an intense campaign in which the promise of political reform will be put to the test. President Mubarak did not contend against a true contestant... but the ruling NDP can be fought against and defeated in any regular elections, unless the apparatuses of the leadership forcefully intervene on its behalf – [a possibility] that would be difficult to accept now in Egypt...

"This time, the presidential elections brought no new [development], but they opened the door to a strong desire that may bring something new in the parliamentary elections – provided these are held with a reasonable amount of neutrality and objectivity." [11]

* A. Shefa is a MEMRI Research Fellow.

[1] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 237, September 2, 2005: "Towards the September 7 Presidential Elections in Egypt: Public Debate over the Change in the Electoral System,"

Towards the September 7 Presidential Elections in Egypt: Public Debate over the Change in the Electoral System.

[2] Al-Ahram (Egypt), August 28, 2005.

[3] Al-Ahram (Egypt), September 11, 2005.

[4] Gamal Al-Bana is the younger brother of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan Al-Bana.

[5] Nahdhat Misr (Egypt), September 15, 2005.

[6] Nahdhat Misr (Egypt), September 15, 2005.

[7] Baha Al-Din Qaraqush (d. 1201) was Salah Al-Din's vizier, an efficient and firm politician and administrator. In popular tradition, however, Qaraqush's image is of a foolish tyrant.

[8] Al-Hakim Bi-Amri Allah was the third Fatimid caliph, who ruled Egypt between 996 and 1021. According to the Druze holy scriptures, he was perceived as a divine revelation. During his rule, the atmosphere of religious tolerance was brutally violated. He issued a series of edicts and prohibitions including an edict requiring Jews to wear a bell around their necks.

[9] Al-Raya (Qatar), August 28, 2005.

[10] Al-Raya (Qatar), October 3, 2005.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), September 21, 2005.

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