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memri
September 1, 2005 No.
237

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

By: A. Shefa*

The upcoming presidential elections in Egypt, to be held on September 7, 2005, will include, for the first time, multiple candidates. Ten candidates are running for the presidency, of which the three most prominent are President Hosni Mubarak, on behalf of the National Democratic Party [NDP]; Nu'man Gum'a, on behalf of the Al-Wafd party; and Ayman Nour, on behalf of the Al-Ghad party. [1]

Their candidacy was made possible by a change in Article 76 of the Egyptian constitution and an addendum to sub-article 192, which permits direct presidential elections with more than one candidate, instead of the previous system of a yes-or-no national referendum on a single candidate selected by the Egyptian People's Council. [2]

The amendment stipulates that party representatives and independent candidates will be able to run for president. An independent candidate must meet certain conditions – they must have the support of at least 250 elected representatives from the Shura Council, People's Council, and local councils [3] – while candidates from existing parties will not need to meet any conditions.

To run in the 2011 presidential elections, however, a candidate must be from a party that has been legally active for at least five consecutive years, and whose members have in past elections won at least 5% of the seats in both the People's Council and the Shura Council. [4]

The ruling NDP, which had called on Egypt's citizens to participate en masse in the referendum and had even enlisted the government religious establishment to encourage voting, welcomed the referendum's approval of the amendment, seeing it as a decisive victory that would pave the way for reform and democracy in Egypt. In this spirit, many newspaper articles praising the amendment appeared in the Egyptian government press. In addition, a new civil movement was established, called Al-Istimrar ("Continuation"), to support the government and to counter the independent opposition movements.

The amendment bill was not welcomed by Egypt's opposition circles, among them the Nasserite Kifayya movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and parties such as Al-Wafd, Al-Nasseri, and Al-Tagammu'. These groups argued that the amendment set impossible conditions for candidates not from the ruling NDP. Thus, they called on Egyptians to boycott the referendum. [5] When the referendum results were announced, these groups claimed that the results had been forged and did not reflect either the truth or the will of the people.

Despite the Muslim Brotherhood's opposition to the amendment bill, the movement's leader Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef called for participation in the elections: "The Brotherhood's position – calling for participation in the presidential elections – is the result of what is happening now [in Egypt]. This position is meant [to arouse] the people's awareness and to induce [the citizens] to participate actively in the elections in order to prevent the forging of their votes and as a step to reform." [6]

A similar position was adopted by the Al-Wafd party, which even presented a candidate – No'man Gum'a – despite the party's opposition to the amendment bill. According to the internet site www.ikhwanonline.com, "[Gum'a] did not rule out [the possibility] that the elections would be forged, but he would participate in them seriously..." Despite his candidacy, Gum'a continued to describe the amendment as a failure: "The amendment of Article 76 has proven the article's corruption because no independent [person] can present his candidacy for the presidency."

Gum'a said that in subsequent elections, in 2011, "parties will be required to constitute 5% of the members of the (elected) People's Council and 5% of the (elected) Shura Council. This is an impossible issue for all the opposition parties... The National Party will have a monopoly in the subsequent elections." [7]

Three new opposition movements emerged after the results of the amendment referendum were released: the National Union for Democratic Change, made up primarily of Nasserite activists; [8] the New Movement for Change, founded by intellectuals, artists, and writers; [9] and the Journalists for Change movement, which acts for freedom of expression and independent journalism. [10]

This report will review the public debate in Egypt on the constitutional amendments and their impact on the September 7 elections.

Efforts to Guarantee Participation in the Referendum

The main problem facing the Egyptian government was to secure participation in the referendum. The entire Egyptian establishment was mobilized for this purpose. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, in a televised speech a day before the vote, called upon the Egyptian people to participate in the referendum. [11] The religious establishment, for example, Minister of Religious Endowments Dr. Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, emphasized that participating in the referendum was a religious duty. [12] Similarly, Al-Azhar University's clerics and lecturers asked Egypt's citizens to fulfill their national duty, stating that Islam encouraged positive participation in building and reviving the homeland in all spheres. [13]

Dr. Ulwa Amin, lecturer on Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, told the government weekly 'Aqidati : "Positive participation in issues concerning the republic [i.e. Egypt] is like testimony in court. As is written in Koran 2:283: 'You shall not conceal testimony; whoever conceals it has sin in his heart.' Therefore, when an individual is called upon to testify in a matter [such as a referendum], he is obligated to respond to the call and to go express his opinion, whether it is supporting or opposing. With regard to the passive individual who does not participate in public affairs and Egyptian issues: According to Islamic jurisprudence, this is forbidden, because Islam prohibits passivity and commands taking responsibility…" [14]

The Qatari daily Al-Sharq wrote that according to Egyptian sources, Al-Azhar Sheikh Dr. Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi met with Mubarak's political advisor Osama Al-Baz and Minister for Religious Endowments Zaqzouq to discuss assistance from Al-Azhar in enlisting the people's support for President Mubarak. The paper also wrote that the Ministry of Religious Endowments had ordered preachers to praise the Egyptian government and Mubarak in their Friday sermons, and to denigrate opposition organizations, depicting them as working against the homeland and collaborating with foreign countries – particularly the U.S. and Israel. [15]

The leading government paper Al-Ahram praised the amendment. Ibrahim Nafi', then editor-in-chief, wrote that this amendment will be accompanied by other reforms. [16] Following the referendum, he stressed that it shows that: "...the people wishes to continue [in the path] of change and reform." [17]

Galal Dwidar, then editor-in-chief of the Egyptian government daily Al-Akhbar, alsorejected the call by the opposition and some parties to boycott the referendum: "The amendment to Article 76, along with [other] amendments to laws connected to the elections, to political rights, to the People's Council, and to the Shura Council, [presents] a tremendous opportunity for these parties to engage in the work of political enterprise and to create a strong popular infrastructure that will support the process of democracy in Egypt…" [18] Following the referendum, Dwidar wrote: "The unprecedented rush to participate in the referendum is a decisive response... Indeed, [it] is a rejection of all the negative and defeatist arguments which, by means of shouts and fallacious allegations, tried to persuade the citizens to stand alongside [the boycotters]... " [19]

A New Movement to Support Mubarak

Following the referendum, the Al-Istimrar ["Continuation"] civil movement emerged, supporting President Mubarak's continued presidency, which has lasted since 1981. In a communiqué, the movement appealed to Mubarak "to continue to present his candidacy for an additional term, in order to preserve the stability that is the basis for prosperity and advancement, and also in order to continue the process of freedom, democracy, and rule of law. [This is because] the time has come for all the world to hear the voice of the honorable sons of Egypt, who realize that Mubarak represents true stability in our country – [a country] for which many wait in ambush, including foreign countries that claim to be concerned about the rights of the Egyptian people, yet ignore the rights of the Palestinian people..." [20]

The Opposition: The Amendment Is "Murder of Democracy"

The Egyptian opposition called to boycott the referendum, since the conditions barred independent candidates and representatives of existing parties from running for the presidency as long as the National Party maintained a majority in the Shura Council, the People's Council, and the local councils. The opposition also demanded comprehensive reforms, ranging from the freedom to establish political parties and publish newspapers to the abolition of Egypt's emergency laws.

Opposition daily Al-Wafd columnist Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Nahhas wrote that the ruling party attributes tremendous importance to the presidential elections and therefore ensured, by imposing impossible conditions, that there would be no other competitor.

"Recent events reveal that the political reform is only an illusion and a waste of time. Egypt's political life is going from bad to worse, with the blessing of government members in parliament. The talk about the weak parties and about how the government threw the ball into their court is repulsive and groundless – for the simple reason that the parties have already been silenced, because in Egypt their hands are tied politically.

"A manifestation of this is the National Party's integration into all the country's sectors, from the government ministries, through the local authority apparatuses, to the control of all the media. This is in addition to the emergency law, the law [stipulating the parliamentary election process], and apparatuses and other laws enabling the government to easily set what percentage [of representatives] it will have in the People's Council, the Shura Council, and the local councils.

"In sum, not only does what happened in parliament empty the initiative of its content, but it buries Egyptian political life." [21]

In an article in the Nasserite opposition weekly Al-Arabi , titled "Murdering Democracy," Farouq Al-'Ashari wrote: "I was disappointed and lost my hope because of the People's Council's version of the amendment to Article 76 – which in effect empties the president's initiative of content. The entire matter was handed over to the People's Council, the Shura Council, and the local councils, against the people's will, so that the current bad and disgraceful situation will continue, and so as to ensure the continuation of the tyranny and sole rule of a single party headed by the president. This comes with the continuation of the emergency laws that have been in existence for a quarter of a century…" [22]

Kifayya, the Egyptian civil movement for change, which stages frequent demonstrations against the Mubarak regime, issued a communiqué calling to boycott the referendum: "Instead of responding to the public's demands, the regime began to mislead and maneuver failed attempts lacking all national responsibility, so as to evade and sabotage the awakening and unprecedented popular movement for freedom and democracy whose signs have emerged amongst the students, workers, fellahin , journalists, and university lecturers… The movement calls on all Egyptians to boycott the show of the referendum and to boycott the comedy of the presidential elections, and to consider them null and void." [23]

The Muslim Brotherhood movement made a similar call for a boycott. It took part in demonstrations across Egypt to demand political reform that would include the abolition of the country's emergency laws. Senior Muslim Brotherhood officials, such as Secretary-General Mahmoud 'Azzat and top official 'Assam Al-'Arian, were recently arrested, as were many of the movement's activists.

Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader Sheikh Muhammad Mahdi 'Akef issued a communiqué calling on the Egyptian people to boycott the referendum, arguing that the version that was up for approval "empties the amendment completely of content" and "makes it impossible for any candidate not from the ruling party to run for the presidency. Moreover, [the parliament] has presented a version of the amendment that is worse than what there was beforehand."

'Akaf called on the Egyptian regime "to end the state of emergency and permit comprehensive freedoms such as the freedom to establish political parties and to publish newspapers, the release of political detainees and prisoners, and abolition of the emergency courts and emergency laws." He also called for "putting together an independent judicial committee to oversee the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections." [24]

Islamist opposition members living in Europe recently established a new organization, the Save Egypt Front. [25] Usama Rushdi, the organization's information officer, who is the former spokesman of Egypt's Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya movement, said: "While the Egyptian people, like other peoples in the world, aspires to freedom, the rule of law, and a country [run] by institutions, President Mubarak clings to the principle of monopoly of power, election fraud, a continued state of emergency, damage to human rights, expanding the detention of political opponents and making up charges against them, and [a policy] of torturing the people, which reaps a succession of victims.

"Mubarak even tried, in light of growing pressure from home and abroad demanding reform, to circumvent these demands on February 26, when he demanded that the People's Council and the Shura Council amend Article 76... But it quickly became clear to the people that this regime was misleading, was making empty political maneuvers, and was insisting on being contemptuous of the Egyptian people – whom the prime minister recently declared still not ripe for democracy." [26]

The Opposition: Referendum Results Were Forged

According to the opposition, the unprecedented referendum boycott was a success, and the results of the referendum were forged by the National Party, and thus did not reflect the people's will. The opposition further claimed that the regime had treated opponents of the referendum violently, including sexually harassing female demonstrators.

Ahmad Abu Al-Ma'ati, columnist for the Nasserite opposition weekly Al-Arabi, wrote that the empty streets of Cairo and the districts were the best proof of the success of the public's unprecedented boycott: "What happened on the day of the referendum was a comedy by any standard. This comedy has no connection with the lesson declared by the Interior Ministry's computer about the [referendum's] participants – those who approved, those who rejected, and those who abstained. The streets of Cairo and the districts, which were empty of people throughout election day, are the best proof of the extent of the public's unprecedented boycott against the participants in this ignoble show.

"The comedy is manifest in the wave of acts of violence witnessed by the streets of Egypt, and even reached the point of the violation of the honor of young girls and women, whose only crime was participating in a nonviolent demonstration against the referendum, or saying 'no' to Mubarak on the threshold of the Journalists' Union [building], or at the Attorneys' Union [building]…" [27]

Al-Wafd columnist Sayid Abu Al-'Aati wrote that in order to assure a high turnout for the referendum, "the regime enlisted... government vehicles, with which they urged workers and clerks to the voting booths against their will – not so they would state their honest opinion, but so they would agree to the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution..." He also stated that the regime had "marked the ballot slips ['yes'], after the [election] committees were completely empty of voters, and after the masses had responded to the [boycott] call by the national opposition parties.

"The referendum scandal has proven that that there is no hope for any serious political reform in this country as long as the centers of power controlling Egypt and the current regime remain." [28]

The daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm claimed that it had a film "proving that intentional fraud was carried out by some of the supervisors in one of the [election] committees in the electoral region of Minya Al-Nasser, in the Al-Dakhiliya district. The committee supervisors filled in all the referendum slips with the answer 'yes' and placed them in the ballot boxes, so that the voter turnout would be as the government wanted and [thus] the level of agreement would reach 83% of all the [referendum] participants.

"The fraud was photographed by one of those present, using a cell-phone camera… We also have additional pictures of the event, and Al-Masri Al-Yawm is willing to hand the film over to the relevant authorities for them to investigate the event and take the necessary steps." [29]

*A. Shefa is a MEMRI Research Fellow.

Endnotes:

[1] For an excerpt from an August 29, 2005 TV interview with another candidate, Dr. Fawzi Gazzal, see: http://memritv.org/clip/en/832.htm.

[2] On May 25, 2005, the referendum over the Egyptian government bill to change the presidential electoral system was passed by a majority of 82%, with about 17 million of Egypt's 32 million voters participating in the referendum. The government described it as part of the reform process. Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 27, 2005. For statements by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 217, April 25, 2005.

[3] Of these 250 representatives, at least 65 must be MPs, and at least 25 must be Shura Council members. The 250 must also include at least 10 local council members from each of 14 districts or more (i.e., at least 140 local council representatives). Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 11, 2005.

[4] Al-Hayat (London), June 1, 2005.

[5] Al-Hayat (London), May 22, 2005.

[6] http://www.ikhwanonline.com, August 30, 2005.

[7] http://www.ikhwanonline.com, August 8, 2005.

[8] Al-Ahram (Egypt), June 7 and 8, 2005.

[9] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 10, 2005.

[10] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 7, 2005.

[11] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 25, 2005.

[12] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 25, 2005.

[13] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 25, 2005.

[14] 'Aqidati (Egypt), May 17, 2005.

[15] Al-Sharq (Qatar), May 26, 2005. Al-Baz denied this allegation in an interview to Al-Masri Al-Yawm, cited in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi on June 29, 2005.

[16] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 19, 2005.

[17] Al-Ahram (Egypt), May 27, 2005.

[18] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), May 11, 2005.

[19] Al-Akhbar (Egypt), May 26, 2005.

[20] Al-Hayat (London), June 1, 2005.

[21] Al-Wafd (Egypt), May 15, 2005.

[22] Al-Arabi (Egypt), May 15, 2005.

[23] www.harakamasria.com, May 11, 2005.

[24] www.ikhwanonline.com, May 17, 2005.

[25] The organization includes prominent opposition activists, such as Dr. Kamal Al-Halbawi, former Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, who is currently serving as advisor to the Save Egypt Front.

[26] www.saveegyptfront.com, June 2, 2005. Rushdi's speech was made at the Save Egypt Front's first convention, held in London, in the presence of journalists and media personnel, on May 23, 2005.

[27] Al-Arabi (Egypt), May 29, 2005.

[28] Al-Wafd (Egypt), May 29, 2005.

[29] These statements were cited in the London Arabic-language daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi., June 7, 2005.