The Magazine

Egypt’s Rigged Elections

Mubarak shows contempt for the ‘Cairo Effect.’

Dec 20, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 14 • By JENNIFER RUBIN
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The Obama administration consulted last month with outside policy experts and former officials about promoting democracy in Egypt. Given that Egypt rigged its November 28 legislative elections, it seems the president could use all the help he can get. The fraudulent elections are a rebuke to the Obama administration, which quietly pressed for fair elections, and another setback for U.S. influence in the region. Moreover, they foreshadow the potential for even more dramatic problems when the Egyptian electorate goes to the polls next year to vote for president. It seems that will be either 82-year-old Hosni Mubarak or his son Gamal, who most observers expect will eventually take over the post. In any case, the presidential succession issue coupled with this round of parliamentary elections shows that Egyptian democracy is moving backwards, and the Obama administration is merely voting present.

Egypt’s Rigged Elections

They don’t hear you in Washington: Opposition activists protest in Cairo, December 4.

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It is illuminating to compare the current White House’s Cairo policy with the Bush administration’s handling of Egypt’s 2005 parliamentary elections, when Washington together with the EU employed carrots and sticks to push for freer and more open elections. For example, under private and public U.S. pressure, the Egyptian government licensed the country’s top liberal party, el-Ghad (“Tomorrow”). In January 2005, when the party’s leader and prominent democracy advocate Ayman Nour was jailed for advocating reform of the Egyptian constitution (an initiative that President Mubarak denounced as treacherous), Washington and its allies swiftly dispatched representatives to Egypt to express their disapproval. To encourage democratization, the Bush White House threatened to yank a supplemental aid bill and dangled new investment opportunities; when Nour was sentenced in late 2005 after running for president, the administration suspended talks on a free trade agreement. 

Consequently, the 2005 elections were by most accounts the fairest in Egyptian history. Not only did voters elect numerous opposition party and independent candidates, but for the first time, the government allowed civil society representatives and Egypt’s independent judiciary to monitor the election.

The November parliamentary elections were a different story. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has refrained from publicly criticizing the Egyptian government for its democracy deficit. The White House had privately urged Mubarak not to extend the emergency laws that curtail political and press freedom, but was ignored—an early indication that the administration lacked an effective game plan for influencing the Mubarak government. 

Stephen McInerney, director of advocacy for the Project on Middle East Democracy, told me that the Mubarak regime wasn’t “even making an effort to look good.” Instead, the Egyptians did everything in their power to keep opposition candidates off the ballot. First, the government delayed announcing the actual date of elections and the rules, sowing confusion among potential candidates. Then, it demanded personal information from prospective candidates about their family members, some of them distant relatives, allowing candidates only a few days (including one when government offices were closed) to produce it. Some candidates who made it through the thicket of paperwork were even then denied a spot on the ballot. When judges ruled that candidates should be reinstated and ordered the election halted in 25 districts, the government ignored the rulings. The Egyptians would not allow international monitors, even as a number of other Arab countries of late, most recently Jordan, have permitted them. 

Some democracy advocates expected that for all the preelection maneuvering, the Mubarak regime would at least ensure an orderly process at the polls, if only to give the elections an aura of credibility. But, as McInerney relates, “even with all that rigging,” election day was riddled with violence and widespread fraud. Pro-government thugs intimidated supporters of opposition candidates from getting to the polls. Many of the local Egyptian monitors lacked permits to gain access to the polling places, and those who did get in witnessed blatant ballot stuffing. The ruling National Democratic party also turned on some of its own when candidates failed to qualify under the NDP banner and attempted to run as independents. Government security forces roughed up these would-be independent candidates and their supporters.

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