Egypt vote shows unease with democracy

Flawed polls Monday and coming votes in the Middle East are seen by critics as creating only the appearance of reform.

Mohammed Kamal promised Monday's elections would be different.

Mr. Kamal, leader of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), described new election rules as a "leap forward in … the increase in political participation in Egypt," at a rare meeting with foreign journalists a few weeks ago.

"We have a test coming up with the Shura Council elections. ... There is unprecedented freedom of expression in Egypt now," he said.

But, instead, the vote for the consultative upper house of parliament proved to be much like previous polls – marked by intimidation and abuse.

Monday's election was marred by the beating of an opposition parliamentarian by the police, limited access to polls, and the arrest of nearly 800 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's powerful political opposition group. The arrests have occurred over the past week, with at least 75 Brotherhood members were arrested Monday.

"It's as expected – a fiasco," says Madgi Abdu, a Brotherhood member.

"There's a massive police presence at the polling station, none of us have been allowed anywhere near the station, including the candidate's family, and they're bussing in NDP supporters,'' he says.

At least three other polling places were confirmed to have blocked Brotherhood supporters from entering. The Islamist group alleged on its website that already full ballot boxes were delivered to some stations, and that others where their candidates were running were shut completely, though this could not be independently confirmed.

Egypt, a close US ally, has promised in recent years – in part due to American pressure – to open up its political system, and officials such as Kamal say it has done just that with a series of constitutional amendments that have changed the country's electoral laws.

But to critics, from the Brotherhood to secular leaning activists in the Kifaya movement, the changes have amounted to the fine tuning of a deeply authoritarian system designed to put a more democratic face on a process that still ensures that no one but the NDP holds the reigns of power here.

It's a process happening not just in Egypt but in Arab neighbors and US allies like Morocco and Jordan, which also have elections coming up. All of these countries have strict limits on Islamist political parties, which tend to be the most popular opposition groups.

The US has also toned down its democracy rhetoric lately out of concern that free elections will empower Islamists that are hostile to the US and replace friendly, if undemocratic, regimes.

The Shura Council itself is a body without law-making powers, though the parliamentary immunity and prestige it affords winners makes it an attractive post to many businessmen. Most Egyptians assume their votes do not count and independent observers said they expect turnout of about 10 percent of the electorate.

In one instance of election day violence, a supporter of an independent candidate was killed by NDP backers in Husseiniya, in Egypt's teeming Nile delta. Such non-Brootherhood independent candidates typically join the NDP bloc if elected.

Egypt's new electoral rules have been crafted to prevent the use of Islamic symbols and slogans, which effectively disqualified the Brotherhood, whose campaign banners usually carry the words: "Islam is the solution." Though the group is illegal, its members managed to get on 19 out of 88 ballots as independents.

Though the NDP is a largely secular party, Egypt's constitution is partly based on sharia, or Islamic law. Its party symbol seen on the ballot – important because so many Egyptians are illiterate – is an Islamic crescent moon.

A member of the Brotherhood's central office in Cairo said he would be shocked if any of their candidates won since, he alleged, most of their supporters had been blocked from the polls.

The group sent shock waves through Egypt's controlled political establishment when it won 88 seats in parliamentary elections last year that were marred by allegations of vote rigging and intimidation, but nevertheless was Egypt's most free election for decades.

Analysts say it appears the government is trying to starve the movement – which eschewed violence 40 years ago in favor of a slow and steady approach to win power at the ballot box – of political oxygen, and giving it the choice of either fading away or turning to violence, which would enable the government to wipe out the group.

"The regime is doing all this because it is incapable of honest political competition with opposition forces,'' said Mohammed Habib, the Brotherhood's No. 2 official. "The aim is to marginalize the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt's political life and to prevent us from moving forward towards peaceful reforms and change through legal and constitutional means."

And it's not just the Brotherhood. Ayman Nour, a secular politician who ran against President Hosni Mubarak last year, remains in jail on what he and his supporters say are trumped up forgery charges.

Kamal, who has a PhD in political science from Johns Hopkins University and worked as a congressional aid in Washington, said the new rules are designed to safeguard the secular character of the Egypt, and that the Muslim Brotherhood would be allowed to form a political party as long as it abandoned its Islamic slogans.

"The Islamists have to play by the rules of the liberal and democratic game," he said.

"They are talking with both sides of their mouths – some elements of the Muslim Brotherhood benefit from the position they're in now. They don't have to be transparent about their finances or practice internal democracy, yet they continue to complain that they are the victims," he said.

At a press conference, General Tarek al-Attia, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior said the police were strongly warned against partisanship and said their large presence at most polling places was designed to protect voters and prevent violent incidents.

Nevertheless, political scientist Dia Rashwan, an expert on Islamist movements at the Al Ahram Center for Strategic and International Studies in Cairo, said in a commentary for the independent Egypt Today newspaper that the new electoral rules, which have removed direct judicial supervision of polls, instead placing the supervisory role in a government-appointed body, were designed to limit political competition.

"The logic is clear and will be seen at midnight tonight when the results will show a total NDP victory and the failure of the 'unpopular' opposition forces such as the Muslim Brotherhood," he wrote.

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