Egypt Nears Twilight Zone After Undemocratic Elections

AMID accusations of government intimidation and fraud, President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) dominated Egypt's parliamentary elections. Of 444 seats, the four major opposition parties won only 13. Opposition leaders accused the government of stuffing ballot boxes for NDP candidates.

Fouad Seraj al-Deen, head of the liberal opposition Wafd party, called the recent elections "the worst in an Egyptian parliamentary history long marred by accusations of fraud." An Egyptian human rights organization urged Mr. Mubarak to cancel the balloting. Moreover, 15 people were killed and 90 injured in clashes between NDP candidates and the opposition.

These fraudulent elections could prove to be a turning point in Egyptian politics, because they suggest that the government has little commitment to conducting free and fair elections and to bringing legitimate opposition voices into parliament as a way of legitimizing the political order. Depriving legitimate opposition of the opportunity to work within a legal framework is likely to force it underground and perhaps even toward political violence. This is especially likely in the case of the previously peaceful Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition group. Egypt seems to be heading toward a political dead end ominous to its stability.

US support

Since Egypt's stability is vital to US interests in the region, the United States needs to consider the possible consequences of its financial support for such a dangerously antidemocratic regime. At the very least, it should demand safeguards to ensure that the funds are helping the Egyptian poor rather than bolstering a repressive security system.

Egyptian elections were conducted in a very restrictive atmosphere. Two months beforehand, the government managed to stifle freedom of the press by enacting the infamous Law 93, punishing journalists for "insulting public officials or the state institutions" or "harming public peace or the economy." Thus any criticism of the ruling party's policies were illegal.

Any reporting on the Islamists in southern Egypt, even if factual, was considered harmful to the economy and public peace, since it discouraged tourism. Any discussion of corruption was considered to be insulting public officials. Thus, there was no free press in Egypt, nor is there now. According to the new law, journalists who cross the line are subject to five years' imprisonment and a 20,000 (Egyptian) fine.

The state owns TV and radio, and only the ruling party can use them. Because of this lack of access, opposition parties have resorted to other means, primarily the mosque, for political communication, one reason much of the opposition rhetoric has an Islamist coloring.

Furthermore, the elections were conducted under the emergency law that has been in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. This in effect has suspended the Constitution.

Crude government tactics to eliminate challengers included arresting opposition candidates and trying them before military courts. Recently, the government arrested 82 members of the Muslim Brotherhood and put them on trial before a military tribunal, despite the fact that the Brotherhood is nonviolent. Virtually all those arrested were running for parliament. The last arrested was the prominent Islamic activist Seif al-Islam Hassan al-Banna, whose father founded the Brotherhood in 1928. Mr. Banna's arrest occurred while he was campaigning in one of Cairo's poor neighborhoods. It led to demonstrations at Al-Azhar University, as well as Cairo University. Demonstrators protested not only Banna's arrest, but the government's handling of the opposition.

A confrontation with the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to be costly for the government, since the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized group in Egyptian politics, with a membership estimated at 2 million. This exceeds the membership of the ruling NDP, as well as that of the other opposition parties combined. Moreover, the Brotherhood has distanced itself from violent groups such as the Gamma Islamiya (Islamic Group) and the Jihad and has frequently issued statements condemning violence and urging its members to participate in local and national elections.

In spite of the Brotherhood's stance against violence and its insistence on its differences with the violent Islamic groups, the ruling party has insisted on lumping it together with the extremists. This policy could force the Brotherhood to act according to its new image. It could revive its 60-year-old "secret apparatus." Because of its limited resources and legitimacy, the government is not likely to succeed in a confrontation with a combined threat from the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic groups.

A choice of models

Egypt's choice was between the Algerian and the Jordanian models. Despite the differences between Algeria and Egypt, the decision to deny the Muslim Brotherhood any role in the elections could put Egypt on the path to an Algeria-style civil war. After all, the Algerian military government's confrontation with the Islamic Salvation Front led to the three-year-old civil war there.

Had the Egyptian government been interested in the stability of Egypt's political order, it could have opted for the Jordanian model. Jordan has lived with the Brotherhood as a legal party and as members of parliament at moments of great decision, such as the signing of a peace treaty with Israel. The Jordanian Brotherhood objected to the terms of the treaty, but nonetheless it has abided by what the government agreed to.

As in Jordan, the Egyptian government as well as the Egyptian people are better off living with the Brotherhood as a minority group in parliament than living with them as an illegal organization that may, under pressure, resort to violence. But because the Brotherhood was denied access to this parliament, the Jordanian option is ruled out.

Given Egyptian leaders' stubbornness and sense of siege, the US should counsel dialogue between the government and the Brotherhood and consider tying future US aid to democratization. This may be the only means of encouraging Egypt to move toward the Jordanian model and helping it avoid an Algerian-style disaster. Egypt is a very important country in the region and the US has a chance to save it from civil strife. Instead of pouring more money into propping up a corrupt and failing regime, the US must press for democratization. This will not only save America money - it could save Egypt from destruction.

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