13 May 2012
Egypt Elects a President
By Gwynne Dyer
After eleven demonstrators were killed outside the Ministry of Defence in Cairo early this month, Mohammad al-Assaf, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), expressed his astonishment that anybody might suspect the military of wanting to rig the forthcoming presidential elections in Egypt. “The armed forces and its Supreme Council are committed to handing over power at the scheduled time or even before 30 June,” he said.
State television, still controlled by supporters of the old regime, explained that the people who attacked the demonstrators were local residents of the Abbassiya district who had grown sick of continued demonstrations. What could be more understandable than that?
It’s so easy to imagine the men of Abbassiya spontaneously rummaging around in their houses for pistols and shotguns, determined to end the nuisance that made it almost impossible to get to the new metro station. Then they gathered at 2 am in two separate groups and simultaneously charged the demonstrators from two different directions, as random mobs of disgruntled citizens so often do.
Nine of the eleven dead demonstrators were killed by head shots, a sure sign that amateurs were at work. Only a died-in-the-wool conspiracy theorist would suspect that the attackers were the same old gang of thugs-for-hire that the old regime turned to when it wanted to use deniable but lethal violence on crowds of demonstrators.
Oh, all right then, have it your way. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which has been Egypt’s transitional government since the revolution of 11 February, 2011, was indeed behind the murders – or at least, some people very close to the SCAF were. That’s why the soldiers and police watching all this did not intervene for six hours. So the question is: what did the senior military hope to achieve by doing this?
Partly, they were just being their usual clumsy, brutal selves. But they were also defending their policy of removing all the radicals from the race.
Most of the demonstrators in front of the Defence Ministry were protesting against the disqualification in mid-April of their presidential candidate, Sheikh Hazem Abu Ismail of the Nour Party. He was a front-runner in the presidential race, two of the others being Khairat al-Shater of the Muslim Brotherhood and the old regime’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman – both of whom were disqualified too.
Abu Ismail was disqualified because the new parliament passed a xenophobic law demanding that the parents and grandparents of any candidate must be Egyptian and nothing else. The Nour Party had voted for that law – but then it turned out that Abu Ismail’s late mother had also taken American citizenship before she died. Or so the junta-appointed Higher Presidential Election Commission claimed, although he denied it.
The result of the military’s machinations is that ten of the 27 candidates for the presidency have been removed, including all the more extreme ones with any serious prospect of winning the election. The front-runners among the remaining thirteen are two Islamic candidates and two secular ones, none of whom could be called extremists.
Mohammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who took the place of the disqualified Khairat al-Shater, has all the charisma of a cabbage. He may even win fewer votes than Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood man who is running as an independent.
On the secular side, is Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister and ex-head of the Arab League, and former air force commander Ahmed Shafiq, who was briefly prime minister in the last days of the Mubarak regime. All moderates.
It’s impossible to predict who will win, because the election on 23-24 May will only produce two front-runners, who will then face a run-off contest on mid-June. What can be said with confidence is that the man the armed forces finally hand power over to at the end of June will not be a radical.
Disappointed? You wanted Egyptians to conduct a radical political experiment you would never want to see tried in your own country? Tough.
In 1998 there was a similar non-violent democratic revolution in another big Muslim country. The dictator who was overthrown, like Hosni Mubarak, was a former general who had ruled his country for more than twenty years. The first elected president was the leader of a prominent Islamic organisation, which frightened the country’s 10 percent Christian minority.
Islamic parties also gained a dominant position in the new parliament, and the more excitable observers predicted national disaster. However, Indonesia today is a stable democracy with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
Indonesia is far from perfect. The military still has enough clout to ensure that “defence” spending stays high, and the police are more corrupt than ever. But the mainstream Islamic parties have stopped demanding Sharia law and Muslim-Christian violence has practically ended. The place is a genuine but deeply imperfect democracy – like India, say, or the United States.
Nobody in Indonesia wants the former dictator Suharto back, and already almost nobody in Egypt wants Mubarak back. It will get better in Egypt, though more slowly than most Egyptians hope.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 8. “(It’s so…do”; and “Abu Ismail…denied it”)
8 September 2005
By Gwynne Dyer
The Egyptian presidential election last Wednesday was a cynical farce. President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt since 1981, was certain to win again, and his leading opponent, Ayman Nur of the Tomorrow party, was facing trumped-up charges of forgery that may land him in jail by next month. In the middle of election day, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party panicked at the low turnout and reverted to its old tricks of stuffing ballot boxes and bussing government workers to vote en masse. And yet, it was not a complete waste of time.
Ayman Nur said it himself a few days before the end of the 19-day campaign. “It made Egyptians think: ‘Why have we accepted this for 24 years?’ I believe, whatever the result, we have a large gain for democracy and liberalism.” And although official manipulation on voting day was so shameless that he is now demanding a re-run of the entire election, his remark is still correct. In what is by far the biggest country in the Arab world, the notion, if not the substance, of democracy has reemerged after 53 years in the shadows.
Democracy is what US President George W. Bush says he wants in the Arab world, but he certainly didn’t want Mubarak, America’s closest Arab ally, to lose power. He wanted an election that looked free but legitimised Mubarak’s rule, and Mubarak has done his loyal best to oblige. But this is tricky stuff: parliamentary elections are due soon, and Mubarak has promised to lift the emergency laws under which he has ruled since he took power after Anwar Sadat’s assassination 24 years ago. If he can’t stop the wrong people from running, things could get entirely out of hand….
Hosni Mubarak is third in a line of military officers who have monopolised power in Egypt since young army officers led by Gamal Abdul Nasser first seized power in 1952, and he doesn’t have a single democratic bone in his body. “Politics” during his reign has consisted of an almost unanimous vote every six years in the parliament, which is completely dominated by ruling party placemen, which re-nominated him as the sole presidential candidate. Then came a referendum in which the common people were invited to express their warm approval of the sole presidential candidate.
Mubarak’s watchword, always, was “stability”. He was allegedly all that stood between Egypt and the violence and chaos of a takeover by the Islamist extremists who had murdered Sadat. The economy had virtually ceased to grow, living standards were falling as the population rose, and criticising the regime got you beaten up or jailed, but at least there was “stability”. No debate, no imagination, no excitement in what used to be the intellectual and cultural capital of the Arab world, but who needs that when you can have “stability” instead?
Egyptians do not love Mubarak, but over the years they have grown so accustomed to him — they must be over forty to remember a time when he did not dominate the scene — that they had almost forgotten that there might be an alternative normality. So President Bush’s call for democracy in Egypt was like a rock tossed into a stagnant pond: suddenly, there were waves spreading out in every direction.
Bush may not have understood that a democratically elected Egyptian government would almost certainly cancel the alliance with the United States and take a more radical stance on regional issues like Iraq and Israel-Palestine, but his advisers certainly did. American pressure on Egypt to democratise remained largely cosmetic, with no demands to legalise the banned Muslim Brotherhood (which would probably get at least 30 percent of the votes in a free election), or to give rival candidates equal access to the media.
And on the surface, it has worked. Mubarak’s key tactic was to announce that rival candidates would be allowed to run for the presidency only in February, when it was already too late to register to vote in a September election. In this way, the many opposition supporters who had not bothered to register to vote in the usual staged referendum were also excluded from voting against Mubarak in a contested election.
With the help of some election-day chicanery of the usual sort, Mubarak’s people managed to produce a result in which around a quarter of the population voted — not as low as it might have been — and over three-quarters of them voted for Mubarak despite the fact that he faced nine rivals for the presidency. And now, having placated the Americans, we can put this notion of democracy away again for six years. That, at least, is the script that the regime is working from.
But what Egyptian political scientist Amr Hamzawy calls “the theatre of democratisation based on cosmetic reforms” can have unexpected results, for it reminds a mass audience of how democratic politics should really work. Egyptians have noted that the regime’s repressive instincts are now seriously constrained by the need to look democratic, and they can use that to lever some real concessions out of Mubarak in time for the parliamentary elections in November. Neither Washington nor Mubarak intended it, but Egypt could yet find itself on the road to becoming a real democracy.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“Mubarak’s watchword…instead”; and “”And on the surface…election”)