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EGYPT: At Least a Step Towards Elections

Analysis by Adam Morrow

CAIRO, Sep 26 2005 (IPS) - Two weeks after Egypt’s first-ever multi-candidate presidential elections, people are scrambling to make sense of the implications of the contest for the long-term political landscape.

President Hosni Mubarak swept the election as expected. While most analysts are quick to note that a Mubarak victory was never in doubt, they also point to the fact that the election was, despite scattered exceptions, held in a markedly fairer manner than previous contests which were rigged in favour of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

“The election was a step forward, especially if the trend towards greater electoral transparency continues,” said Simon Kitchen, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy.

The NDP’s Mubarak won with a massive 88.5 percent of the vote.

He had ten competitors, including Ayman Nour of the high-profile Al-Ghad Party, who was runner-up with 7.3 percent, and Nomaan Gomaa of the long-established Al-Wafd Party who received less than 3 percent despite the party’s venerable standing.

The fielding of multiple candidates was made possible by a constitutional amendment earlier this year that replaced the previous referendum system in which citizens were allowed only a simple yes-or-no vote to a single nominee backed by parliament.

Critics said the amendment did not go far enough, and lambasted the stringent requirements for candidature: only “official” political parties were allowed to field contenders, and each had to garner the support of at least 250 officials.

These procedures were enough to alienate at least two of the more established parties. Both the Nasserist Party and the leftist Tagammu Party declined to nominate candidates in protest.

The restrictions prevented the Muslim Brotherhood – which lacks official recognition as a party – from fielding a candidate, thereby neutralising Egypt’s most formidable opposition bloc.

Despite efforts by the government to encourage citizens to vote, by the end of election day Sep. 7, only 23 percent of eligible voters turned out. This was considerably less than what was hoped for, but it was still higher than any turnout figures in past referendums, which have generally been estimated at less than 15 percent.

Following the election both Nour and Gomaa alleged foul play. “The results have no relationship to reality,” Nour was quoted as saying by the independent English language weekly, the Cairo magazine.

But despite the obvious constraints to candidature and allegations of fraud, many Egyptians say the mechanics of the election were considerably fairer than in past contests. A report by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) said the small percentage of Mubarak votes earned through isolated cases of fraud was not enough to alter the outcome.

“You can certainly say that the election was run more fairly than previous electoral contests,” EOHR president Hafez Abu Saada told IPS. “There was none of the systematic intimidation that had been seen before.” He said the elections deserved “good, not excellent” marks for transparency.

Many Egyptians took a jaded view of the contest, convinced that none of the newcomers could possibly challenge the incumbent. The candidates had been given just three weeks to pitch their ideas to the public.

Amr Abdel Motaal, senior partner at a local law firm, did not vote. “After the application of all the formal prerequisites, Mubarak was the only feasible choice,” he said. The others “simply weren’t viable.”

Many are looking ahead to the next presidential race scheduled for 2011, when the notion of multi-candidate elections will have had five years to sink in.

But considerable reform is necessary before completely fair and transparent presidential elections can be held.

“The NDP still has huge structural advantages in place,” noted Kitchen, citing the ruling party’s easy access to campaign funds, its vast network of local party offices and its influence on the national judiciary system and media organisations. “If these advantages aren’t eventually removed, the emergence of credible opposition will remain an impossibility.”

Abu Saada agreed that more adjustments to the constitution are necessary for a fully fair election in 2011. “There are still crucial problems with Article 76 (of the constitution, which sets down the rules for multi-party elections),” he said. He cited the 250-signature requirement and the stipulation that candidates must have official party affiliations as examples of current regulation that thwarts genuine competition.

Abdel Motaal said “2011 is still a long way off, and it’s hard to ask purely hypothetical questions.” He said external forces, both regional and international, were more than likely over the next five years to affect the current political trajectory towards reform.

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