As the first presidential election since 1981 that can be contested by more than one candidate – at least in theory – approaches, president Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 24 years, is stepping up his already formidable rigging programme to secure re-election for his fifth term. But his continued refusal to amend old legislation that denies, for instance, candidates and their supporters access to the official media, his new rules to control their campaign funds and programmes, and the escalating crackdown on demonstrators and demonstrations, have all seriously misfired. Popular anger against him is escalating, leading to further demonstrations; prominent candidates who are well-respected in secular circles have urged their supporters to boycott the election, and are persuading secular opposition groups to tell their own followers to do likewise. The widespread rejection of the poll by secular Egyptians disposes of Mubarak'sclaim that it is only ‘Islamic terrorists' who are opposed to his plans for "democratic reform" of the country's political system.
Both the president and his Western allies, particularly the US, know that most Egyptians, whether Islamic or not, are opposed to his corrupt and dictatorial rule; yet neither Mubarak nor his allies see any problem with the use of repression to retain power, so long as it works. Their common interest is, of course, partly to keep Islamic groups in the political wilderness. This explains why neither secular critics of his regime nor his Western allies object to the longstanding legal ban on the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), which is Egypt's largest opposition group, and operates unofficially. It normally puts up candidates to contest parliamentary elections, but has not nominated anyone to stand in this presidential election; nor has it yet called on its followers to boycott it. To nominate a candidate, albeit unofficially, would seem to lend a gloss of respectability to such transparently deceitful proceedings.
Some of the prominent figures who earlier announced their intention to stand have since withdrawn their candidacy and are now calling for a boycott of the election. Saadedin Ibrahim, a sociologist and human-rights activist who has often been jailed, and Nawal Saadawi, a well-known feminist writer, are two of the most notable supporters of the reform campaign. They initially announced themselves as candidates but have since withdrawn, denouncing the election as a sham and calling for a boycott. Their candidacy initially encouraged secular opposition figures and groups to participate in the process in the belief that they could defeat Mubarak and deny him the fifth term he is seeking. At the time, all the opposition groups, including theIkhwan al-Muslimeen, pooled resources to demand an end to the laws and emergency procedures that are bound to give Mubarak an unassailable advantage. But, far from complying, the president has introduced new rules that give him even greater advantage.
Mubarak has refused to amend the constitution to limit the length of a presidency, as that would probably end his own quest for a fifth term. Similarly, he has dismissed out of hand the demand for an end to emergency legislation that severely restricts political activity and makes nonsense of any attempt to challenge and defeat a sitting president. But refusing to change the old order has not helped Mubarak, so he has introduced new procedures that give him even greater advantage. Under the new rules, independent candidates can stand only if they can obtain signatures of support from 250 members of the National Assembly, the upper house and municipal councils. This is obviously virtually impossible, as the ruling National Democracy Party, headed by Mubarak's son Jamal, dominates all these bodies.
Not surprisingly, secular politicians and organisations initially engaging in the process have declared their opposition to it. For instance, Kifaya ("enough" or "sufficiency") Party, formed last year by opposition leaders, has declared a national campaign against it, calling boycotting it a "national duty". According to media reports Kifaya's latest action was prompted by the recent withdrawal from the poll of Nawal Saadawi and Saadedin Ibrahim. In one report, Saadedin Ibrahim explained the reasons for his withdrawal thus: "I am withdrawing from the election because it is a farce. My candidacy broke the thrall of fear and created internal pressure which Mubarak could not ignore any more. Now he has imposed all kinds of impossible conditions." George Ishaq, one of Kifaya's co-founders, also gave in the same interview his own explanation for the change in Kifaya's attitude. "The election is illegal," he said. "Anyone who goes to vote will give the regime the green light to argue it is a genuine competition."
This is highly embarrassing, and damaging for Mubarak as well as US president George W. Bush. It was only in February that Mubarak proposed a revision of the constitution to allow a contest for the presidency for the first time. On March 8 Bush told repressive regimes to introduce democratic reform throughout the Middle East. "Authoritarian rule is not the wave of the future, it is the last gasp of a discredited past," he said. He was not only taking indirect credit for the dubious constitutional reform by Mubarak; he was also using the occasion to orderSyria out of Lebanon. Interestingly, he also pledged to step up the pressure for democratic change in the Middle East during his second term of office. Now that his second term is in full swing and Mubarak, the ruler of the "most influential" Arab country (though that is not saying much), has been revealed by secular leaders to be no friend of political reform, Bush is going to be even harder pushed than before to promote his reputation as a campaigner for democratic reform in the Muslim world.
One thing is certain: Bush will not put pressure on Mubarak to introduce a system that will allow Islamic groups to assume power, or loosen the grasp of the Egyptian military on Egypt's political machinery. The evangelical groups that have strong influence on the Bush administration will not allow a way to emerge for an ‘Islamic takeover', even if Bush wanted to do so. Removing the background control of Egyptian politics by the military might also lessen or undo Cairo's subservience to Washington. Bush and Mubarak have similar interests in this respect, and are likely to confer privately on how best to create a false impression of reform that can satisfy public opinion. In working for this end they are expected to exaggerate the threat of ‘terrorism' in a continued effort to keep Islamic groups in Egypt on the defensive. The Ikhwan will stay out of the new ‘democratic system' and should be congratulated for its stance; Egyptians deserve sympathy for the strife they are likely to have to bear as a result.