There were a number of anti-Mubarak demonstrations in Cairo in the days following the presidential elections on September 7, as Egyptians realised that the much-vaunted elections had taken place and nothing had changed; in fact, that Hosni Mubarak and his supporters had consolidated their position by being able to claim a measure of democratic legitimacy for the president’s continuing authoritarian rule. In truth, however, many of the protests were half-hearted; only those who had expected anything from the elections were in a position to be disappointed. Most Egyptians had expected nothing in the first place, a fact reflected in the paltry turn-out: only 23 percent of the 32 million registered voters, despite the fact that voting is legally compulsory for all Egyptians over 18 years of age.
The final election results, announced by the electoral commission on September 9, showed that Mubarak had won 88.6 percent of the votes, which some might consider a considerable drop from the 93.8 percent support he received in the last presidential referendum in 1999, in which he was the only candidate after being nominated by Egypt’s rubber-stamp parliament. The two leading opposition candidates, Ayman Nour of the Ghad Party and Numan Gumaa of the Wafd Party, were officially listed as having received 7.6 percent and 2.9 percent of the vote each.
Both made official protests claiming that the polls had been rigged and demanding that they be re-run, but these were rejected. Although monitoring groups acknowledged that there had been widespread abuses, mainly by supporters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party and election officials, they considered that these would not have affected the overall result of the polls. Supporters of Nour claim that he should have received at least 30 percent of the vote if the polls had been administered fairly. Other opposition leaders had decided against taking part in the polls and advised their supporters not to vote, saying that they were designed only to legitimise Mubarak’s rule, and that fair elections could not take place in the absence of open politics. The Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood), long regarded as Egypt’s main opposition party, remains banned and so was prevented from fielding a candidate.
The novelty of Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential elections, and the debates about how they would be administered, whether Mubarak would run or whether he would hand his mantle to some other establishment figure, whether opposition figures should take part, whether Egyptians should vote, and whether the polls indicated some sort of political reform and progress towards democracy even though everyone knew what the result would be, have dominated Egyptian politics for most of the summer, at least among the country’s emerging middle class. As the dust settles, with the usual sight of pro-government newspapers proclaiming Mubarak’s victory, the realisation has dawned that nothing much has really changed. Almost the only point of interest was the fact that even the pro-government papers, which have traditionally reported massive public turn-outs for the presidential referendums, were forced to acknowledge the low turn-out. In the new mood of more sophisticated “facade democracy”, a greater degree of credibility is evidently required.
Despite the Egyptian election’s very obvious flaws, however, it was hailed as a success by US president George W. Bush, who welcomed them as evidence of the spread of “freedom’s power to transform nations and deliver hope” across the “broader Middle East”. In a speech in San Diego, he bracketed Egypt with “Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories” as places where “people have gone to the polls and chosen their leaders in free elections... Their example is inspiring millions across that region to claim their liberty and they will have it.”
This was despite the fact that the Egyptian polls fell well short of the “objective standards” for a free and fair poll listed by US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in Cairo in June. Then she called for international observers to be permitted to monitor the elections and for Egypt’s repressive emergency laws to be revoked. Considering that these calls were simply ignored byWashington’s closest ally in the Arab world, and Egypt’s elections hailed as a success by Bush nonetheless, there should be little doubt that the calls were intended only to associate the USwith popular demands being made in Egypt, rather than to genuinely pressure the Mubarak regime into obeying them.
Nonetheless, the reality behind the electoral facade merits examination. The first point to make is that the official election results tell a deeper story than usual. Usually, the high official turn-out figures, and the 90 percent plus support for the incumbent dictator, are taken as evidence in their own right of the fraudulence of the polls. This time, we can infer a little more. The figure of 88 percent support for Mubarak may indeed be exaggerated, massaged by ballot-box interference and intimidation of opposition supporters, as claimed by Nour and Gumaa, but it may not be as exaggerated as some might think, considering that most of those who opposed Mubarak evidently did not vote. Even if 88 percent of those who voted -- 6.3 million votes -- may have supported Mubarak, the fact that turn-out was acknowledged to be as low as 23 percent (and may in truth have been even lower) indicates that 77 percent or more of Egypt’s registered voters (and only 32 million of Egypt’s 80 million people bothered even to register) had no faith whatsoever in either Mubarak as president, or in the electoral system he and his regime have established to give them a voice in the running of their own country. The fact that even such marginally restructured and carefully controlled electoral processes provide greater evidence of people’s real attitudes to their rulers and political systems probably helps to explain why even minimal political reforms are treated with immense suspicion by Muslim regimes.
There was also plenty of other evidence in Egypt to show that people there had no real expectations of political change as a result of the multi-candidate elections, not only because of the electoral processes, but because of the dominant position that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has in political life. It is the only party that is permitted to operate completely freely, it has close links with the government at every level, as well as with business elites and top functionaries in the media and every other aspect of public life, and all of them as well only have the positions they hold because of the favour of the regime. The result is that the NDP hold 404 seats in parliament, compared to 18 held by opposition parties and 32 held by independents (10 of them appointed by the president).
Like the Ba’ath Party in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq, and the ruling parties in other Arab countries, the NDP has free access to state resources for its activities and massive powers of patronage. Membership or support for it does not reflect political conviction so much as a desire to be able to get things done, whether in business, in careers or in other fields. One feature of the election campaign was large banners hung all over Cairo, and the advertisements in newspapers, in which major companies and prominent businessmen declared their support for Mubarak and the NDP, either in return for favours in the past, or in the hope of favours in the future, or simply to avoid the risk of falling out of favour. The fact is that in Egypt, as in other Arab states, the political processes are entirely subordinate to the state bureaucracies and institutions.
Later this year, Egyptians will vote (or not, as the case may be) in parliamentary elections. They too will be no freer that these presidential polls. Most Egyptians will remain at home, knowing that meaningful political change will only come through other, more direct, means.