Egyptians go to the polls on Wednesday to elect a president from among 10 contenders, including the incumbent of 24 years, Hosni Mubarak. While few doubt the outcome will be his re-election, many are intensely following the process.
Some 6,000 domestic election monitors have been training for the event, while hundreds of foreign reporters are converging on the country this week. Although all the formal trappings of a true electoral contest are in place, important aspects of authenticity are glaringly absent.
Despite promises to the contrary, this is far from a level playing field. Mubarak still commands disproportionate assets: name recognition, a virtual monopoly on state-controlled electronic media and some 85 percent of the print media. As of one week before the poll, some opposition candidates had yet to air even one campaign ad on Egyptian television. All members of the presidential election commission are Mubarak appointees, and the new election rules eliminated any independent challengers.
Since the year 2,000, Egypt's 8,000 judges must supervise and certify election results, by ruling of the High Court. This was a major step toward fairer elections, as the judges' professional union has remained fairly independent over the past half-century of executive power grabs.
So the Mubarak regime has had to use various ploys to neutralize the judge's union. One was to stretch the definition of the judiciary' to include thousands of loyal government employees who have law degrees but no experience on the bench. This boxes in the true judges, for if they protest by boycotting their supervisory duties, the task will fall once more to police from the infamous Ministry of the Interior.
Thus, in the past, the judges' union tended to go along, with predictable results. In the 2000 parliamentary elections, while Mubarak's ruling party received roughly 38 percent of the popular vote in districts supervised by true judges, that percent somehow jumped to 86 percent where the quasi-judges were in charge.
This year promises to be very different. In the spring the judges held a nation-wide assembly and resolved that unless the regime granted them full independence, and exclusive oversight of the voting process they would not supervise the upcoming presidential (or parliamentary) races. On Friday they made their final demands: allow civil society groups to observe the voting process, stop interfering in the definition of legitimate judges for purposes of the election and agree that no ballot box will leave the presence of a legitimate judge until its contents are counted, certified and reported.
Thus far, a standoff looks likely, as the head of the presidential election commission has stated publicly on television that he refuses all citizen monitoring of the election process.
Other interesting developments on the eve of the election include a fierce public debate over whether to vote or to boycott the presidential race. Several opposition parties have called on their members to stay away in protest over restrictive election rules that strongly favor Mubarak. On the other hand, the Muslim Brotherhood, thought to be the single strongest opposition group in Egypt, are urging their followers to caste ballots and vote their conscience but not to give support to any "despotic, corrupt rulers." This is a clear if implicit repudiation of Mubarak, the sole ruler for 24 years.
Some 34 civil society organizations are preparing thousands of young people to monitor the elections despite repeated governmental objections. These groups argue that if the regime is not planning to rig the vote, then domestic as well as foreign observation of the polling process should not be a problem. The regime response is to say that any outside monitoring is an infringement on Egyptian sovereignty, and that domestic monitors are an affront to the integrity of the judges. That argument was quickly undermined when the judges' union announced their support for civil society monitors.
Whether the Mubarak regime is running scared because of the mounting challenges from within and without to hold a free and fair election, or is simply incapable of ridding the party of cheating as a way of life, the present signs do not bode well for Wednesday's polls. Meanwhile, Egyptians for the first time are experiencing the thrilling taste of defying tyranny, and enjoying some newly-found space for freedom.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is director of the Ibn Khaldun Center in Cairo. Copyright: Project Syndicate
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