On Egypt's presidential elections
As the presidential campaign is set into motion. Mohamed Sid-Ahmed asks: Where to?
One might be excused for wondering at the fanfare surrounding the electoral campaign for Egypt's first multi- candidate presidential elections, because everybody, including the candidates, knows the results are a foregone conclusion. There is no doubt in anybody's mind that Hosni Mubarak will win hands down and that he will stay on as Egypt's president. And yet we have a plethora of candidates vying for the top job. The most high-profile contenders are Noaman Gomaa, president of the liberal Wafd Party, and Ayman Nour, the controversial chairman of the Ghad Party. The other two main official opposition parties, the Tagammu and the Nasserist, are boycotting the elections.
Holding multi-candidate elections had become unavoidable for a variety of reasons, some internal, others external. On the internal front, plurality in Egypt was becoming more and more multi-dimensional and choices had to be made. Plurality is manifesting itself at several levels at the party where we have a multi-party system (the ruling NDP, the Wafd, the Tagammu, the Nasserist Party, the Ghad Party and others); at the ideological level, where we have a multi- ideological system (a liberal current, a left-wing current, a socialist current, a Nasserist current, a religious current, etc), and at the legitimacy level, with some movements operating within the legitimacy of the regime and others outside that legitimacy (the Muslim Brotherhood, the Communists, etc). Moreover, the party system is structurally polarised between two global poles; the USA at the head of one pole and terrorism at the head of the other.
As to external reasons, Egypt is part of a global village that frowns upon undemocratic practices. Under increasing international pressure to institute democratic reform, the government began by amending the constitution to allow for multi-candidate elections instead of the referendum system. The international community is deeply interested in the Egyptian elections, because of the critical situation now unfolding in the Middle East and the upsurge of terrorism in the region, not to mention the growing popular discontent in Egypt itself and the threat of destabilisation in a key regional player. Washington has made no secret of its concern calling openly on the ruling party to expand the base of political participation and expressing its disapproval of government policies in no uncertain terms. For example, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called off a scheduled visit to Egypt and said she would not come as long as Ghad Party Chairman Ayman Nour was in prison. Was this an expression of the US displaying solidarity with the Ghad Party or of the latter exhibiting solidarity with the United States? Nor is this incident the only one casting doubts on the real intentions of the Ghad Party. How to explain, for example, Nour's meeting last week with the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mahdi Akef, which ended with a joint statement in which the two leaders declared that they hold similar views on the need to ensure the independence of the judiciary, the abrogation of the state of emergence, the release of political prisoners and a revision of the constitution?
President Bush has declared that he looked forward to seeing the Egyptian elections conducted in accordance with the highest democratic standards so that the Egyptian experiment could serve as a model for the entire region. However, there are basic disagreements between Washington and Cairo on the issue. The NDP has categorically refused to allow foreign observers to monitor the elections, on the grounds that Egypt was once colonised by Western powers and is therefore particularly sensitive to the idea of external intervention in any form. The opposition parties believe the real disagreement is not between the Egyptian electorate and international personalities who are ready to supervise the electoral process, but between the Egyptian electorate on the one hand and government officials on the other.
The boycott option has come in for a great deal of criticism in the media, with commentators falling over themselves to dismiss it as a renunciation of national duty. But how true is that? Boycott is a form of passive resistance that has proved highly effective in some cases most notably in the political gains made by Gandhi in his struggle for India's independence. The impact of the boycott on Egypt's political landscape should not be underestimated either. While it might appear to be a sign of weakness, in actual fact it is just the opposite. In refusing to give legitimacy to what they, and many others, see as a defective electoral process, the parties boycotting the elections can become effective catalysts for change. There is a tendency to believe that the implications of the boycott will resonate more abroad than in Egypt. That may be true in the immediate, but there is bound to be a spillover effect sooner or later.
It is not to the advantage of the NDP to put abusive conditions that could eventually abort the presidential elections campaign. There exists an optimal between not having enough openness and having too much which confuses the issues and focusses attention more on the trees than the forest.
Egypt's presidential elections are taking place concomitantly with Israel's pullout from Gaza. It is difficult to predict the future of Arab-Israeli relations in general and of Palestinian-Israeli relations in particular in the light of this historical event, assuming of course that all goes according to plan. The situation is far from stable and no one can be sure how the various players will conduct themselves in this crucial transition stage. Will Hamas and Islamic Jihad lay down their arms? Will the Jewish settles resort to terrorism and; if they do how will Sharon respond? Will Sharon's coalition collapse following Netanyahu's resignation? If the Likud leadership passes to Netanyahu, would he form a new coalition that includes Peres?
The departure of Israeli troops from Gaza in accordance with Sharon's disengagement plan will introduce a new factor in the equation of Egyptian-Israeli relations. Under the Camp David accords. Egypt is required to restrict its military presence in Sinai to the area east of the passes. In other words it could not deploy forces on its border with Israel. In the light of the recent attacks in Sinai, both Mubarak and Sharon have an interest in establishing an Egyptian military presence up to the borders between the two countries. This arrangement has not yet been formalised in a written agreement.