Al-Ahram Weekly Online   10 - 16 April 2008
Issue No. 892
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Egypt vs Zimbabwe

By Salama A Salama

Some people have been amusing themselves by drawing parallels between Egypt's local elections and the recent municipal elections in France. In the French poll Sarkozy's party lost and the results were seen as a clear indication that the public was running out of patience with their president's policies and style of government. This is a far cry from what happened in Egypt.

The French not only have free elections but a whole set of values that go with it -- the acceptance of otherness, freedom of religion and opinion, the right to form political parties and labour unions. The list goes on. In Egypt we cannot compare ourselves with France. We cannot even compare ourselves with Pakistan, Zimbabwe or Kenya.

Some of these countries had brutal military regimes, as was the case in Pakistan where violent clashes occurred between the military regime and political parties. In Zimbabwe Mugabe has been in power for 28 years, during which he has used every conceivable form of oppression against his opponents, rigging elections at will to stay in power, while in Kenya the UN had to interfere when two candidates, including the incumbent, claimed to have won the presidential elections.

None of these nations shares our claim to 7,000 years of civilisation. All are new to democracy. But in their recent elections the polling has been reasonably fair, despite occasional irregularities. And the public managed at last to get its message across. In Zimbabwe good old Mugabe has to leave.

Our political commentators have been impressed not only by the conduct of municipal elections in France but by the democratisation of other countries. The admiration with which they speak of such developments makes one think. Perhaps it is time our ruling political elite do the same.

Is it too much to hope that our ruling elite -- the same elite that closely follows the meetings of the European parliament and feel incensed when Egypt is accused of human rights abuses -- might actually start mimicking what other nations have been doing? Is it possible that they might tray their hand at conducting a fair election? You'd think that they would be more than happy to encourage the nation to participate in politics since that is the only way political and social conditions in Egypt will be improved. How else can we credibly fight corruption and poverty? How else can we improve public services, end discrimination against women and Copts and stamp out violence in all its shapes and forms? But this is the last thing on the minds of our leaders. For them the status quo is the only way to go.

In Egypt's recent municipal elections the National Democratic Party won 95 per cent of seats uncontested. It did so in the middle of a bread crisis, at a time when inflation on basic foodstuffs is skyrocketing and when 40 per cent of the country has slipped below the poverty line. In any other place the government would be sent packing. In Egypt it wins by a landslide.

Because Egypt is such a unique country the security services have developed their own ways to determine the results of elections, while sorting out the bread crisis on the side. Ballot boxes are not what matter in Egypt. What matters is the ability of the security apparatus to beat up the opposition, terrorise dissenters and send activists to jail. This is the tried and tested method of Egypt's security services and the only strategy they know. Through such tactics they keep public anger simmering. Through such tactics they claim they are protecting the nation against the evil heresies of the Muslim Brotherhood. These are the same tactics they intend to use in the legislative elections of 2010 and the presidential elections of 2011. What we saw in the municipal elections was a dress rehearsal.

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