Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Egypt's ailing regime tightens grip after elections wipe out opposition

• Governing party wins 96% of the vote in early results
• Islamist opposition may be left with no seats

-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - November 2010

Egypt’s repressive regime sent out a dramatic warning to the international community tonight over its determination to face down any challenge to its authority, after stage-managing parliamentary elections that virtually wiped out the country’s formal opposition.

Early results from the poll, described by domestic and international observers as ‘breathtaking’ in its levels of fraud, suggest that the ruling NDP party have captured 96% of the seats, whilst the 88-strong parliamentary presence of Egypt’s largest organised opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, could be erased to zero.

“We knew it was going to be bad, but I don’t think anyone realised it was going to be this bad,” said Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at the Brookings Doha Centre and an analyst of Egyptian politics. “Egypt has joined the ranks of the world's most autocratic countries. Now we're talking full-blown, unabashed dictatorship.”

The parliamentary ballot was widely seen as a dry run for next year’s more important presidential elections, when current leader Hosni Mubarak may be forced to step down. Mubarak, 82 years old and believed to be seriously ill, has ruled the Arab World’s most populous nation for almost three decades and has remained a close ally of the west, despite reports of systematic human rights abuses at the hands of his extensive security apparatus and slow progress on political reform.

But with no designated successor to the president, there is intense nervousness at the heart of Egypt’s political elite over the potential consequences of transferring power at a time of growing public anger over declining living standards and pervasive state oppression.

“These election results indicate that the regime is frightened about the impending transition, and they’re not in the mood to take any chances over their own survival as we enter what will be one of the most challenging periods in Egypt’s modern history,” argued Hamid. “Previously Egypt’s level of political repression was never at the level of Syria, Tunisia or Iraq; it was always careful to retain some superficial democratic trappings. But now the government is sending a strong message that opposition will not be tolerated.”

Sunday’s vote took place amidst a backdrop of widespread electoral violations, including incidences of ballot-stuffing, vote-buying, and the exclusion of opposition representatives, civil society monitors and journalists from polling stations around the country. In some towns riot police moved in to block voters from accessing polling booths; election-related clashes claimed at least eight lives across the day and left dozens more wounded.

Officials from the governing party rejected reports of wrongdoing in the poll. “The NDP has done its best to ensure that the voting is clean and free from any irregularities,” insisted NDP Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif. But critics disagreed. “The violence we saw was very much a controlled violence, where the authorities seemed to be in charge of what happened and when” said Joe Stork, Deputy Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch. A run-off vote in some constituencies will be held later this week.

Such clear evidence of rigging is likely to cause consternation in western capitals, where pressure on Mubarak to embrace at least some outwardly visible signs of democratisation has been strong. It will be viewed as a particular slap in the face for the Obama administration, which only last week had publicly pressed the Egyptian government to ensure these elections were credible. “We are dismayed by reports of election-day interference and intimidation by security forces,” said a spokesman for the US State Department, which provides more aid to Egypt than to any other country bar Israel. Britain’s foreign office announced it was “deeply concerned” by reports of state-sponsored disruption to the electoral process.

“It’s is really a sign that the ruling clique has no interest in appeasing the international community, and has calculated that the west will not provide the sort of vigorous response that you might expect a blatantly stolen election to provoke,” said Hamid.

Attention will now turn to the various regime insiders jockeying for position in the battle to replace Mubarak, chief among which is the president’s son, Gamal. Long groomed for the leadership, the former banker and architect of many of the country’s divisive neoliberal economic reforms has recently run into opposition from the country’s powerful armed forces, who are concerned at the prospect of a non-military figure taking the reins of power and who want to retain a strong influence over the process of selecting Egypt’s next ruler.

But as the latest election has shown, there will be little opportunity for dissident voices to participate in that process. “These elections were rigged and invalid,” warned Essam El-Arian, spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. “They are destroying any hope of the people for change by peaceful means.”



Many of the violations which marred Egypt’s parliamentary elections on Sunday were witnessed first-hand by The Guardian, which spent the day monitoring polling stations in the populous Shubra neighbourhood of northern Cairo.

At the entrance to one ballot location in Shubra El-Kheima, a queue of voters were heard arguing with security officials over how much they were being paid for their vote, with one man claiming he had been promised LE 500 (£55), but had received less than half that amount. At another polling station, a school in the nearby constituency of El-Sahel, state security colonels initially attempted to physically block access to the voting booths before eventually killing the power to the classrooms and plunging the whole station into darkness. But by the light of burning torches brandished by opposition candidates, ballot boxes stuffed with neatly-stacked, unfolded votes for the ruling NDP party were clearly visible. The civil servant responsible for the booth claimed they had been placed there ‘by security’ but said he would lose his job if he recorded this breach of electoral law.

Later at the El-Sahel count, lines of riot police held back opposition representatives and journalists whilst a procession of ballot boxes passed into the building, many of them with their seals torn open (video). Outside, a supporter of the liberal Al-Wafd party candidate held aloft bunches of NDP votes which had been stamped by polling station officials and which he claimed were due to be jammed into ballot boxes prior to the count (video). “There has never before been an election rigged to this scale,” he told an angry crowd.


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