-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is free'
-Cairo - December 2010
Covering Egypt’s parliamentary elections this week was a surreal experience. Like actors in a bad B-movie we dutifully paraded from one cheap set to the next, trotting through our allotted lines and contorting our faces into wild expressions of indignation as and when the plot demanded it.
The problem wasn’t that this studio lacked colour or intrigue. There was, for example, the polling station where security officials cut the power to prevent us seeing stuffed ballot-boxes, only for opposition candidates to light burning torches and lead us self-righteously into the darkness. Later I was at a ballot count – part baladi wedding, part warzone – where lines of riot police held back the crowds as crates of votes tripped and tumbled into a giant tent bathed in gaudily fluorescent strip-light. It almost felt festive, in a tragic sort of way.
So thrills and spills were in plentiful supply behind the 2D props and cardboard cut-outs. The real problem was that at times we seemed to forget this was a studio at all.
The day after the poll, civil society monitors, human rights activists and journalists all swapped examples of egregious violations, from vote-buying to police intimidation – yet how can you violate a circus? At times it felt as if merely using the language of "irregularities" helped to confer a sort of false legitimacy on to these electoral theatrics, however systematic those irregularities were shown to be.
Thankfully, Egypt's high elections commission (HEC) stepped in this morning to clear up any misunderstandings over whether or not the country had just conducted a serious democratic exercise. Announcing first-round results, which hand the ruling NDP party 97% of the seats contested and leave the Muslim Brotherhood – previously the largest opposition force in parliament – with nothing, the commission's spokesperson informed us that "the elections as a whole were conducted properly, and the results … reflect the will of the Egyptian electorate". In Cairo, farce talks with a straight face.
The HEC's statement unshackles us from the burden of pretending that what transpired last Sunday – and will play out again this coming weekend when a run-off ballot is held – constitutes anything resembling an election; instead, it is better described as a (not particularly artful) piece of stagecraft by Egypt's political elite. Stage performances are designed for an audience though, so the question now becomes "who is this performance aimed at, and why?".
With President Hosni Mubarak's three decade-long rule now coming to an end (he is 82 and frail), the various shades of Egypt's self-perpetuating regime now face a year of deep political volatility as rival NDP insiders attempt to manoeuvre themselves into the position of natural successor.
Sunday's performance revealed little about the dynamics of that race, despite featuring several scenes of intra-NDP competition. That's because the internal struggle to win a ruling party nomination for parliamentary seats is generally a parochial one, with wealthy local businessmen looking to consolidate or expand their privileges through entrance to the legislature – which offers legal immunity, access to the higher echelons of the state, and significant opportunities for personal advancement – and hence doesn't really reflect factional divisions at the heart of the NDP.
The latter exist of course, and they are likely to intensify as decisions are made over whether Mubarak should be handed another six-year term when presidential "elections" are called next year, and as his son Gamal confronts an entrenched military harbouring doubts about his ability to step into his father's shoes.
But this show was about something else. It was about sending a message that – whichever elements from within the existing autocracy triumph in the internecine battles to come – the transition from one pharaoh to another will take place wholly within that autocracy, with all other voices excluded.
The significance of that message, at a time when the Arab world's most populous country is witnessing an outburst of labour activism, sporadic street protests and an explosion of forums of dissent – despite the government's efforts to neuter the independent media – can't be underestimated. It is a warning to the Egyptian nation that there will be no public avenues for expressing grievance, no pressure valves – even of the superficial variety – through which those outside the inner sanctum might be able to speak and help shape the direction this country is travelling in. As Shadi Hamid of the Brookings thinktank put it: "The regime … is not in the mood to take any chances over its own survival as we enter what will be one of the most challenging periods in Egypt's modern history."
In the short term, that means the Egypt that Mubarak has shaped in his own image will continue to thrive – one where a foreign-funded security apparatus, fuelled by a state-led cessation of the rule of law, is given a free hand to snuff out opposition, and where the nation's commonly held natural resources are pimped out to private profiteers. In the long term, it means uncertainty. Yesterday, a senior Muslim Brotherhood spokesman declared that the government was "destroying any hope of the people for change by peaceful means". But with the social, economic and demographic pressures bearing down on Egypt, maintaining the status quo in perpetuity is not a viable option.
And so all eyes turn to Washington, where the state department – pulling the purse-strings of Mubarak to the tune of $1.3bn a year – put out a mealy-mouthed statement of "dismay" yesterday at the conduct of the parliamentary poll.
As Hamid points out, the Egyptian regime's own statement of intent regarding its unwillingness to countenance any opposition in the run-up to the transfer of presidential power puts the Obama administration in a tricky position, especially when much of the region – Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain, for example – is moving in the opposite direction, towards more subtle forms of authoritarianism.
Make no mistake; there is no desire on the part of Egypt's western allies to see the country embrace any genuine form of democratisation – you only have to speak with police torture victims in Alexandria, some of whom have been bound up with American handcuffs while facing the blows of their tormentors, to understand the extent to which the "international community" supports the repression of any dissidents that could potentially upset Mubarak's grip on power.
But the blatant and uncompromising quality of this latest act is problematic for the dictator's cheerleaders, because it peels away the facade and could well be storing up unimaginable problems for the future.
Hamid believes that Sunday's farce will force a debate in western policy circles over the wisdom of sticking so close to Mubarak. "Alarm bells are ringing," he says, "and the election results will really force a discussion; whether or not that discussion will lead to concrete changes in strategy is a different story."
But the real story of Egypt's coming political transition will have to be written elsewhere – outside western diplomatic corridors, and outside the self-serving, self-preserving elite that has dominated the country so pervasively for a generation. The curtain is up – and the drama has just begun.