Another flawed election

YOU cannot fault the Muslim Brotherhood for lack of ingenuity. When government supporters ripped down their election posters, they hoisted more on helium balloons. Told that their slogan “Islam is the Solution” was illegal, they changed it to “Reform is the Solution”. Even so, Egypt’s largest opposition group, which remains officially banned despite its members holding 88 seats in the lower house of parliament, failed to carry a single district in this week’s election for the upper house, the Shura Council.


Not easy for a sister to vote for a Brother

Their failure was understandable. A campaign of arrests that began in December has put some 800 Brothers behind bars. In March, the government forced through constitutional changes, calling them reforms, that outlawed religious slogans and removed judicial supervision of polling. Under varied pretexts, half of the Brotherhood’s candidates were barred from running, leaving just 19 to contest the 88 places at stake; another 88 in the 264-seat council will be filled by later voting; the president will appoint 88 more.

Then, in what has become a tradition on Egyptian voting days, riot police surrounded polling stations in districts where Brotherhood candidates looked likely to win. Some stations were simply sealed off, while in others the security cordon opened to let in busloads of government supporters. Small wonder that an official Brotherhood statement condemned the elections as witnessing a magnitude of fraud unprecedented in Egyptian history.

Because Egypt’s peculiar form of democracy usually produces a very low voter turnout and distorted results, it is hard to say how many Egyptians share the Brothers’ outrage. The two main legal opposition parties, both far weaker than the Brotherhood, boycotted the voting anyway. The prevailing attitude among ordinary citizens was mild puzzlement at why President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party, which have ruled together for 26 years, should bother to persist in going through democratic motions.

Such deeply ingrained scepticism did wane, briefly, a few years ago. Then, a mix of generational impatience for change and foreign (especially American) hectoring, prompted a flurry of high-blown official rhetoric about the need for reform. Instead of extending his term, as before, by a shoo-in referendum, President Mubarak let challengers run against him in 2005. A general election that year, though marred by shenanigans, brought big gains for the Brotherhood. A grass-roots reform movement, which called itself simply Kefaya (Enough!), grabbed media attention with serial public protests against authoritarian rule, even as trade unions began shaking off decades of encroaching state control.

But much of that momentum has waned. Despite winning just 7% of votes, Ayman Nour, the runner-up to Mr Mubarak for the presidency, soon landed in jail, where he remains. Internal schism, unrelenting police pressure and failure to move beyond street protests all tarnish Kefaya’s sheen. Boxed in by police controls and distrusted by secular Egyptians and the large Coptic Christian minority, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to win new converts.

The Bush administration, chastened by its dismal failure in Iraq and by the success of Islamist movements such as Hamas in the kind of free elections that America had so loudly promoted, meanwhile began to cool towards its “forward strategy of freedom”. When Mr Bush recently dared mention Mr Nour, Egyptian officials riposted with a blistering demand that he mind his own business. Yet Mr Mubarak may not yet be out of the woods. This week, a committee in the American Congress voted to make its military aid to Egypt of $200m conditional on human-rights reform. The Egyptian army, which has underpinned the country’s rulers since its officers overthrew King Farouk in 1952, will not be happy.