ARABESQUE: A Thinly-Veiled Display of “Democracy”

ARABESQUE: A Thinly-Veiled Display of “Democracy”

The Egyptian government has long made it clear that its citizens should be happy with a limited, shall we say “symbolic”, political participation. 

All the streets leading to the polling station are blocked by lines of riot police. Their black helmets, shields, and batons form a dark and disciplined mass. Under the helmets are the familiar faces of 19-year-old conscripts from the provinces. They look stubborn but confused, capable of violence but strangely vulnerable.

Behind them, the real operators — plain clothes security officers, assorted thugs and government officials — speak on cell phones and walkie-talkies and look around them, through their sun-glasses, with assured smirks of power.

Meanwhile, a group of veiled women pushes angrily against the police line. Some of the women hold their voter IDs in their hands. Every once in a while, at a nod from a plain-clothes man with an earpiece, a few of the women are let in. They grab each other’s hands, shove their way through, and yell back at the officers who are yelling at them. Then the line closes again. This was in a town north of Cairo, during the third round of Egypt’s recent parliamentary elections, which took place over three weeks in November and December.

In a small nearby village, no such slow and intimidating access to the polls is permitted. The entire village of Adwa seems to be standing in the one main road. Police surround the polling station, and absolutely no one is allowed in. The village is known to support the Muslim Brotherhood, a powerful Islamic group that is officially a banned organization but is actually allowed to run its candidates as independents. Just so long as they don’t win. “The government talks about freedom and democracy,” says one local Muslim Brotherhood supporter, “Where is their freedom and democracy?”

Good question. Parliamentary elections are traditionally a rough business in Egypt. The president’s ruling party has a stranglehold on parliament, but local contests can nonetheless be fierce. In a country where most citizens don’t bother to vote, victory often boils down to how much money and how much muscle a candidate can muster. Supporters are bribed to show up at the polls, and thugs are hired to beat and insult people who might vote for the opponent. And often, as in the village of Adwa, government forces step in to make sure that opposition candidates don’t stand a chance.

Most of the violence this year was directed against Muslim Brotherhood supporters, simply because they are the only powerful opposition group in Egypt at the moment. The Brotherhood did very well in the first two rounds of the elections, getting 76 out of 444 seats, and the government, as one Brotherhood official said, “went crazy.”

Here are some of the irregularities that were reported in the Egyptian election. Over the course of the election, hundreds of polling stations were shut down. (Voters used stairs to climb over the back walls of some stations. They even snuck through bathroom windows.) In many instances, the police fired tear gas and shot rubber bullets at angry crowds that demanded to vote; in turn, the crowds threw stones. A supporter of one liberal opposition candidate was shot dead by the police. Election monitors, who were granted the right to visit polls for the first time this year, were in fact often denied access. One monitor was arrested and is still being detained, his whereabouts unknown.

The voters’ lists remain notoriously incorrect — with names missing, names repeated, names of thousands of dead voters — and allow for all sorts of fraud (it’s a common joke among Egyptians who come from towns outside Cairo that someone, back home, is voting in their name). People were registered in areas they don’t live, then bussed in on voting day to support a certain candidate. The only people present during the ballot counting were government officials and security officers. In one instance, they appear to have simply flipped the results of two candidates. The fraud was so flagrant in this case that 151 judges (judges oversee the casting of votes in Egypt) signed a statement saying that the results announced were simply not possible.

The Egyptian government has long made it clear that its citizens should be happy with a limited, shall we say “symbolic”, political participation. They should show up every so often and pledge allegiance to their leaders. Actively participating in politics (by forming a party, or running for office) is potentially seditious and personally dangerous. It’s the kind of thing a troublemaker does.

Politics in Egypt, as in much of the Middle East, remains an arid and frightening landscape, in which people gather under the shady political patronage of local strongmen, and in which the real power, the untouchable power of the government, circles high in the sky above.

Governments around the world would often prefer some of their citizens not to vote. Yet in general they try to discourage some groups of voters while encouraging others. In Egypt the balance seems to have tipped beyond a critical point. Most of the government’s energy seems to be going into voter prevention. The system is so bankrupt that it has given up on getting people to support it; it just wants people to stay out of the process all together. One imagines that the Egyptian government would probably be happy if no one voted at all. Thousands of empty polling stations, thousands of ballots filled out by obliging government officials: and then the “democratic” results could proudly be announced.

This while Egypt insists that these elections are yet another step on the way to democracy (is anything in the Middle East these days not “a step on the way to democracy”?). Meanwhile the US, straddled with its theory of domino democratization in the region, declines to hold its strategic ally to any sort of account. During the election, a US State Department spokesman said that the State Department had “not received, at this point, any indication that the Egyptian Government isn’t interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections.”

After receiving a scathing letter from Human Rights Watch (“The accounts of election violence and other state efforts to ensure the ruling party’s continued monopoly on power . . . are available to anyone with even a passing interest in developments in Egypt,” the letter noted), US officials backtracked slightly, but still refused to condemn the Egyptian authorities. Seemingly channelling Donald Rumsfeld, another State Department spokesperson told journalists a few days later: “Is it perfect? No. Have there been problems? Yes. Has progress been made? Certainly.”

Observing this from here in Cairo, it’s hard to see what progress that would actually be. In fact, according to Negad Al Borai, who runs the election monitoring effort here, the government’s assault on its citizen’s voting rights this year is unprecedented. The monitoring was supported by a grant from the US Agency for International Development. Yet as Al Borai pointed out, “we are thankful for the financial support. But we need moral support.” That would include US officials making statements that acknowledged the findings of the very monitoring the US funded.

The only positive development may be the monitoring effort itself, the media exposure, and the glaring untenability of this entire rotten system. How long can Egypt be a country that calls for elections and then prevents its citizens from voting? How long can the US call for democratization and turn a blind eye to such contempt for citizens’ rights?