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In a fix
In a fix Rory McCarthy finds a glaring gap between reform promises and voting practices in Egypt’s parliamentary elections Egyptians pass election banners in downtown Cairo. Photograph: Khaled el Fiqi/EPA  Egypt’s month-long parliamentary elections have only just begun and several more days of voting lie ahead, but already there is one clear loser. Aym
Tuesday, November 15,2005 00:00
by Rory McCarthy,

In a fix

Rory McCarthy finds a glaring gap between reform promises and voting practices in Egypt’s parliamentary elections


Egyptians pass election banners in downtown Cairo. Photograph: Khaled el Fiqi/EPA
 


Egypt’s month-long parliamentary elections have only just begun and several more days of voting lie ahead, but already there is one clear loser. Ayman Nour, a long-time MP and liberal opposition figure who was the strongest challenger to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the country’s first presidential election this autumn, has lost his seat.
Not a few people saw it coming. Mubarak is preparing for the day when his son Gamal, 41, will take over the presidency from him and Nour was seen as a potential threat to that undemocratic inheritance. For the past year, Nour has been dogged by court cases brought against him by the state and has even spent time in jail. He is due in court later this month for his next hearing, and may well be sentenced to another jail term.


Even Nour’s aides were gloomy on the first day of elections last Wednesday, when they could see the votes slipping from their grasp. They made several allegations of election violations but it did little to help. In the end, he lost his seat in the Bab al-Sheriya district of southern Cairo to Yehia Wehdan, a candidate from Mubarak’s National Democratic party (NDP), who was also a former colonel in the feared state security service.
A lot of attention was focused on Egypt’s presidential elections in September, the first time Mubarak had allowed challengers to run against him, although there was never any doubt he would win again. But these parliamentary elections are in many ways more important.

Mubarak, after 24 years in power, has promised reforms that would increase the power of Egypt’s parliament and allow just a little more space for opposition voices. For the first time in many years, election monitors have been allowed in polling stations and members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the long-established Islamist party, have been allowed to campaign openly on the streets, albeit as independent candidates. These elections are an important test of the regime’s commitment to reform.

But a glance at voting in Nour’s constituency on election day shows just how reluctant the regime is to loosen its grip on power. Egypt’s complex election laws are riddled with loopholes and it is not just the ruling NDP that tries to fix the voting. But in several of the polling stations in Bab al-Sheriya, Nour’s officials lodged serious complaints of election violations, including bribery and intimidation.

At one girls’ school, used as a polling centre, a large mob had torn down Nour’s election posters and as soon as he arrived they surrounded his car and taunted him: "You will lose, you will lose." In a second centre, at the Shurafa preparatory school a few minutes away, another crowd of hostile, pro-NDP young men had gathered to intimidate Nour’s supporters. Nour’s party said they had videotaped NDP officials paying young men to vote for them and lodged a complaint, though local representatives from the ruling party denied it.

Each polling room, where the votes are actually cast, is supposed to have a judge sitting and watching the voters to check for such irregularities. In this school the man appointed to the job was not in fact a judge, but a state prosecutor who refused to give his name. Despite fierce rows among the crowd outside and organised chanting of pro-NDP slogans, he said he had seen nothing untoward.

"If I see some violation happening inside then I should record it and stop it. If it happens outside, I didn’t see it," he said. Election observers also complained of irregularities in his constituency and one observer was even offered a bribe to vote. "What happened today is not an election," Nour said later that night.

Human rights groups who are monitoring the election say they already have evidence of widespread violations and use of official patronage to secure a comfortable win for the ruling party.

"The question is not whether or not there is reform," said Ehab Sallam, a human rights worker who is supervising the monitoring process. "It is whether there are the elements for reform: civil society, the ability of people to move without restriction, freedom of expression and information. If you want change you should open all the doors."

 


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