Egypt’s election campaign shows change is sluggish, but on the way

Egypt’s election campaign shows change is sluggish, but on the way

No one is holding their breath about the outcome of Egypt‘s parliamentary elections, which are certain to leave President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party in charge. Yet despite worries about vote-rigging and repression, the campaign is already providing some interesting clues about what could happen next in the Arab world’s most populous country.

Talk in Cairo in recent days has been of a media crackdown , censorship and the intimidation of journalists and broadcasters to tighten state control. Licences will be required to send out mass SMS messages – a vital way of getting the vote out. The sacking of Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the opposition paper ad-Dustour, is also seen as a worrying sign.

Another is the government’s refusal to allow international observers to monitor the polls on 29 November. Its main excuse is little more than a familiar prickliness about sovereignty: Egypt, after all, is not some newly independent state that needs foreign help as it makes its first faltering steps towards democracy and observers just get in the way.

Memories of policemen beating voters or manhandling officials clutching ballot boxes during the 2005 elections undermine such arguments. But a call to permit observers made by the US, Egypt’s main western backer, has been ignored. Britain and other EU countries have made do with promising to send Cairo-based diplomats to observe polling stations.

Still, it is good news that Egyptian NGOs are organising election monitoring across the country. Their decision not to accept funding from foreign donors – always a sensitive issue – means they are less likely to face harassment, though permission to observe is still needed.

In many ways, what happens over the next few weeks will be seen as a dry run for a more important contest: presidential elections will be held next autumn at the end of Mubarak’s fifth consecutive term since taking over from the assassinated Anwar Sadat in 1981.

In the background looms the ever-present issue of the succession – tawrith in Arabic. Will Gamal, the president’s son and a senior NDP official, run for the top job, or will the regime’s preferred candidate be the intelligence chief, General Omar Suleiman, or perhaps another military man?

Interestingly, an outsider with presidential ambitions, Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN’s atomic energy agency, has had little traction with his call to boycott the parliamentary poll. It certainly looked like a minority choice after the Muslim Brotherhood, which had pondered staying away, announced that it would again compete for a third of the seats in the parliament. Now, as before, its candidates will run as independents. “If we participate, the regime will be forced to rig votes and may eventually go crazy, which will shake its popularity and legitimacy,” one of its leaders explained with admirable candour. “This will be a major achievement.”

Change in Egypt may be as sluggish as the waters of the Nile, but there is still a sense that it is coming. The opposition is weak and fragmented, but getting stronger, using social media and blogs to communicate and organise. Civil society and NGOs are becoming more active. Human rights issues have moved up the agenda. Other Arabs no longer expect Egypt to play its old pan-Arab role – its relationship with the US and unpopular peace treaty with Israel make that impossible – but in the domestic arena it is setting trends that are being watched and imitated.

The shadows may be lengthening in the twilight of the Mubarak era, but the regime’s instinct to control remains strong. Last May it, again, ignored calls from Washington not to extend the much-abused emergency laws, in force since 1981. Critics say the US could apply more pressure, noting that the Obama administration has actually cut funding to pro-democracy groups in Egypt.

The trick for the US, argues Michelle Dunne of the Carnegie Foundation, is “to find a way to show it still wants to work with the Egyptian government on the issues we have always co-operated on – regional peace, stability, military co-operation, counterterrorism – but we also want to clearly support the demands of the Egyptian people for improved human rights and greater political freedom.”

Outrage gave way to wry bemusement last month when the state-run al-Ahram newspaper published a doctored photograph that placed Mubarak ahead of Obama and the Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli leaders at Middle East peace talks in Washington. In the original picture Obama was in the lead and Mubarak bringing up the rear. It was a sad reflection of the vanity of waning power and the triumph of form over substance.

Another photograph featuring Mubarak raised further laughs in Egypt and across the region this week. It was taken at the Arab League summit in Libya and showed a laughing trio of the host, Muamar Gaddafi, flanked by the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Salih on one side, and Mubarak on the other. Together they are the Arab world’s longest-serving leaders, ruling for a total of 102 years (41, 32 and 29 respectively). No one knows what was so amusing as they posed for the cameras. But maybe they were joking that none of them intends to relinquish power – ever.