Egyptians Fear Further Intercommunal Violence before Election

Egyptians Fear Further Intercommunal Violence before Election
By Constance Gregory

 Egyptians are concerned about possible further violence between religious communities. On Nov. 9, less than three weeks after a violent clash between Egyptian Muslims and Coptic Christians in the city of Alexandria that caused three deaths and over 60 injuries, eligible voters from 8 of Egypt’s 26 governorates will vote in the first phase of the country’s parliamentary election.

A total of 5,414 candidates, including 33 women, will be competing for 444 parliamentary seats, according to the state-owned newspaper, Al-Akhbar. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) currently controls 402 out of the parliament’s 454 seats, of which 10 deputies are appointed by the president.

President Hosni Mubarak, who has just been re-elected to a fifth six-year term in September, has pledged a fair election. Transparent ballot boxes will be used, and voters have to ink their fingers.

But many are pessimistic about the promised fairness, largely because of what happened surrounding this year’s presidential election.

Through a referendum in May, the Egyptian parliament amended Article 76 of the country’s constitution, abolishing the single-candidate tradition and allowing eligible voters to choose from multiple candidates through direct vote. In reality, however, the amendment leaves little chance for independent candidates to enter the race.

Besides the fact that the September presidential election was said to be marred by violations and fraud, the turnout was extremely low—estimated at 18 percent by civil society monitors, as opposed to the official 23 percent.

While the election commission said Hosni Mubarak, leader of the NDP, won 88.5 percent of the vote, 72 percent was estimated by opposition parties and outside observers. And for many, the victory of Mubarak was a foregone conclusion.

Hopes Remain

Some believe the Oct. 21 violence in Alexandria bore political motives. That day, over 5,000 Muslims protested outside the St. George Church against the anti-Islam message in a play produced by the church. According to Father Augustinos, head of St. George’s, the play, which was performed only once two years ago, was suddenly being circulated through DVD without his knowledge.

Immediately after the incident, Maher Khella, the local Coptic candidate of the NDP, announced his withdrawal from the parliamentary race in order “to defuse tensions.”

Fearing further outbreak of violence, several hundred people, according to a Voice of America report, held a candle-light vigil at a street corner in downtown Cairo earlier this week to call for peace and unity across religious boundaries. They comprised Muslims and Christians, says the report.

Many still hope the upcoming parliamentary election will help channel pluralism in Egypt, not least because even the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood—the largest opposition force—have 100 independent candidates taking part in it.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a leading pro-democracy activist in Egypt who teaches at the American University in Cairo and was once imprisoned for his civil rights activities, told Voice of America in an interview that through the presidential election the Egyptians have gained at least three previously-deprived rights: the rights to have multi-candidacy, to monitor elections, and to have access to free press, adding that these three gains probably were not on Mubarak’s agenda.

Egypt ranks 143, on a list of 167 countries, in the Reporters Without Borders Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2005.

The second and third phase of the parliamentary election will each involve 9 other governorates and are respectively set for Nov. 20 and Dec. 1.