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  • November 1, 2005
  • 22 minutes read

How Free? How Important?

The 2005 Egyptian Elections: How Free? How Important?

Saban Center Middle East Memo #8

Tamara Cofman Wittes, Research Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

On September 7, 2005, for the first time in their history, Egyptians will have a choice of candidates in a presidential election. When President Hosni Mubarak, who was elected to four previous terms in ’yes-or-no’ referendums, announced this historic change in February 2005, even some members of his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) were taken aback. Yet by the time the constitutional amendment authorizing other candidates to run was voted on in late May 2005, many democracy advocates in Egypt had grown disillusioned, characterizing the competitive election scheme as a sham. Now, with voting less than one month away, ten candidates have qualified to stand but many opposition activists are calling for an election day boycott.

Is Egypt’s first competitive presidential election a meaningful step toward greater democracy, or a superficial move to deflect external and domestic pressures for reform and to consolidate Mubarak’s rule? The rules now set for presidential elections in Egypt are tough, but they do allow for a degree of real political competition. Still, the short interval between the electoral changes and the election itself, along with the ruling party’s overwhelming dominance of politics, mean that Mubarak is likely to be re-elected easily and so will have up to six more years in which to shape the environment for his eventual successor. It is the little-mentioned elections for parliament—likely to take place over several weeks in October and November—that will ultimately determine whether the new rules allow for truly competitive elections in the future, or whether they merely consolidate the grip of the ruling NDP over Egypt’s political landscape.

While the U.S. government has been outspoken on some aspects of the elections process, it has paid little attention to legislative changes made this summer in the name of electoral reform, changes that deeply affect political liberty in Egypt. The failure to speak out forcefully on these key issues, as well as bureaucratic delays in providing pledged aid to democracy activists, has blunted the effectiveness of the United States’ policy of promoting democracy in Egypt. However, concerted American efforts between now and October/November 2005 can still help Egyptian judges, politicians, journalists and activists transform the parliamentary elections into a breakthrough for Egyptian democratic change.

Although Mubarak announced the intention of holding competitive presidential elections in February 2005, the necessary legal and constitutional measures to implement this change were not finalized until late July 2005. Campaigning began on August 17 and is scheduled to last only three weeks until September 4, three days before the polls open. Each of the ten candidates recognized by the new Presidential Elections Commission (PEC) is entitled to public campaign funding of around $95,000, and may accept limited private donations. Total campaign spending must not exceed $1.9 million. The receipt of foreign funds is prohibited.

This year alone, any legally recognized political party in Egypt is able to nominate a candidate to run on its behalf in the September presidential election.1 However, the bar is raised much higher in subsequent years. In future elections, parties wishing to propose a presidential candidate will have to have been in existence for at least five years prior to the elections, and must already hold at least five per cent of the seats in parliament. The largest opposition parties in the 454-seat People’s Assembly today are the New Delegation Party (the New Wafd) and the National Progressive Unionist Party (the Tagammu), with only five seats a piece. Had the five percent rule been applied this year, no opposition party candidate would have qualified.party candidate would have qualified.2

Independent candidates face a more difficult road to get their names on the presidential ballot, both now and in future elections. They must collect the signatures of five per cent of the Egypt’s national and regional elected officials—250 in total, of which at least sixty-five have to be members of the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament, at least twenty-five must be members of the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, and at least 140 must be members of the local councils that govern Egypt’s twenty-six provinces.3 The five per cent petition requirement for ballot access does not appear onerous, but for the fact that ninety-five per cent of Egypt’s elected officials are members of Mubarak’s ruling NDP. This effectively shuts the door on independent candidacies for this year, and sets a high bar for their future participation.

Because of these barriers to independent candidates, the continuation of emergency laws, and the inherent difficulties for the hamstrung opposition parties, many parties had been planning a boycott. As recently as May, only one opposition party, Ayman Nour’s Tomorrow Party (the Ghad), had agreed to take part in the election. However, the New Wafd, reportedly under heavy pressure from the government, announced at the beginning of August that its chairman, Noaman Gomaa, would run.4 While the New Wafd is turning down public funds, some smaller parties may have been attracted by the public financing provided for the campaign and the chance to avail themselves of what the PEC claims will be equal media coverage.

The late determination of election rules and procedures, and the abbreviated campaign, clearly favor parties with strong organization, deep pockets and networks of local activists. Other than the Muslim Brotherhood, which is not legally recognized as a political party, only the ruling NDP has the necessary infrastructure to succeed in this environment. The major opposition parties have very little party organization beyond the national level, and only a modicum of presence outside of Cairo in some of the industrial cities.

Without truly equal access to the national broadcast media and more time to connect to voters, it is doubtful that any opposition candidate will make a strong showing against Mubarak. Given Mubarak’s long, and relatively stable rule, the decades of constraints on open political debate, and the weakness of the opposition, Mubarak could probably comfortably win even a completely free and fair election this year. But in such circumstances, it would be impossible to judge whether such a result would reflect Mubarak’s true popularity or merely the lack of any credible alternative. The first real test of the new presidential election system will only come in the post-Mubarak era—probably within the next five or six years.

Please see sidebar on Egypt’s Presidential Race

Given the one-time exception that allows all registered parties to field candidates, the question of how parties can acquire legal recognition is particularly keen, and has been a subject of fierce debate between government and opposition. Egyptian law requires political parties to receive the approval of a Parties Committee, which until recently had to certify that a party’s platform did not contradict Islamic law or the ideals of the 1952 revolution that overthrew the monarchy, and that it represented an agenda “distinct” from that of already existing parties. Appeals of the committee’s decisions are heard by a special Parties Court. The Parties Committee has only ever approved five party licenses. Other parties have had to win court challenges to gain legal recognition. For example, opposition presidential candidate Ayman Nour’s Ghad Party endured three years of rejection and multiple court battles before being granted legal status in late 2004.5

The Egyptian parliament amended the law governing political parties just before it adjourned in July 2005. The new Parties Law removed some constraints, such as the requirement that party platforms conform to Islamic law and the 1952 revolution. Other requirements were softened—party platforms now need only represent a “new addition” to political life, rather than be wholly distinct. The Parties Committee’s composition also changed. Until now, the committee consisted of ministers and members of parliament who were all also members of the ruling NDP. July’s change expanded the committee’s membership from seven to nine, of whom two are government ministers, one is the head of the Shura Council, three are former judges and three are “independent public figures.” The amended law should thereby reduce the influence of active politicians from the ruling NDP over new and aspiring opposition parties.

More troubling is a little-noticed provision in the new Parties Law that changed the circumstances under which the Parties Committee can suspend a political party’s activities. Suspension is allowed whenever party leaders espouse principles diverging from the party’s approved platform, or whenever the Parties Committee determines that suspending the party is in the national interest. The Parties Committee can also refer parties for prosecution if it believes they are not acting in the national interest or if their internal governing practices are deemed not to be democratic.

This broad latitude could make the Parties Committee a powerful club to be used against any opposition party that demonstrates significant independence, and is thus likely to chill the opposition’s freedom of speech and action. The role of the restructured Parties Committee in coming years bears close scrutiny by those concerned with fair and open political competition in Egypt. As of this writing, the United States has not publicly reacted to the new Parties Law.

The net effect of this summer’s constitutional and legal changes has been to raise the stakes in the October/November parliamentary elections. The next presidential race will be in 2011—unless the 77 year-old Mubarak dies or becomes incapacitated before then—and the next parliamentary race will be in 2010. To be relevant in the upcoming transition to a post-Mubarak Egypt, most opposition parties will have to muster a far stronger showing in parliament than they have managed since multiparty politics was re-introduced in 1979.6 Those who have failed to win legal approval for their parties will need more opposition members and independents to be elected to national and regional offices if they are to stand a chance of obtaining the 250 petition signatures required to run as independents for president. Furthermore, because parliament appoints the members of the PEC, a larger opposition presence in parliament is vital to ensure greater fairness in this committee’s composition and its oversight of the 2011 presidential election.

Because of these considerations, the parliamentary race this fall is a ’make-or-break’ moment for Egypt’s largely ineffective opposition parties, and a test case for the government’s sincerity about democratic reform. The opposition parties would like to return to proportional representation, a system that briefly prevailed in the 1980s. Thanks to proportional representation, the opposition at times won nearly twenty per cent of the seats before the elections were declared invalid and parliament was dissolved. The government has announced its intention to set up a new Elections Committee for the parliamentary race, to revise campaign finance and other laws, and perhaps to alter the existing system of 222 constituencies. The lack of clarity on the terms of the parliamentary race puts the opposition at a disadvantage, and the government has every incentive to delay setting the parliamentary election rules, just as it did with the regulations for the presidential race.

Voter intimidation, violence, and ballot-stuffing have also been problems in previous parliamentary contests, but judicial supervision of polling stations in the 2000 elections significantly reduced the incidence of such practices, facilitating what a Freedom House report described as Egypt’s most honest elections ever.7 Egyptian judges have been outspoken about the need for better, and more complete, judicial supervision of this year’s polling. Members of two major judges’ associations even voted to refuse to supervise the elections unless changes were made to facilitate and protect the independence of judicial monitoring. While the demanded changes were not all adopted, the judges appear prepared to carry out their constitutional role in election monitoring. Several new citizens’ groups have also emerged to train and organize volunteer poll-watchers, to study media coverage, and otherwise monitor the campaign. With a closely scrutinized, fairly run process, the opposition has a chance to reduce the ruling party’s stranglehold on parliament and—more difficult—to position itself to challenge for the presidency in 2011.

Please see sidebar on Egypt’s People’s Assembly

Thus far, the U.S. government has abstained from making specific judgments either about the legal and constitutional changes that Egypt has made, or about the prospects for these rules to produce a free and fair presidential election. Instead, U.S. officials have praised the fact of change and have expressed some specific expectations about the electoral process: in particular, the importance of international monitors and the need for open media access for all candidates.

American influence over the Egyptian electoral process is, and ought to be limited. Yet there is still much that the United States can do to ensure that Egypt’s new electoral rules produce more open, and more honest, political competition now and in the future. In particular, the United States can play three key roles:

provide financial assistance to local Egyptian civic-engagement groups;
support political freedoms in word and deed; and,
maintain electoral neutrality in every aspect of policy.

Democracy Assistance to Egyptian NGOs
Before US Ambassador David Welch left Cairo in March 2005 to assume the post of Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, he announced six grants totaling around $1 million to local Egyptian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to fund programs for the promotion of transparency and to advance public involvement in the elections. In addition, the US Agency for International Development has awarded more than $2 million in grants to the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems to undertake election-related activities in Egypt.

Given the very brief window for action and the many barriers—notably the requirement of Egyptian government approval of foreign grants to local groups and the official ban on local NGOs undertaking election-related activities—it is questionable whether this aid will have much impact on the quality and significance of this fall’s elections. Indeed, an Egyptian magazine recently revealed that just two of the NGOs have received any of the funds that the US embassy awarded to them in March. Bureaucratic and technical delays in Washington have apparently stymied the transfer of some money, and the NGOs have had to delay their intended programming. Two other grant recipients, the magazine reports, have been unable to obtain the necessary permission from the Egyptian government to accept the U.S. funds.8

The allocations are still important, of course, as a symbol of the United States’ commitment to Egyptian democratization. The grants may also set an important precedent for Egyptian NGOs, which have faced legal challenges and intimidation when soliciting external funding for domestic democracy activities. One of the recipients of the current round of US embassy grants, Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, was imprisoned only a few years ago for having accepted foreign funds to help him monitor the 2000 parliamentary race. The opportunity presented by the 2005 elections has allowed the United States to expand its support for Egyptian civic groups, setting the stage for longer-term impact. Nonetheless, the hostile environment in Egypt for political engagement by either local or international NGOs means that any investment in democracy assistance will bring paltry returns unless and until the constraints are lifted. The urgent need to liberalize the rules of political and civic association must remain a major theme of the United States’ dialogue with Egypt’s leadership.

International Monitoring: Worth the Fight
President Bush and his leading officials have publicly pressed Egypt to allow international observers to monitor this fall’s presidential election. While such presidential statements have considerable impact, international monitors are a mixed blessing. They can deter, and report on election day problems such as voter intimidation and vote fraud. The presence of monitors can enhance public perception of an election’s significance, thereby encouraging civic participation. However, because international observers usually arrive just before election day and leave soon afterwards, they cannot fully evaluate the overall climate within which polling occurs. Basic electoral fairness issues, such as how ballot access is determined, whether opposition parties are given equal access to the media, or whether rallies and demonstrations are allowed to proceed without interference, are often beyond the scope of ad-hoc international observer missions.9 Moreover, because the likely outcome of the presidential campaign is so clear in advance, the impact of international observers is likely to be minimal.

The United States’ political capital with the Mubarak administration is considerable, but must be spent carefully. The Egyptian judiciary has made vocal demands of the government this year for greater authority and independence in carrying out its role. The judges have also explicitly rejected the possibility of international monitors. In this light, continued pressure for international monitoring of the presidential race could produce an undesirable backlash. Efforts to support the judges’ demands, and to back the right of Egyptian citizens’ groups to monitor polling, will probably be better appreciated by the Egyptian public, and in the long run will help to strengthen democratic culture in Egypt.

The main obstacle to meaningful multiparty elections, however, is not election day ballot fraud but the continued lack of political freedom and the atmosphere of intimidation of the press, opposition politicians, and the public. American envoys must consistently highlight political freedoms—such as freedom of association, freedom of the press, and freedom of speech—as basic requirements of an open and fair electoral process.

A freedoms-centered approach to the Egyptian elections requires continuous, consistent, high-level dialogue with the Egyptian government, and also consistent support for Egyptians who come under pressure for exercising their rights. Just as the U.S. government is funding Egyptian NGOs to undertake poll-watching, so statements on the need for open press coverage should be supported by vocal U.S. backing for journalists and news outlets that are subjected to government censorship or intimidation. Despite Egyptian government promises, a new law this spring confirmed that prison sentences can still be imposed for defamation, and other speech “offenses”, committed while covering a political campaign. The U.S. government should not shy away from criticizing such a restrictive press law as a barrier to true democracy.

The Egyptian government has also declined to suspend during the election campaigns any of its powers under the emergency laws that have been in place since Mubarak took power in 1981. The government’s suppression of political rallies and protests, and intimidation by security forces and ruling party members of opposition activists, have already been a focus of State Department criticism over the past few months. This trend should continue throughout the campaign season.

An important symbolic aspect of U.S. diplomacy during this critical time should be the employment of the language of neutrality. From now until the September 7 election, Hosni Mubarak, the United States’ ally, is also a political candidate competing for votes. As is the practice when dealing with democratic allies, U.S. officials should take care during the coming weeks to avoid referring to Egyptian government policies or actions in terms that could be construed as an implicit endorsement of Mubarak’s continued rule. Similarly, as the parliamentary race heats up this fall, U.S. officials should avoid taking steps that unduly reinforce the ruling NDP’s election campaign.

Egypt’s new electoral procedure is a notable step, but one whose potential is far from being realized. The United States might well persuade Mubarak to accept international monitors—but even if it succeeded, the United States will not have achieved its objective of advancing open political competition in Egypt. Unless the U.S. government also focuses on advancing political freedom for Egyptians, and on improving the prospects for opposition parties to operate without fear, and to compete on a level playing field for seats in parliament this fall, Egyptian democracy next year may well look a lot like Egypt’s effective one-party state does today.

The new Presidential Elections Commission approved ten presidential candidates on August 12, 2005. No candidate is from Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority. None are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is barred from formal political participation. Two major leftist opposition parties, the Tagammu and the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party (the Nasserists), are boycotting the race.

Mohammed Hosni Mubarak NDP. The 77 year-old incumbent has held office unchallenged since his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981.
Ayman Nour, the Ghad. The youngest and most outspoken of the challengers, the 41 year-old Nour has been charged with forging petition signatures on his party’s founding documents, charges he claims are politically motivated.
Noaman Gomaa, the New Wafd. Secretary-General of Egypt’s oldest, and most prominent, opposition party. Broke with other major parties’ planned boycott of the elections.
Ahmed Awad Allah, Umma (Nation) Party. A maverick known for fortune-telling and training barbers at party headquarters, Awad Allah says that Mubarak should win.
Mamdouh Qinawi, Constitutional Party. The 69 year-old’s platform emphasizes poverty reduction and job creation.
Osama Shaltut, Solidarity Party. A university professor, Shaltut wants presidential term limits and increased economic aid from the Gulf states.
Fawzi Ghazal, Misr (Egypt) 2000 Party. Ghazal, a 73 year old mathematician, favors greater democracy, a stronger Arab League, and wants to revamp Egypt’s agriculture and fisheries to better use scarce natural resources.
Ibrahim Turk, Democratic Union Party. A 47 year-old businessman from Alexandria, Turk is campaigning for education and land use reforms. He says that economic reform can lead to political change.
Rifaat Al Agrudi, National Concord Party. Corruption is a major theme of his campaign, as is halting the privatization of state-owned industries.
Wahid Al Uqsuri, Egypt Arab Communist Party. His platform focuses on health care, education and housing, and using public sector companies to create jobs.

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The People’s Assembly, Egypt’s lower house of parliament, has 454 members who serve for five years. Ten are appointed by the president; the rest are elected in pairs from 222 constituencies. Under the constitution, one deputy from each district must be a worker or a farmer. The composition of the People’s Assembly is: Party Seats

NDP: 404
New Wafd (official opposition): 5
Tagammu: 5
Nasserists: 1
Al-Ahrar (Liberal Party): 1
Ghad: 6
Independents: 32

About seventeen of the independents are informally aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, which cannot register as a political party.

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1Egypt had twenty-one recognized parties by early August 2005, of which two new parties were legalized this summer. At least seven parties that have applied will not be represented on the presidential ballot either because of disputes over who should stand as their candidate or because the PEC found irregularities in their governing documents. ’Nine to Challenge Egypt’s Mubarak in September Poll’, Agence France Press, August 8, 2005.
2Editorial, ’Egypt’s Fading Hope’, The Washington Post, May 18, 2005, p.A16.
3Gamal Essam El-Din, ’A Controversial Law’, Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue 750, July 7-13, 2005.
4Fatemah Farag, ’The Field is Open’, Al-Ahram Weekly, Issue 754, August 4-10, 2005.
5Some opposition figures have argued for dissolving the Parties Committee altogether and treating political movements as NGOs, which are subject to state licensing under an entirely different and less restrictive standard.
6In the 1984 and 1987 elections, which were held according to a system of proportional representation, the New Wafd won fifty-seven and thirty seats respectively. No other extant political party has performed as well since then. The largest opposition bloc in the current parliament is the seventeen seats of independents loyal to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, but even this bloc does not reach the five percent threshold.
7Denis Sullivan, ’Egypt’, in Countries at the Crossroads 2005: A Survey of Democratic Governance (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 213.
8Lindsay Wise, ’Show Them The Money’, Cairo Magazine, July 29, 2005.
9A long-term observer mission such as those used in post-Soviet states by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe can play a broader and more important role—but the likelihood of establishing such a mission for Egypt is slim.
10Candidate details are drawn from Mona El-Nahhas and Mustafa El-Menshawy, ’Who Will Win?’, Al Ahram Weekly, Issue 754, August 4-10, 2005.
11As of November 2004 according to HSBC Business Profiles.

© Copyright 2005, The Brookings Institution