Israel and Egypt’s elections

Israel and Egypt’s elections

Sharon’s surprise departure from the Likud in Israel and the gains made by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliamentary elections changed the landscape in both countries. Will this affect the relationship between them? Asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

Ariel Sharon will certainly take advantage of the present lamentable state of affairs in the Middle East to strengthen Israel’s position and launch a diplomatic offensive aimed at imposing his conditions on the region at large. For Egypt, the offensive comes at a particularly critical moment as it struggles through an electoral battle marred by the highest level of violence since 23 July 1952.

Vote-rigging seems to have been the order of the day in these latest parliamentary elections, whether by physically preventing voters from entering polling stations, tampering with the ballet boxes or simply announcing fraudulent results in a number of constituencies. The issue is specially sensitive because one of the NDP candidates in the eye of the storm, Mustafa El-Feki, is a close associate of President Hosni Mubarak. The case made headlines following revelations by deputy director of the administrative public prosecutor, Councellor Noha El-Zeini, that the vote counting process in Damanhour was fraudulent. In her statement, El-Zeini said El-Feki got only 8,606 votes while his opponent, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Gamal Heshmat, got 24,611. Expressing solidarity with their colleague, 127 judges supported her statement.

It is unclear how the situation will be resolved. There is always the possibility that El-Feki will make good on his pre-election promise to withdraw in case of any manipulation of the voting process and voluntarily step out of the race, a decision that would be welcomed by the Egyptian political street. Councellor El-Zeini’s decision to go public in spite of the risk to her personal safety was a brave one. If the NDP candidate does decide to pull out of the race, he too would be exposing himself to damper, but he would also be demonstrating that he places public interest above personal safety.

A number of other scenarios are also possible. For example, the NDP could wash its hands off the whole affair by laying the blame for the Damanhour fiasco on their candidate’s shoulders and claiming that he acted without their knowledge. Alternatively, they could contest the figures announced by El-Zeini and accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of compromising the integrity of the elections with their violence.

Sharon began putting his unilateral Gaza disengagement plan into effect shortly before the dates of Egypt’s parliamentary elections were announced. On the face of it, the decision to pull out of Gaza may have seemed like a concession on the part of Sharon, but in fact it was a tactical move designed to streamline the occupation. Sharon has often repeated that the pullout from Gaza was dictated by Israel’s security considerations, not by political considerations guaranteeing the rights of the Palestinians to their land, that is, a constraint on liberty, not the widening of its scope.

The move also solved another problem for Sharon by forcing his main rival inside the Likud, Binyamin Netanyahu, to define his position on the pullout. For Netanyahu, who had always stood against restoring any land to the Palestinians, supporting the Gaza disengagement plan was unthinkable. He would have had to make a complete about-face at the expense of his credibility, which was not an option. Netanyahu was thus left with no choice but to resign. And so Sharon succeeded in transforming Netanyahu from a dangerous political opponent into an outsider, as he himself went ahead with establishing his so-called “centrist” party, and eliminating all party competitors either on his right or on his left.

Possibly this analysis does not strictly apply to the case of Shimon Peres, who served as vice-premier in the former Likud coalition government. Sharon and Peres have different political views. They head competing parties, but they conduct complementary policies as well. In a way, Peres constitutes a safety valve for Sharon on his left. As such, he emerged as a complementary element rather than, like Netanyahu, an opponent to Sharon.

But the creation of Sharon’s new party has also created problems. Peres was dropped as Sharon’s “complementary” element and replaced by Amir Peretz, a Labour leader whose only similarity with Peres lies in the name, but whose policies are very different. His choice as head of Labour was to cope with a policy which needed to be revamped and made more independent now that Sharon is no longer faced with the competition he previously had to face.

An important question at this juncture is how relations between Egypt, Israel and Palestine will develop. Will the most acute contradiction be the one between Israel and Palestine? Will the opening of the Rafah crossing, Palestine’s only door to the external world, reduce its dependency on other parties, or the opposite? Does the appointment of Maarouf Al-Bekhit (the former head of Jordan’s intelligence apparatus) as prime minister of Jordan with a mandate to wage a merciless war against Jordan’s fundamentalists indicate that the most acute contradiction is bound to be with the religious movements? Will the results of the Egyptian elections confirm this expectation?

Sharon succeeded in weakening his opponents inside Israel, whether on his right or left, and to present himself as the only Israeli politician capable of steering the boat in the present difficult circumstances. Herein lies the urgency of strengthening pan-Arab cohesion and unity, as well as the internal cohesion of each Arab society taken separately. Can Egypt overcome its traditional enmity with the Brotherhood? Or are we all doomed to fall prey to the pressures, internal and external, being brought to bear on the Arab regimes?

The coming period is expected to witness virulent infighting within the ranks of the NDP, between the various factions, and particularly between the old guard and the new guard. Actually, battles are being waged throughout the Arab world between the advocates of change and reform and those who insist on maintaining the status quo, raising fears that the situation could degenerate in some countries into civil war. Whatever the outcome, these battles will have critical consequences for us all.