Mubarak Moving to Close Political Opening Created for Election

A year ago, Mamdouh Marei, head of Egypt’s Presidential Election Commission, dismissed ballot-box stuffing and control of polling stations by members of the ruling party as election-day “enthusiasm.’’

On Aug. 27, President Hosni Mubarak, who ran and won in those elections, appointed Marei his justice minister. The appointment of Marei, who had refused to investigate the election allegations, followed by two months the removal of Hisham Bastawisi, a judge who criticized the vote and led a campaign of dissident magistrates in favor of overhauling the courts.

Marei’s elevation is one of several moves by Mubarak, 78, to close a political opening he created last year when he allowed opposition candidates, under restrictions, to run against him. While the government says democratization must be slow to avoid upsetting economic development, political and human-rights advocates say the appointment symbolizes the lack of accountability inside a closed, dictatorial system.

“This is Marei’s reward for overseeing the presidential elections and sticking by the government against the democratic judges,’’ said Nasser Amin, director of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, a non-governmental organization based in Cairo. “Marei is being brought in to lord it over the dissidents.’’

Marei isn’t the only one with a new job; the Cairo director of security who organized crackdowns on pro-democracy demonstrators last year, also received a promotion. General Ismail el-Sha’er was named assistant to the interior minister on Aug. 28.

Mubarak’s Son

Mubarak, who has ruled the Middle East’s most populous nation for 24 years, won last September’s presidential election with 88 per cent of the vote. Many Egyptians anticipate that he is preparing the way for his son, Gamal, to take power unopposed.

“These are just the latest steps in tightening things before the rise of Gamal,’’ Bastawisi said.

Marei’s spokesman, Farouk Awad, declined requests for an interview with the new justice minister. When asked about Marei’s role in the elections and opinion on judicial reform, Farouk answered, “Sorry, I can’t speak about that.’’

Egypt is one of the Arab world’s poorest countries, with per capita income of $1,300 a year. While the government is a staunch U.S. ally, Egypt’s mostly Muslim public largely opposes the U.S.- led invasion of Iraq and U.S. policies in favor of Israel.

Since the beginning of July, police have rounded up three dozen members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic organization which, although formally banned from politics, emerged as the country’s largest and most cohesive opposition force last year. Mahmoud Ezzat, the deputy to Brotherhood leader Mohammed Akef, was among those arrested.

Muzzling the Brotherhood

“The arrests are aimed at muzzling the Muslim Brotherhood,’’ said Mohammed Habib, a top Brotherhood official.

The government has postponed municipal elections that were scheduled for this summer. Egyptian analysts said that the Brotherhood stood to gain at the polls.

A group of bloggers who organized anti-Mubarak protests were arrested and released in May and June. Lawyers for the bloggers have alleged that one, Mohammed Sharqawi, was sexually assaulted by police.

Judges have protested the efforts to remove Bastawisi from office and also to censure another dissident magistrate, Mahmoud Mekki. In May, they held a series of sit-ins at their professional syndicate building in downtown Cairo. When sympathizers gathered outside, hundreds of police surrounded the area and broke up the protests. Police shows of force have increased in size in comparison to last year, when demonstrators were permitted to march along city streets.

Tomorrow Party

Earlier this year, the second-place finisher in last year’s presidential election, Ayman Nour, 42, was sentenced to five years prison on charges of forging documents used in the process of legalizing his Tomorrow Party. During the campaign, supporters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party stormed and stoned some of his campaign rallies; during subsequent parliamentary elections, police killed 11 people after voters stormed cordons keeping them from polling stations.

Human Rights Watch, a New York-based group, and other rights organizations have denounced the charges as trumped up; while the lead witness against Nour recanted his testimony and said he was tortured into making the allegations, an Egyptian court rejected Nour’s final appeal in May.

“Both Mr. Nour’s ongoing detention and the Egyptian government’s handling of dissent raise serious concerns about the path to political reform and democracy in Egypt and are incongruous with the Egyptian government’s professed commitment to increased political openness,’’ the U.S. State Department said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Williams in Cairo at [email protected]

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