Presidential election was a false start in democratisation

EGYPT: Presidential election was a false start in democratisation, Crisis Group says
05 Oct 2005 13:26:13 GMT

Source: IRIN
CAIRO, 5 October (IRIN) – Egypt’s presidential election in September was a “false start” in moves towards greater democracy and the government must do more to ensure that parliamentary elections due in November are free, fair and open to all, the International Crisis Group said.

The Brussels-based think tank said in a report published on Tuesday that President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for the past 24 years, must also give parliament stronger powers.

It also criticised Egypt’s fragmented opposition parties, urging them to unite on a common electoral platform that would offer voters a credible alternative to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

The International Crisis Group recommended that they form an alliance for the coming legislative elections, which begin on 8 November and will be carried out over a period of three weeks.

“We need a fresh start from both the regime’s side and the opposition’s side aiming for a reform that will empower Egyptians,” Hugh Roberts, the head of International Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Division, told a press conference in Cairo to launch the new report.

The document, entitled ’Reforming Egypt: In Search of a Strategy’ said Mubarak had been pressured into political reform by the United States, but the steps he had taken so far were token measures that did not take into account the real concerns of the opposition at home.

“If the further reforms Mubarak has promised are to be meaningful, they should be aimed at recasting state/NDP relations and, above all, enhancing parliament’s powers,” it concluded.

Egypt held its first contested presidential elections on 7 September following a change in the constitution to allow the head of state to be directly chosen by the people in a multi-candidate election.

Previously, parliament, which is dominated by the ruling NDP, had approved a sole candidate who was rubber stamped in a national referendum.

However, International Crisis Group pointed out that the constitutional amendment laid down very strict criteria for who could run in a presidential election.

And it criticized the government for passing new laws to govern the upcoming parliamentary poll that appeared to impose new restrictions on political parties and the media, instead of removing existing curbs.

The report noted that all the opposition parties currently represented in parliament had voted against the new electoral laws, along with the constitutional amendment passed earlier this year.

It urged the government to legalise the banned yet tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, which is widely seen as the most powerful opposition force in Egypt, and persuade it to take a direct part in the electoral process.

And it criticised the recently formed Egyptian Movement for Change, widely known by its slogan Kifaya! (Enough!) for being too negative in its message.

The International Crisis Group urged the movement, which broke political taboos earlier this year by organising public demonstrations to demand that Mubarak resign, to be more constructive in its approach.

“The problem with Kifaya is that it did not advocate a constructive agenda for reform … It did not focus on a clear positive proposal or demand,” Roberts said. He described the movement’s failure to come up with a proactive agenda as a strategic error.

However, the International Crisis Group paid tribute to the courage and independence of Egypt’s judges.

It recommended that the local judiciary should be put in charge of supervising all future elections in this country of more than 70 million people, saying the local courts would ensure fair play more effectively than teams of international observers.

Reacting to the think tank’s report, one prominent local political analyst agreed that the last few months have certainly highlighted the weakness of all Egyptian political parties.

“Recent events have only revealed the fact that we don’t have real political parties in Egypt,” said Gamil Mattar, a prominent political commentator and the head of the Cairo office for the Studies Centre for the Arab Future. “They have proven to be incapable of mobilising large numbers of voters to take specific stances, revealing that they have a weak base.”

Only 23 percent of registered voters bothered to turn out in the 7 September presidential election, in which Mubarak took 88.6 percent of the vote.

The president’s party meanwhile controls nearly 90 percent of the 454 seats in parliament.

No legal opposition party has more than a handful of seats in the outgoing legislature, but independents affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood hold 15.

The International Crisis Group recommended that Kifaya “devise a strategy aimed at influencing both the main opposition parties and the governing authorities with a view to promoting genuinely representative, law-bound government and protecting themselves and associated movements against repression”.

Hany Annan, a leading Kifaya member, maintains took issue with the International Crisis Group conclusion that his movement was not sufficiently constructive in its political agenda.

“Basically we are a coalition that exerts pressure in order to create a new political infrastructure for democracy in Egypt by calling for the elimination and amendment of all anti-liberty laws and by demanding the amendment of the constitution to limit powers given to the president,” he stated.