Saving Egypt from Mubarak

THE NEWS from Egypt this week was more of the same: On Wednesday, the final, chaotic day of nationwide parliamentary elections, police shot rubber bullets and tear gas at crowds of voters around the country, blocking citizens from reaching polling stations. In areas known for opposition to President Hosni Mubarak, riot police clashed with angry voters. Eight people were killed on Wednesday alone.

The election had initially reignited hope that genuine democratic governance was possible after five decades of autocracy. It had come on the heels of the first contested presidential election since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952. But hope was dashed as Mubarak’s heavy-handed regime made a travesty of the proceedings. The election was marred by widespread violations, fraud and the arrest and detention of hundreds of opposition supporters as it became clear over the last four weeks that Islamist candidates from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood Party were likely to score a significant electoral victory.

The first person to reveal the fraud in the first round of the three-stage balloting was a brave female judge, Dr. Noha Al-Zainy, in an electoral district where a top aide to Mubarak was running as a candidate of the ruling National Democratic Party against a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (running, as they generally do, as an independent). The latter had been winning by more than 18,000 votes, but to Al-Zainy’s surprise, the next morning the Election Commission declared the NDP’s candidate the winner.

In the following five days, more than 150 other judges filed similar complaints. More than 50 suits have been filed to nullify election results in districts rife with irregularities, and more will surely follow.

The regime resisted allowing election monitoring by international observers, on the pretext that it infringed on the country’s sovereignty. Then, when the election was held, members of the Muslim Brotherhood were often blocked from reaching the polls. A Dec. 2 front-page story in the International Herald Tribune documented several veiled women using ladders to climb over walls and fences and through windows to get into a polling station — a telling portrait of Egypt’s crippled steps toward democracy. Because of widespread intimidation, voter turnout was barely 20%, one of the lowest rates in Egyptian history.

Other major irregularities included inaccurate voter lists, the lack of curtains to ensure private voting and the failure to ensure the safety of presiding judges and voters and the protection of ballot boxes.

Most embarrassing for Mubarak, however, is the upsurge in popularity of his archenemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. Though it has been banned for many years, the Brotherhood has been a pervasive presence throughout Egypt, enduring despite attacks from the state-controlled media, periodic arrests and protracted detentions of its members. In the 2000 parliamentary election, Brotherhood candidates running as independents won 17 of the 444 elected seats in the People’s Assembly. This year, Mubarak’s NDP “won” 205 of the 444 seats so far, while candidates affiliated with the Brotherhood won 76 seats and were vying for another 35 in Wednesday’s vote.

These results rang alarm bells in the Mubarak camp. Faced with an imminent threat to its usual 90% majority in parliament, the NDP decided to drop its democratic window dressing and return to fraud and intimidation as usual.

Underlying the impressive performance of the Muslim Brotherhood are several factors, including mounting socioeconomic problems. More than 20% of Egyptians are unemployed, and 33% are living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the gap between the super-rich, living in gated communities, and the abject poor in urban slums has become glaringly visible in the age of satellite TV. Egypt’s class gap is explained not by the hard work and high achievement of the well-to-do but by outright corruption of the few at the top and increasing exploitation of the many at the bottom. This bleak reality has undermined any popularity the Mubarak regime once had, and voters have begun to hold the president, his family, cronies and the NDP responsible.

Egyptians might have looked for alternatives, but there were virtually none besides the Brotherhood. Mubarak’s police state has made it nearly impossible for liberal and secular opposition parties to grow. An emergency law that has been in place since 1981 bans any large gatherings, marches or demonstrations. But the Muslim Brotherhood has weekly access to millions of Egyptians in the country’s more than 100,000 mosques, as well as through the clinics and hospitals where it provides desperately needed social services.

The United States is a credible player in the Arab world’s most pivotal country, and it must quickly develop a clear and consistent policy to deal with the Brotherhood. I have been arguing for active engagement with moderate Islamists, but Washington seems to fear offending Mubarak, a long-standing strategic ally. U.S. officials also seem to fear that Islamists would take Egypt in a Iranian direction, something I believe is highly unlikely if the political process is opened to their most moderate leaders.

It is now clear that Mubarak’s scare tactics, oppressive policies and corruption have boosted the Muslim Brotherhood. The U.S. has done more than enough to aid Mubarak. It is about time to support the Egyptian people directly by starting to talk to all its citizens, including Muslim democrats.