The best man always wins

 Few people register because the legal period for doing so is short and comes many months before elections. Besides, registration involves a visit to a police station, which many Egyptians prefer to avoid. Foreign election observers are banned. The parties allowed to run for the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s parliament, are selected by a committee controlled by the ever-ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which is headed by Mr Mubarak. Independents can stand, which is how the Muslim Brothers, banned as an organisation, field their candidates. But they risk arrest on some pretext, and harassment even without one.

Elections for the People’s Assembly are held every five years, and the next one is due in November. Since 2005 there have been elections for the presidency, too, replacing the previous embarrassingly unanimous referendums. The next one of those is scheduled for September 2011, albeit under restrictive rules that, in essence, allow the NDP to choose not only its own candidate but his opponents as well. In the previous presidential poll, in 2005, nine selected opponents were allowed to run against Mr Mubarak, yet he still grabbed 89% of the vote by the official count. His closest challenger, Ayman Nour, a youthful lawyer, was locked up in prison on flimsy charges of forgery soon afterwards and released only last year.

In the parliamentary election of November 2005 voting was spread over three rounds because a ruling by the constitutional court required that judges should monitor it closely. The Brotherhood, wary of showing too much strength and so provoking a backlash, fielded candidates for only a third of the 454 seats. In the first round they trounced most rivals. In the second and especially the third round police simply locked many polling stations and sent everyone home. The Brothers still captured 88 seats, with legal opposition parties taking just a handful.

As the Egyptian saying goes, if you burn your tongue, you will blow even on yogurt. Since the 2005 fiasco the NDP has changed the rules to eliminate close judicial supervision of polls. “Independent” committees, appointed by party stalwarts, oversee them instead. The ministry of justice has purged the courts of recalcitrant judges, too. And police have arrested record numbers of Muslim Brothers.

Keep up the charade

Last month polls were held for half the elected seats of the upper house, the Shura Council. The government claimed a turnout of 14%, but independent observers put it at 2-5%, low even by Egyptian standards. Not a single seat went to the Brothers. So plainly fraudulent was the count that the local committee of a leftist party in the coastal city of Damietta publicly denounced it. This was despite the fact that one of their own had, to general amusement, “won” a seat, presumably by way of a deal between the party’s Cairo headquarters and the NDP, which likes to have a few members of the opposition on the benches for appearances’ sake.

The Shura vote was widely seen as a trial run for the far more important People’s Assembly elections in November. The NDP is generally expected to try to shut the Muslim Brothers out completely and cut some back-room deals with the legal opposition to take their place, though it is just possible that something might disrupt the script. For instance, the legal opposition parties could summon the courage to boycott the polls en masse and forsake the little privileges they get by playing the election game. The Muslim Brotherhood, which is the only group with real weight, could prove angry enough after its Shura Council drubbing to join such a move. Yet in showing its commitment to the democratic process, it has often seemed keener to observe the formal rites than to bring about real change.

As in the past, one reason for staying in the game is that the NDP’s tactics, in effect, strengthen the Brotherhood’s voting clout. Because the ruling party is unpopular yet allows no legal rival to flourish, the Brothers attract protest votes. Given meagre election turnouts and the Brotherhood’s formidable discipline, even in modest numbers its supporters make a difference.

There is another wild card. Last November an interviewer asked Mohamed ElBaradei, the retiring head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a winner of the Nobel peace prize, if he would consider returning to Egypt and running for president. He said that he might, but only if constitutional change and proper independent oversight were to guarantee that the elections would be open, free and fair.

An unlikely hero

In a sign of changed times, Egypt’s new, privately owned media rushed to question the rather dour and professorial international bureaucrat. An internet support group sprouted. Government newspapers mounted an ill-tempered slander campaign against Mr ElBaradei, but his largely youthful following only grew. Arriving at Cairo airport in February, he was greeted by throngs of cheering supporters demanding sweeping political reform. Carried by this wave, Mr ElBaradei helped form a coalition for change that launched a petition to amend the constitution. He refused to join any legal opposition party but pledged to work with the government’s opponents, including the Muslim Brotherhood, to end what he bluntly calls 58 years of dictatorship

After growing through the spring, the ElBaradei snowball has melted somewhat in Egypt’s summer sun. Some well-known public figures among his allies have backed away. Mr ElBaradei says he is happier, anyway, to rely on younger people and not compromise his principles. Yet despite staging appearances across the country and attracting 200,000 Facebook supporters, he has struggled to overcome the rules that are so heavily stacked against challengers. The security apparatus has wisely let the challenger come and go at will, but has found subtle ways to sabotage his campaign.

“I am suffocated,” says Mr ElBaradei. “We can’t have a headquarters, can’t raise funds, can’t hold public meetings. All I can do is go and visit a few places, and then after I leave they arrest a few.” Kuwait, a country friendly to Egypt’s regime, summarily expelled a group of Egyptian workers who had innocently created a local support group for Mr ElBaradei. In advance of his scheduled visit to the rural province of Fayoum in May, companies that rent equipment for public events received warnings not to work with him or risk having their equipment seized. Private television stations have been “advised” to pay less attention to the upstart, well aware that their owners’ useful government links may be at stake.

Mr ElBaradei insists that his aim is not the presidency anyway. He is sanguine about the possibility of change. The 1m rich people at the top just want to keep what they have, he says, and the mass of the poor cannot afford “even a half per cent of risk”. He will be happy if the momentum grows; if, for instance, opposition parties join his petition and boycott parliamentary elections. In the meantime he is pleased enough to have put a spotlight on the political rot. “I think I’ve given people a sense of alternatives, a sense of the need for engagement,” he says. “I’ve broken maybe 10% of the barrier of fear and put the regime on the defensive.”

The viruses of doubt and hope may well help to shorten the life of Egypt’s pyramid of state in the end, but perhaps not quite yet. One reason is that, grumble as they may, Egyptians do have quite a few things to be grateful for.