By Nir Boms/ Michael Meunier
Published November 21, 2005
Barely a month following President Hosni Mubarak’s predictable re-election, Egypt finds itself in full campaign mode again. The results of the first round of the parliamentary elections were just published, confirming a considerable gain in power for candidates affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
Still, it is the second round of elections this year in the most significant Arab country in the world — so, something good is probably happening, right? The September elections in Egypt, the first-ever “open” elections, have come and gone in the Middle East news cycle, clearing the way for another round of assassinations in Lebanon; escalations in Gaza; suicide attacks in Iraq and Jordan. The headlines have told us about the “launch” of a “new path of progress for Egypt.” But words and promises are cheap in the Middle East. Reality has its own peace of mind.
The unsurprising victory of Mr. Mubarak, Egypt’s leader over the last 24 years, was accepted, but with little enthusiasm. Mr. Mubarak indeed took 80 percent of the vote, but the low turnout of only 6 million Egyptians — who comprise only 23 percent of eligible voters — and testimonies about election fraud have diminished the “democratic” achievement of this leading Arab country.
A new statement by the National Council for Human Rights in Egypt, which is financed by the government, said that the presidential elections in September lacked real democratic competition and that the amended election law “placed very difficult restrictions on presidential hopefuls, especially independent candidates, resulting in the absence of real competition.”
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies’ report on the Egyptian elections said that the mass media was generally biased in favor of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and its candidate, Mr. Mubarak. A report published by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights questioned the process that kept some challengers off the ballot and allowed state agencies — particularly the Presidential Election Commission and the Interior Ministry — to create conditions favoring Mr. Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
The spokesperson for one opposition party — the Ghad Party, which received 7.6 percent of the vote — insisted that its party actually received at least 30 percent of the ballot while claiming that its supporters were prevented from entering the polling stations. Little appeared to have changed this time around, as reports of new examples of fraud and irregularities continue to pile up.
Still, foreign reaction was almost in consensus in describing Egypt’s first step to democracy. “This election represents an important step toward holding fully free and fair competitive multiparty elections,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. President Bush himself called Mr. Mubarak to congratulate him on his victory.
In the meantime, Egypt is back to its normal routine. Earlier this month, the London-based Amnesty International issued a statement concerning torture in Egypt. “Torture remains widespread and systematic, and security forces have been allowed over many years to act with virtual impunity,” Malcolm Smart, Director of the organization’s Middle East and North Africa program, said in a statement. Last week, the Egyptian authorities arrested Abdolkarim Nabil Seliman, a 21-year-old Egyptian student of law, a blogger and a women’s-rights activist. Mr. Seliman’s writings — that included some harsh political criticisms on the political climate in Egypt — did not blend well with the new path of “openness” in Egypt.
The Coptic Christians, Egypt’s largest minority (about 11 million people) have their own reasons to worry. The Mubarak years have witnessed more than 40 massacres committed against Copts, resulting in injury to and murder of men, women and children, and untold loss of businesses and property. Such massacres took place at villages like Gerza-Ayiat-Giza, where an armed mob of approximately 500 radical Egyptian Muslims burned houses and seriously injured 11 in 2003. Later that year, 22 Copts, many of them converts from Islam to Christianity, were arrested, beaten, interrogated and tortured. Not a single individual was ever arrested or prosecuted for these events.
The Egyptian police just halted the search for Marianna Rezk Shafik Attallah, a Coptic woman that was kidnapped by a former Egyptian police officer. Egyptian officials later claimed that the young woman was not kidnapped, but rather converted to Islam and is not interested in speaking with her family. Just last week, the Islamic group “Egypt’s Mujahadeen” — which claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks at Sharm el-Sheikh — posted an “urgent message to the followers of the cross living in Egypt” claiming that the “crusaders church” is guilty of staging a theater performance offending the Prophet Mohammed. That call was also supported by the Egyptian radical newspaper El-Osboa. As a result, on Oct. 21 a mob of over 10,000 militants armed with explosives surrounded the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria. One nun was stabbed and four people killed in the attack that lasted three days.
Last week, an international delegation from the leadership of the Egyptian Copts gathered in Washington for the second annual International Coptic Conference. The conference, titled “Democracy for Muslims and Christians in Egypt” brought the Coptic leadership together with academics and lawmakers who sought to raise world attention to the issue of minorities in Egypt.
The struggle of the Copts should not be seen as another campaign for human rights but as a barometer for Egypt’s possible transition. The conference, where Muslim and Christian activists from inside and outside Egypt joined forces with their call for democracy, provided a rare opportunity to make sure that actions rather then words will follow.
Nir Boms is the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Michael Meunier is the executive director of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East.