Nir Boms and Michael Meunier
Barely a month following President Hosni Mubarak predictable re-election, Egypt is gearing itself to a full campaign mode again, as candidates already register for the November legislative polls. The September 7th elections in Egypt, the first ever “open” election have come and gone in the Middle East news cycle, clearing the way for another round of assassinations in Lebanon, another escalation in Gaza, another devastating suicide attack in Iraq. 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 pace in mind.
The unsurprising victory of Mubarrak, Egypt’s leader over the last 24 years, was accepted, but with little enthusiasm. Mubarrak took 80 percent of the vote, but did so with a turnout of only 6 million Egyptians – who comprise only 23% of eligible voters – and testimonies of 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, Mubarrak. 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 Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The spokesperson for one opposition party – the Ghad Party, who received 7.6 percent of the vote – insisted that its party actually received at least 30 percent of the ballot while claiming that his party supporters were prevented from entering the polling stations.
Still, most commentators were almost in consensus when they described ‘Egypt’s first step to democracy. “This election represents an important step toward holding fully free and fair competitive multi-party elections,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan in a statement. President Bush himself called President Mubarrak to congratulate him on his victory.
In the mean time, 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 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 woman’s rights activist. Seimans 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 of about 11 million people, have their own reasons to worry. The Mubarrak years have witnessed more than forty massacres committed against Christians Copts, resulting in the injury 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 with knives 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 the terrorist attacks at Sharm el-Sheikh – posted an “urgent message to the followers of the cross living in Egypt” where it claimed that the ‘crusaders church’ is guilty of staging a theatre performance offending the Prophet Muhammed. That call was also supported by the Egyptian radical newspaper El-Osboa. As a result, on October 21, 2005, 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.
On November 16th, an International delegation from the leadership of the Egyptian Copts will arrive to Washington for the 2nd annual International Coptic Conference. The conference, titled “Democracy for Muslim and Christians in Egypt” will bring the Coptic leadership together with academics and lawmakers who will seek to raise the issue of minorities in Egypt to the world’s attention.
The struggle of the Copts should not be seen as another campaign for human rights but rather as a barometer for Egypt’s possible transition. The upcoming conference, where Muslims and Christian activists from inside and outside Egypt will join forces with their call for Democracy, will be a rare opportunity to articulate that call and make sure that action, 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.