By NIR BOMS
EGYPT, the world’s largest Arab country, is now having its second round of elections this year. Sadly, that news isn’t as good as it looks.
Just last month, President Hosni Mubarak Egypt’s leader for 24 years, won re-election – on a far-from-level playing field. Parliamentary elections are now under way – and the first round saw considerable gains by candidates affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
The Mubarak regime had billed the September presidential vote as the “launch” of a “new path of progress” for Egypt. But words and promises are cheap in the Middle East.
Mubarak took 80 percent of the vote – but only 6 million bothered to vote, just 23 percent of those eligible.
They had good reason to be unenthusiastic. Even the government-financed National Council for Human Rights said that the new election law “placed very difficult restrictions on presidential hopefuls, especially independent candidates” and that the campaign had an “absence of real competition.”
An Egyptian Organization for Human Rights report 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.
Officially, the opposition Ghad Party drew 7.6 percent of the vote; its spokesmen insisted it actually pulled at least 30 percent, and that its supporters were prevented from entering the polling stations. (Little looks to have changed in the parliamentary voting.)
Some still see it as progress. “This election represents an important step toward holding fully free and fair competitive multi-party elections,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. President Bush called President Mubarrak to congratulate him on his victory and his new path of freedom.
In the meantime, Egypt is back to its normal routine:
* A new Amnesty International report notes that “torture remains widespread and systematic, and security forces have been allowed over many years to act with virtual impunity.”
* The State Department’s latest International Religious Freedom Report once again put Egypt on its watch list, citing continued governmental discrimination against non-Muslims, harassment of minority groups by the police and a list of troubling incidents involving kidnapping of Egyptian Copts and denying civil rights to the small Bahai community.
* Last week, the Egyptian authorities arrested Abdolkarim Nabil Seliman, a 21-year-old Egyptian student of law, blogger and women’s-rights activist. Apparently, Seiman’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.
* Coptic Christians – Egypt’s largest minority, at about 11 million in a nation of 77 million – have their own reasons to worry. The Mubarrak years have witnessed more than 40 mass assaults on Copts. In one, at the village of Gerza-Ayiat-Giza in 2003, an armed mob of 500 radical Egyptian Muslims with knives burned houses and seriously injured 11. The attackers are usually affiliated with the Islamic Brotherhood – which, again, is likely to become a much stronger force in Egyptian politics.
Just last month, the radical group Egypt’s Mujahadeen – which has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks – accused the “crusaders church” in Alexandria of staging a theatre performance offending the Prophet Muhammed. Soon, a mob of 10,000 militants armed with explosives surrounded the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church for three days, stabbing one nun and killing four worshipers.
The new foreign-aid bill, which President Bush signed into law Monday, gives Egypt $1.3 billion in military and $495 million in economic aid. But, for the first time, the law conditions the money on “significant economic and political reforms.” Perhaps the linkage will inspire Mubarrak to comply with his promise of freedom.
Nir Boms, the vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East, spoke at this week’s International Coptic Conference on Democracy in Egypt for Muslims and Christians. He is a member of Benador Associates.