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UN Office for the Coordination
of Humanitarian Affairs
09 January 2006

EGYPT: Year in Review 2005 - Overview of democratic developments

DUBAI, 9 Jan 2006 (IRIN) - Over the past year, Egypt has found itself in the unfamiliar position of being at the forefront of the democratisation process in the Middle East, by holding its first multi-candidate presidential elections.

Nine candidates competed against President Hosni Mubarak in presidential elections on 7 September. While Egypt was never one of the most repressive countries in the Middle East, its politics are characterised by numerous restrictions on political freedom, and the near total dominance of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

In February 2005, President Hosni Mubarak, the 77 year-old ruler of Egypt for the past 24 years, called on parliament to amend the constitution to allow multi-candidate presidential elections instead of a simple yes-or-no referendum to a single candidate chosen by parliament.

The process of amending the constitution and holding elections was accompanied by an easing of restrictions on freedom of expression. Egyptians were exposed to unprecedented criticism of the president by opposition parties and new actors like the Kifaya, or the "Enough" movement.

Starting in December 2004, a loose collection of leftists, liberals and Islamists began demonstrating under the Kifaya banner, explicitly calling for an end to Mubarak’s tenure and the prevention of the succession to the presidency of Mubarak’s son, Gamal. Gamal is the secretary of the influential Policies Committee in the ruling party, and in recent years, has played an increasingly public role.

In the wake of Kifaya’s direct criticism of the regime, other sectors of society, including legal opposition parties and the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, have increased their own criticisms of the status quo.

According to Mahmoud Mohieddin, Minister of Investment in Egypt's government and part of a new generation of younger ministers, holding multi-candidate presidential elections represents a political watershed.

"I think it’s a revolutionary change," he said. "The fact that you have many candidates presenting different platforms, given the opportunity to appear on TV and criticise the incumbent president is a major step forward."

His views are echoed by analysts who admit that, while the incumbent had an overwhelming advantage in terms of re-election, important taboos have been broken.

"When the Egyptian people see other people on television criticising Mubarak, that’s something new," said Amr el-Choubaki, an analyst with the Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies. "It has pushed Egyptians to criticise."

Election results showed Mubarak winning 88.6 percent of the vote, compared to runner-up Ayman Nour of the recently established Ghad or "Tomorrow" party, which won 7 percent. Mubarak’s campaign had ten times the campaign budget of Nour’s.

Critics maintain that the democratic changes are largely cosmetic and carried out mainly in response to US pressure on Egypt.

The amendment of Article 76 of the constitution, which allowed for multi-candidate elections, imposed strict criteria on the eligibility of candidates. Competition was restricted to the weak and divided official opposition, which does not represent major political forces in the country, like the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.

The country’s opposition movements unanimously opposed the amendment.

Hugh Roberts of the International Crisis Group (ICG), which released a report on Egypt’s political environment, said the regime’s complete disregard for the sentiments of the opposition when crafting its reforms, was telling.

"This isn’t the behaviour of a regime feeling a great need to accommodate internal pressure – it’s steamrolling over all the opposition forces," he said. "We think that it’s the external pressure that matters much more."

The ICG report also criticised the opposition for internal bickering, and said the only way internal pressure would be created for reform, was for opposition groups to unite under a common front in parliamentary elections.

"The initiative could transform the condition of the opposition as a whole; enable it to overcome its debilitating divisions and become a collectively significant player in the reform process," the report stated.

Currently, the main initiatives for reform are coming from the government itself. In the course of his re-election campaign speeches, Mubarak promised to reduce the powers of the presidency in favour of the cabinet and the parliament, which would be granted greater powers of oversight.

He also promised a number of constitutional and legal reforms to enable wider opposition representation in parliament.

These promises of gradual political reform suffered setbacks in a three-round parliamentary election held from November to December. While the elections resulted in massive gains for the opposition, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, they also witnessed widespread election violations.

In the end, opposition representatives ended up winning almost 100 of the 444 elected seats in the People’s Assembly, up from only 40 in the outgoing assembly. Of these, 88 were won by candidates affiliated with the Brotherhood.

Nevertheless, voting – especially in the third and final election round – was marred by reports of widespread intimidation and violent clashes between voters and security forces, with voters repeatedly prevented from gaining access to polling stations by security agents.

In areas where opposition candidates were likely to win, polling areas were cordoned off from the public.

In some voting districts, after would-be voters protested, police responded by firing tear gas canisters and rubber bullets into crowds, bringing the total number of election-related deaths to 12.

In the end, the ruling NDP was left with some 315 seats, noticeably fewer than the 388 representatives it controlled in the outgoing assembly, but still above the two-thirds majority needed to control legislation.

The weakness of the secular opposition parties was driven home when they won a total of only 14 seats between them. This included the neo-liberal Wafd Party, traditionally referred to as Egypt’s strongest opposition party.

While local civil rights groups, international watchdog organisations and the US State Department all roundly condemned Cairo’s handling of the parliamentary contests, many observers have called it a watershed in terms of gains by the opposition.

"It was a step in the right direction, even though there were a lot of violations by state security," Cairo-based analyst Khaled Sewelam told IRIN. "It was a democratic transformation, albeit a tightly controlled one."

Nevertheless, on 24 December, the state took another step backward, sentencing Al-Ghad Party chief, Nour, who ran against Mubarak in presidential elections earlier in the year, to five years in prison. Nour was found guilty on fraud charges that his supporters insist are politically motivated.

For the time being, Egypt’s prospects for further progress in the process of democratisation remain in question.

By the end of 2005, observers were awaiting the opening of the next session of parliament in January, to see what kind of pressure the incoming assembly, with its roughly one hundred opposition representatives, would be able to put on the ruling party.

[ENDS]

This material comes to you via IRIN, a UN humanitarian information unit, but May not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations or its agencies. If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Quotations or extracts should include attribution to the original sources. All materials copyright © UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2006



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