To an alien visitor, it would look like a full-blown election. We mortals know better and expect Hosni Mubarak to emerge victorious. But what if the unexpected occurs?
For the first time since Egypt became a republic 53 years ago, Egyptians have been invited to choose their president through a multiple-choice election, rather than a take-it-or-leave-it referendum. And although outwardly the election campaign, with its 10 mud-slinging candidates and tough talking, resembles the real McAhmed, almost everyone is certain that Hosni Mubarak will pass this exam with flying colours.
Most people regard the elections as merely cosmetic – “some top-down touches of make-up to the ugly face of the regime”, as veteran human rights campaigner and prominent member of the opposition umbrella movement Aida Seif al-Dawla put it to me.
“I'm on a long holiday,” a journalist from a newspaper in a bit of hot water for its racy pre-election coverage told me. “Maybe it's better that way: the elections are far too farcical, don't you think?”
One would have to be a reckless gambler, indeed, to put any money on the incumbent losing the presidential election. With or without electoral sleights of hand, our veteran leader will almost certainly win. Not only has he been taking private lessons at the hands of the best spin doctors in how to win friends and influence his people, he has the additional advantages of face recognition, a quarter of a century of proven experience, weak opposition candidates, and a very short election race.
In the balance of things, many Egyptians think his never-ending tenure hasn't been all that bad, despite the stagnation, repression of serious opposition and a culture of human rights abuses against those who step too far out of line. In a region going up in smoke and gradually being subsumed by the flames of conflict, stability – some might call it stagnation – is a precious commodity valued by Egyptians.
As if that wasn't enough and despite reassurances that this will be a clean and fair race, many people are afraid they may get caught by the shrapnel caused by a blast from the past, when the government was less tolerant of dissent. Some are afraid to voice open criticism of Mubarak, while others think that the authorities somehow have ways of finding out how you voted in the secret ballot – two useful myths to perpetuate, if you want a low turnout and voter apathy.
Opponents from yesterday and tomorrow
,The opposition candidates are putting up their best fight, despite their miniscule resources and fairly small support base. Mubarak's most serious and vocal contender, Ayman Nour (41) of the al-Ghad party has been out campaigning among the people, holding rallies and mobilising young militants. His party's campaign newspaper – which costs 24 piastres, one for every year Mubarak has been in office – promises to uncover the current regime's cronyism and corruption.
Noaman Gomaa (71), the Wafd Party's chair, has launched a controversial campaign that sympathises with the Egyptian people's apparent sense that “we are suffocating”. However, the fossilised and aloof party chair, is going for an image modelled on the legendary Egyptian independence leader Saad Zaghloul in his campaign which shows that he may be a 21st century politician but his heart is in the Egypt of 1919.
While Zaghloul garners a lot of respect among Egyptians, people need something more immediate and accessible. But Gomaa does not do access very well. He does not appear all that willing to meet his electorate and launched his campaign not with a popular rally, like Nour did, but with a televised address from his ivory tower somewhere above people's heads.
That said, there is an incidental symmetry between the early 21st century and the early 20th century that the Wafd Party leadership pines for. In 1919, Egypt's disparate political forces came together and formed an umbrella known as the Wafd (Delegation) to demand independence from the British. Today, disparate political forces – leftists, Nasserists, liberals, Islamists, secularist – joined together under the umbrella of the Kifaya! (Enough!) movement to demand political reform.
Steam (out of) control
Mubarak has been skillfully blowing hot and cold over the past quarter of a century in his bid to retain control and fend off challenges to his authority. Aware that he is facing growing popular opposition, particularly from Egypt's rapidly radicalising youth, his calling of multi-candidate elections is a deft, if desperate, ruse to take the wind out of the sails of the burgeoning opposition movements by giving his regime's democratic credentials a desperately needed facelift.
This was particularly important after the political regression that accompanied economic stagnation in recent years, reversing many of the advances made in the 1980s and much of the 1990s. “In many ways, the current election is about ‘official' or ‘political' Egypt catching up with the rapidly changing mentalities of many Egyptians,” wrote Tarek Atia in Al Ahram Weekly. “2005 is just a dress rehearsal for a more real election next time, in 2011.”
Political expert Marina Ottaway, in her book Democracy Challenged (2003), describes Egypt as the text-book example of a semi-authoritarian regime in equilibrium: giving just enough political ground and achieving just enough economic and social progress to keep the masses quiet. But this equilibrium is being upset.
Mubarak's adroit juggling and playing off of various forces against one another seems to be running to the end of its useful life. There comes a point where a simmering cauldron will overflow. Mubarak seems to have released the genie from the bottle and even a man of his caution and careful planning cannot anticipate what the public will do with this new spirit – if not this year, then six years from now.
“Direct presidential elections are not a magnanimous nor ‘astute' gesture by Mubarak, but a huge, reluctant concession… Most unwillingly, Mubarak is actually abetting the rapid deterioration of the mystique surrounding the Egyptian president,” noted a blogger who calls herself (or himself) Baheya.
Crumbling facades and graven images
It wasn't so long ago that questioning the authority or person of the president carried serious unwritten health and safety warnings. As a novice journalist, I was warned that Mubarak was one of the holy trinity of unmentionables.
One of the most recent and high-profile victims of that injunction was sociology professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim who openly speculated about whether Mubarak was going to follow late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's example and establish a dynastic Gumlukiya (Republidom). And, no matter how hard he denied the allegations, Mubarak could not put to bed the rumour that he was grooming his son to inherit the presidency.
In recent years, the president has experienced a meteoric fall from grace. Egyptians may have a legendary level of patience, but even they are tiring of a leader who has been in office for longer than many of them have been alive. His excuses for not reforming no longer cut much mustard with a growing proportion of the population and the stagnating economy has made too many people – particularly the young and prospect-light – feel the pinch where it hurts.
In addition, Egypt's perceived inability to deliver its full weight on the regional and global stage, and the public perception of the government being a client regime of the United States, has hurt national self-esteem. And, what had begun as a pro-Palestinian and then anti-Iraq war movement, quickly escalated into an anti-regime platform.
One of the first steps Mubarak took to stave off the increasingly iconoclastic opposition movement was to sideline reluctantly many of the most disliked old guard, such as former Information Minister Safwat al-Sharif and former Prime Minsiter Atef Obeid, in the cabinet reshuffle two years ago. As if to symbolise a dirt-free and more competent image, his choice of prime minister fell on Ahmed Nazif, whose surname, incidentally, means ‘clean'.
In fact, as a sign of how much the old façade is crumbling, corruption allegations have been flying left, right and centre this week against former editor-in-chief of Al Ahram, the Middle East's biggest newspaper group, Ibrahim Nafie who, despite being the regime's biggest cheerleader, was unceremoniously ousted into early retirement last year.
Apathetic Republic of Egypt
The popular expectation that Mubarak will win breeds a certain amount of apathy. “[People] continue their lives and they will only talk about [the elections] when you ask…. Till now, I have not met a single Egyptian who is actually going to vote,” a European friend living in Cairo said.
According to popular perceptions, both within and outside Egypt, Egyptians are a politically docile people. “The Political Apathy Party… enjoys an overwhelming majority in Egypt,” wrote Khaled al-Shami in the London-based al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper.
Many reasons have been put forward for this apparent passivity but there is an undeniable alienation between government and people – not to mention a fear of authority. Perhaps after six millennia or more of centralised government, Egyptians have seen too many rulers come and go – they have become used to letting government do its thing, while they get on with their own. Less poetically, perhaps it is the gritty realism that puts the bread and butter issues of economic survival, in many people's minds, above haughty principles of individual rights.
In addition, Mubarak may be the top dog, but he is by no means unique. Millions of families and offices around the country have their own mini Mubarak who does not tolerate any challenges to his hegemony or authority. When too many parents raise their children to be subservient, teachers put them down, and the army and employers sap them of their remaining individuality, perhaps their reluctance to rebel against the regime becomes less surprising.
This apparent apathy is borne out by the figures: the 2000 parliamentary election saw an estimated turnout of just 20%, according to NDP figures. This shows that Egyptians have little faith in their democratic institutions – they know real power lies elsewhere. But then that is a growing global malaise of low voter turnout.
“When the US constitution was drafted, representative democracy was a radical and thrilling idea. Now it is an object of suspicion and even contempt, as people all over the world recognise that it allows us to change the management but not the firm,” wrote George Monbiot, a columnist in the UK's Guardian newspaper.
My brother but not my leader
One obstacle to reform has been the lack of a viable opposition other than the Muslim Brotherhood. “Political Islam is now the ideology of the opposition in Egypt,” Ottaway wrote. “In an earlier period, before socialism waned as an ideology, such economic decline [as Egypt is experiencing] would have spawned a leftist political movement.”
In addition, the shutting down and marginalising of popular secular political outlets and the tacit promotion of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups by the late President Anwar al-Sadat to counterbalance his socialist and Nasserist opponents helped them take root. Ironically, he signed his own death warrant by supporting and then clamping down hard on them.
“The presence of radical Islamist fringe groups, as well as uncertainty about the true intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood, creates a climate in which not only the regime… but also moderate Muslims and Coptic Christians have reason to be deeply concerned about the outcomes of truly free and fair elections,” Ottaway concludes.
Although the Brotherhood claims an active membership of 2 million, not to mention 3 million passive supporters, they have been Egypt's uncrowned kings ever since the movement was founded by Hassan al-Banna in the 1920s. This is partly because of continuous government oppression and sidelining that started with King Farouq and continues to this day.
But I believe that, even if they had the chance at the ballot box, Egyptians would not hand over the country in its entirety to the Brotherhood. With its profound commitment to social justice, the organisation functions as a good grassroots body to help the poor, oppressed and needy.
The Brotherhood – which includes intellectuals, scientists, disenchanted secular radicals and professionals – believes in the value of science and seek to live by a strict Islamic moral and social code. “The Muslim Brotherhood has striven, since its inception, to renew Islam… while striving to absorb contemporary sciences and cultures and preserving fundamentals and identity,” the organisation's website explains. Many Egyptians fear that this prescribed model for society could prove too puritanical and stifling.
Light at the end of the tunnel
But, as this election is proving, a nascent secular opposition movement is emerging. It is an interesting coincidence that its most prominent figure is Ayman Nour, whose surname means ‘light' of the al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party. He is the youngest presidential candidate and his party is Egypt's youngest officially recognised one.
Although I know little about his politics and I am not in favour of too much economic liberalism, he offers hope for the future. His party's choice of name indicates that it is a forward-looking and ambitious organisation (with its eyes firmly set on 2Deciphering the Mubarak enigma011), while the other main opposition parties are stuck in the past. The Wafd can't get beyond its moment of glory in the early 20th century, while the Muslim Brotherhood's has one eye cast hundreds of years back to a golden age that cannot be facsimiled.
Nour is a civilian. He is young. He is energetic. And he seems to have fresh ideas. Despite being seriously underfunded, his campaign has been more successful than anyone could have foreseen. He has been tirelessly travelling up and down the country by bus and train – Mubarak and Noeman have been flying – and has reached spots the other candidates have failed to.
He seems to have overcome the Egyptian political elite's aversion to getting down among the masses and dirtying their hands. He has been campaigning in some of Egypt's poorest and most neglected villages in Upper Egypt.
Thinking the unthinkable
Now, it may be time to think the unthinkable. What if the sleeping giant of the popular will were to awaken to have the last laugh on Wednesday 7 September and oust Mubarak. What would happen then? Would Mubarak drop the pretence of democracy and employ strongman tactics to reverse the result or would he concede defeat gracefully? Would the army and security services tolerate a new president? Would it be the dawn of Egyptian democracy or would the country, with its weak institutions, regress? Would a new leader help democratise the country further or would he try to consolidate his grip on power like the leaders that went before him?
Can Egypt ever have a meaningful democracy while its society is so polarised economically and educationally? Egypt is unlikely to have a democracy in the European sense of the word, at least in the near future. That kind of political equality exists in societies that have achieved a large measure of social and economic egalitarianism – literacy is at almost 100% and more than three-quarters of northern Europeans belong to the middle class.
If we look back at European experiments, one can see that democracy evolves. In Belgium, for instance, people used to have votes according to their wealth in the 19th century and universal suffrage was a 20th century innovation. As the history of successful democracies shows, democratic rights are almost always acquired and rarely granted. Democratisation is a gradual process of give and take, and occasional clashing, which can take decades and even centuries. But, ultimately, it is up to the people to decide. And the Egyptian people are patient enough to see the process through.