|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Egypt’s election farce
THE FIRST election for president in Egypt’s history failed to excite most Egyptians, who showed their contempt for a farce by not voting. The 77 year-old president, Hosni Mubarak, won 89% of the votes cast in the September poll, which surprised no one. Official figures showed a 23% turnout, so less than one adult in five voted for him. Opponents claimed that turnout in the cities was 5%.
After 24 years as president, Mubarak had been forced to allow an election. But he set the rules to produce one winner - himself. Previously, Egyptians had been given the ‘choice’ to vote for or against him in six-yearly referendums. Helped by riot police, secret police, prison torturers and ballot rigging he won each time.
This year the Egyptian ruling class realised it could no longer continue in the same way. Anger and opposition have been bubbling. Although not widespread, there have been strikes over low pay and privatisation, and protests over the Iraq war, poverty and the lack of democratic rights. Pressure also came from the US government, desperately trying to show the ‘flowering democracy’ it claims its Middle East strategy is producing.
The US regime had always supported Mubarak’s dictatorial methods but, with growing opposition to its occupation of Iraq, it now fears mass movements overthrowing its client regimes in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. These remain crucial to US oil supplies. Mubarak was leant on to make concessions to head off this threat. In January, after the arrest of an opposition politician, $1bn in US economic aid was withheld and Condoleezza Rice cancelled a visit to Cairo. Days later Mubarak announced the election.
Candidates affiliated to legal parties were allowed to stand, automatically excluding the largest opposition force, the illegal Muslim Brotherhood. Seventeen Brotherhood members sit as independent MPs. Independent candidates needed the signatures of 65 members of the lower house of parliament, 25 members of the upper house and ten council members from at least 14 provinces. Since Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) dominates both houses of parliament and most local councils, this would have been almost impossible. To ensure Mubarak’s victory, only three weeks were allowed for campaigning. Opponents called it ‘three minutes of freedom’.
These undemocratic rules were put to a referendum in May, which most parties boycotted in protest. To boost turnout, the government got publicly salaried clerics to issue a fatwa to vote. One wealthy supporter reputedly offered a Viagra tablet to every voter in his district. Despite these contrasting campaign methods, the government could only claim a 53% turnout - widely accepted as a massive exaggeration.
Two parties that boycotted the referendum took part in the election. Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) supports pro-US, pro-’free market’ policies and was legalised last November. Its leader is Ayman Nour, a wealthy lawyer who had been jailed in January on trumped up charges and reputedly beaten. Wafd is a long-established liberal party. There has been speculation that its leader, Noaman Goma’a, did a deal with Mubarak’s NDP to stand, undermining Nour’s candidacy in return for a promise that Wafd would gain seats in the parliamentary election later this autumn.
There were seven other opposition candidates – all virtually unknown, including a 91 year-old fortune teller wanting to make fez-wearing compulsory and promising, in the unlikely event of his victory, to hand back the presidency to Mubarak! Perhaps some were encouraged to stand by the half-million Egyptian pounds (£50,000) government contribution to campaign costs.
The Muslim Brotherhood is probably supported by 20-30% of the population. Although banned, its existence has been tolerated by the regime, allowing it to spread its influence through schools, professional associations and charities. It has a history of breaking strikes and opposing militant trade union activity since the 1940s. Leading members of the Brotherhood tend to come from better-off sections of society. A long-running strike recently took place at an asbestos factory owned by a Brotherhood member.
It did not call for a boycott of the election, instead calling for Egyptians to vote for whomever they thought would be ‘a just and fair ruler’. This raises the possibility of a behind-the-scenes deal, with the Brotherhood helping to boost turnout (while not supporting Mubarak) and hoping for legality in the future. Mubarak’s son, Gamal, has admitted meeting Brotherhood members ‘on numerous occasions’.
There are signs of tensions within the Muslim Brotherhood. Some older leaders do not want to antagonise Mubarak and jeopardise the base they have in society. Others want to become a legal political party. Younger student members have come under pressure from pro-democracy activists, joining in a number of protests. "I too was excited by the demonstrations", one student said. "Things were changing in Egypt. People found the moral courage to stand up. We love Egypt and are part of it and we had to take part". (Washington Post, 5 June) About 2,000 Brotherhood members were arrested and imprisoned without charge in August. A few were then released shortly before the election.
Pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood increased with the formation last December of Kifaya (Enough) by the Egyptian Movement for Change - a loose umbrella group of different political trends. ‘A gallery of intellectuals and activists’ demanded the resignation of Mubarak. It was launched in the house of Abu’l-Ela Madi, a former Brotherhood member who split from the group in 1996. It includes other Islamists, journalists and radicals. Kifaya has organised many demonstrations and protests this year, in the face of vicious beatings by hired thugs and riot police. However, it has not yet gained a mass following, several hundred to 3,000 taking part.
It describes itself as "a unique state of national accord between all Egyptian powers without discrimination or exception… its role is to employ this national accord to create a national consensus about the political, economic and social change that Egypt wants now". (www.harakamasria.net) While calling for rights to employment, free education and free medical treatment, its programme is restricted to democratic demands. It would split apart if it advanced economic and social demands, with the differing class interests of those involved.
The working class was not prepared to vote in this pantomime election, but a genie has been let out of a bottle. The open criticism of Mubarak (and his pro-privatisation banker son, Gamal) released by the election will not disappear. Workers will gain confidence to protest, strike and demonstrate.
The very low turnout has denied Mubarak the chance to cover himself in a veil of legitimacy. His continuing rule remains dependent on a police state, weakened after the experience of this election. Bush’s grand plans also lie in tatters. His key regional ally has not been endorsed by a popular vote.
Forty-four percent of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day. In January 2003, the currency was devalued from 4.2 to 6.15 Egyptian pounds to the dollar, pushing up prices, especially food, by over 30%. As a result, 6.8 million public-sector employees lost half the value of their salaries.
A new workers’ party is needed that brings together struggles against privatisation, poverty, war and repression. Support has fallen for al-Tagammu (Rally), which had 150,000 members and three MPs in the late 1970s. It was formed in 1976 as the National Progressive Unionist Party by various left groups and supporters of the radical nationalist, Gamal Nasser, around the slogan, ‘Freedom, socialism and unity’. Like ex-workers’ parties the world over, however, it moved to the right after the collapse of Stalinism in 1990.
In the 1995 election campaign, ‘socialism’ was replaced by, "Change in response to the people’s will - against oppression, corruption and terrorism; for justice, progress and democracy". Central Committee member, Hussein Abdel-Razek, said: "There is definitely a trend towards a more practical approach. We can no longer call for nationalisation or oppose privatisation". (Realism on the Left, Al-Ahram Weekly, 2-8 November 1995) Although al-Tagammu retains a few MPs, they are completely ineffectual. It boycotted the election.
A genuine workers’ party campaigning on a programme of democratic rights and socialism could gain mass support. It would give an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, currently filling the vacuum as the main opponents to the corrupt regime. It would expose capitalist politicians who support democracy only so far as it creates a more stable climate for continued exploitation. And it could inspire workers and poor people to organise against their pro-imperialist rulers to build a socialist federation across the Middle East and North Africa.