What is expected to happen in Egypt’s presidential election?
President Hosni Mubarak is widely expected to win another six-year term when Egypt holds its first multi-candidate presidential election September 7. After twenty-four years as the authoritarian head of Egypt, Mubarak is not yet willing to relinquish power, experts say. He faces only two credible candidates in the upcoming poll; neither of them has the resources to overcome the president’s massive advantages. “The expectations in Egypt are quite known: Certainly Mubarak will win,” says Khairi Abaza, a visiting fellow and Egyptian politics expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “But this election is a test for the new practices concerning elections” ahead of an upcoming parliamentary poll in November, he says.
When did Egyptian election law change to allow opponents?
In February, Mubarak announced the presidential election would be open to multiple candidates. Previous presidential polls featured only Mubarak's name on the ballot, and Egyptians voted only yes or no. A parliamentary vote on the measure May 10 was followed by a May 25 public referendum, in which voters approved the change to Article 76 of the Egyptian Constitution to allow multiple candidates to run for president. Experts say the move came in response to pressure from the United States and from within Egypt to open up Egyptian society and allow democratic reforms. Critics say, however, the change will have little effect on the outcome of the upcoming election. "The institutional changes undertaken are largely cosmetic," says Steven Cook, the Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Abaza says Egypt's major opposition groups, as well as most Egyptians, saw the referendum as "a maneuver to perpetuate the authoritarian structure of the Egyptian state."
Who are the major candidates?
- Hosni Mubarak, 77, National Democratic Party (NDP). Mubarak, a former air-force commander, served as vice president ofEgyptfrom 1975 to October 1981, when then-President Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated. Mubarak became president later that month. Since then, he has won four successive terms without opposition. A deeply cautious leader, Mubarak has led Egypt through two decades of mostly stable change. Critics charge that rampant corruption and cronyism have left Egypt stagnating, with a rapidly growing population, widespread unemployment, and a widening gap between rich and poor. In unprecedented campaign speeches, Mubarak has promised to lift the state of emergency—in effect since 1981—and enact more democratic reforms.
- Ayman Nour, 40, Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. Nour, the best-known of Mubarak’s opponents, is a former journalist, lawyer, and publisher who many think may be charismatic enough to take votes away from Mubarak. The NDP government seemed to acknowledge this threat when it jailed Nour for two months this year for the alleged forgery of signatures needed to establish his party. After many domestic and international protests, Nour was released in March. Experts say that while Nour may be a threat to Mubarak, he has little experience in the public realm. “He’s basically a political neophyte,” Cook says. “He has a base of about 5,000 people in a country of 77 million.” Nour was formerly a member of the respected Wafd Party, before splitting with it to start Ghad.
- Noman Gomaa, 70, Wafd Party. A longtime opposition leader and head of the Wafd party, Gomaa has said he will abolishEgypt’s emergency laws and release all political prisoners. He favors strong ties withIranand has criticized U.S. actions in Iraq, as well as U.S. aid to Egypt that he claims comes with strings attached. The Wafd party was founded in 1919 and is one ofEgypt’s oldest opposition parties. It was outlawed in 1953 when then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser banned all political parties. It was reinstated, then banned several more times before the current party started up again in 1983. The party currently holds six parliamentary seats.
Who else is running?
The other seven candidates for president lead minor parties with no seats in the People's Assembly, which makes up parliament along with the consultative Shura Council. Two main opposition parties, the pan-Arab Nasserite Party and the leftist al-Tagammou Party, are boycotting the election. They claim there is no way to compete fairly with Mubarak and say the poll is a cynical exercise for foreign support. The NDP "is more concern[ed] about public opinion outside Egypt than inside it," Abaza says, pointing out that Mubarak's campaign website is in English as well as Arabic. "That's not for Egyptians. It's clearly to show the United States they are making democratic changes," he says.
What is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood?
The Muslim Brotherhood is a social and political movement that seeks a greater role for Islam in society. It has inspired other Islamist movements inEgyptand around the world, including radical ones like Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. The Muslim Brotherhood itself, however, does not currently advocate violence. It is Egypt’s best-organized and most time-tested opposition movement, having survived dozens of purges over the years. Some 3,000 Brotherhood members were arrested last year alone, experts say. The group is banned in Egypt and forbidden from putting forward candidates for president. However, it gained nineteen seats in the People’s Assembly in 2000 by running members as independents and making savvy alliances with secular groups. The Brotherhood has encouraged Egyptian citizens to vote in September, but has not endorsed any of the main presidential candidates. A Brotherhood spokesman, Mohammed Mahdi Akif, told the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper August 20 that it would be “impossible” for the Muslim Brotherhood to support Mubarak. “It is enough that he has been at the head of the authority for twenty-four years, during which he did not achieve political reform to make us support his candidacy,” Akif said.
Which body will supervise the election?
The May constitutional amendment created the Supreme Committee for Presidential Elections, which is overseeing the election process. Half of its members are judges, and the other half are chosen by parliament—which is dominated by Mubarak’s party, the NDP. The Supreme Committee will decide election issues, including whether televised debates will be allowed.
How long is the campaign?
Just three weeks, from August 17 to September 4. Critics say the three-week window allows too little time for unknown opposition candidates to make an impression on voters.
What’s the public mood in Egypt?
Experts say there is new political ferment in Egypt as people become more willing to voice their demands for reform. “There’s definitely a change in attitude in Egypt in the last few months,” Abaza says. Street protests, while still illegal, are now more common in Cairo. New opposition groups—including Kifaya, or Enough, the Coalition for Democratic Change, and the White Ribbon women’s organization—have held rallies denouncing Mubarak and calling for change. Many observers say there is an energy and vitality they have not seen before. “There’s no denying that the combination of internal political pressure and U.S. pressure has changed the context and terms of the debate,” Cook says. But “does that translate into a groundswell of public support for [the opposition]? Nobody knows,” he says.
How strong is support for Mubarak?
Experts say it’s difficult to gauge, since Mubarak has eviscerated the opposition by refusing to license their parties or allow their papers to be published, jailing opponents, and monopolizing the Egyptian media. Mubarak will likely win by another wide percentage, but it’s impossible to judge the real level of his popularity—or that of the opposition—because no reliable polling is done inEgypt, Cook says. Even so, much of the current protest is about laying the groundwork for the future. “The change to Article 76 of the constitution won’t make a difference in this election, but maybe it will in 2011 or 2017,” Cook says.
Will it be a free and fair election?
Unlikely, experts say. Opposition figures like Nour have been harassed and arrested, and Mubarak’s control over the state media means his image is plastered on posters all over Cairo and national television stations in a way his opponents cannot begin to match. Voter registration was limited to those who had registered by December of last year, before the changes to the election law were announced; Egyptians who have renewed interest in the multi-candidate race cannot now register to vote. “The moderate majority never believed in the electoral process and is not registered to vote,” Abaza says.
In addition, opposition figures are not allowed to broadcast paid advertisements on television or accept donations from Egyptians abroad or foreigners. The Supreme Committee has decided international observers will not be allowed to monitor the election; past instances of ballot box-stuffing lead experts to doubt this election will be any different. Many candidates have already filed complaints with the election commission concerning irregularities in media coverage and the issuing of permits for rallies, Abaza says.
What is likely to happen in the upcoming parliamentary election?
Experts say opposition parties may make gains in the November parliamentary elections if they are run fairly. Candidates will vie for the 444 elected seats in the People’s Assembly (ten seats are appointed by the president). Some experts call these elections the real test of how serious Mubarak is about reforms. The parliamentary elections will be “a test case as to whether the opposition has unfettered access to the political arena,” Cook says. But Abaza says the same issues hampering the presidential poll will also affect the parliamentary one: Interested voters can’t register in time. Still, Abaza predicts the Wafd Party and Nour’s Ghad Party will both see gains in November.