President Hosni Mubarak won a fifth term in Egypt’s first multi-candidate elections last week. The electoral commission reported that he captured 88 % of the vote but that only 23 % of Egyptian voters had cast their ballots.
Egyptian journalist Mona Etahawy, columnist for the London-based pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, covered the presidential election from Cairo. Speaking with Judith Latham, host of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Eltahawy said the real surprise was that the electoral commission acknowledged such a low turnout, seeming to suggest that government was constrained by international attention to last Sunday’s elections. Mona Eltahawy said it is imperative that the United States and other nations hold President Mubarak to his campaign promise to repeal Egypt’s emergency laws, in effect since 1981, which prohibit demonstrations by opposition political parties. She described that promise as being at the heart of “any opening up of the political space” in Egypt, and she noted that 3,000 people participated in an Election Day demonstration, ten times the number of a similar opposition demonstration in June.
Mona Eltahawy also noted that the Muslim Brotherhood, considered by many to be Egypt’s largest opposition group, was not on the presidential ballot last week. Despite serious misgivings about the Muslim Brotherhood’s position on shari’a, or Islamic law, on women, and on religious minorities, Ms. Eltahawy said she believes there cannot be “real democracy” in Egypt unless everyone, including the Islamists, is included. But it is the possibility that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood could gain power that worries Nathan Guttman, Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. He said Israel is in a dilemma because President Mubarak has played a key role in the Middle East peace process. On the other hand, Israel supports President Bush’s policy of promoting democracy in the Arab world. According to Mr. Guttman, it would be “bad news” for Israel – as it would for the United States – if “true democratic reform” resulted in a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egyptian journalist Khalid Dawoud, Washington correspondent for Al-Ahram international newspaper, described Egypt’s first multi-party presidential elections as a “hopeful sign.” He said he was looking forward to a “real debate” before Egypt’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for November, which in turn may help determine whether the 2011 presidential race will be genuinely democratic. Mr. Dawoud said he is encouraged by the Bush administration’s determination to see more reforms in Egypt. He agreed with Mona Eltahawy that the recent political demonstrations have broken the “barrier of fear” among the Egyptian opposition.
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