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Egypt's Election: A Democratic Change


Egypt's recently held presidential election marked the first time since Hosni Mubarak took power in 1981 that more than one candidate ran for that office. The election has empowered opposition forces that analysts say will further pressure the government for democratic reforms.

The outcome of Egypt's September 7th presidential election was never in doubt -- incumbent Hosni Mubarak won his fifth six-year term in office with more than 88% of the vote. But behind that overwhelming victory was a turnout of only 23%, largely because of a boycott by a number of opposition groups. The "Kifaya" or "enough" movement that has filled Egypt's streets with anti-government protestors did not field candidates, saying it considered the presidential election "politically false."

Michael Dunn, Editor of the Middle East Review at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says those groups felt the election rules were stacked against them. "Only the legal political parties could run candidates," he adds. "Some of the largest movements in the country, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, aren't legal political parties. Some of the most serious critics of Mubarak were not able to run simply because the government controls the major media. It's very, very difficult for the opposition to get its voice heard."

Ayman Nour, the Lead Opposition Figure

But one of Hosni Mubarak's opponents, Ayman Nour of the al-Ghad Party, was able to garner 7% of the presidential vote. This, despite being jailed and put on trial earlier this year on still-unresolved charges of forging election petition signatures. He was released in March.

Khairi Abaza, with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says Mr. Nour overcame a challenge from another opposition candidate, which the Mubarak government encouraged to run. "It is certain," he says "that the candidacy of Norman Gomaa weakened the chances of Ayman Nour, because both of them are liberal candidates. So, it weakened any attempt at having a sole opposition candidate in the presidential elections."

Opposition Parties Seek Percentages

Ayman Nour's 7% showing, according to Tamara Cofman-Wittes at The Brookings Institution in Washington, exceeds a critical threshold that will be vitally important in Egypt's next presidential race in 2011. "To run a candidate, a party will already have to have five percent of the seats in the lower house of parliament. That makes this fall's parliamentary elections, which will probably take place in November, very important for the future of democracy in Egypt."

Ms. Wittes says that out of the nine opposition parties that fielded presidential candidates, only two, the al-Ghad Party of Ayman Nour and Norman Gomaa's al-Waft Party, may have a clear chance of reaching that five percent threshold in November.

Election Transparency Still a Problem

Many observers say another element essential for Egyptian democracy is transparency, especially observation of the balloting by domestic and international third parties. Steven Cook, with the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says there was a reason why domestic and international observers were absent from the presidential election.

"There was a demand coming from Egyptian civil society organizations to observe the elections. However, the Supreme Presidential Election Committee said there wouldn't be any internal observation. The other question is: 'To what extent will the Egyptians [i.e., the government] allow international observers?' Thus far, they have not. And, they have said that they will not permit international observers."

Steven Cook says Egyptian authorities are strongly opposed to international observers out of a belief that their presence violates the country's sovereignty. But, he says, the controversy over observers in this past election may make it easier for such monitoring to take place in the upcoming parliamentary balloting.

Opposition to Press for Further Changes

For all of its shortcomings and charges of irregularities, the presidential election is still seen by many observers as a major leap forward for democracy in Egypt that will affect the November parliamentary elections and future contests. Michael Dunn at the Middle East Institute explains why:

"Whether it was fully intended or not, this election has created a new atmosphere for the opposition. They have campaigned in public. They have criticized the president in the main square of Cairo. They have been on state-owned television. They've experienced a campaign. They know a little bit more about how to run and how to get publicity."

Along with direct political reforms, many analysts and Egyptian opposition groups say another change Cairo must make is the lifting of the State of Emergency that has existed since 1981 in the wake of President Anwar Sadat's assassination. The State of Emergency has been used to prevent rallies and other forms of political expression.

Brookings Instution analyst Tamara Cofman-Wittes cautions that Egypt's advances, while representing real progress, are also very fragile. "All of the steps we have seen in Egypt over the past year have been at the initiative of the [Mubarak] regime and they can be easily reversed. So if there is to be any progress from where we are today to true accountable democracy, there needs to be continued pressure from inside and from outside."

A number of observers say Egypt's groundbreaking presidential vote, along with elections in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as voting by the Palestinian Authority, make 2005 a year of change in a region long known for autocracy. And for many, hopes are rising that this wave of political empowerment will provide the foundations for a new Middle East.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, “VOA News Now.” For other “Focus” reports, Click Here.

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