Saturday, November 27, 2010

Egypt: On the Eve of Elections

Gameela Ismail campaigning before elections
Tomorrow Egypt will hold parliamentary elections. The world is watching and the government is ready. Reports of irregularities are already making local and international news. Everyone wonders what will happen - will the opposition win any seats? What about the Muslim Brotherhood? Perhaps most importantly: will the vote be fair?

It's important for observers to realize what appears on Egypt's surface and what happens under it are two entirely different things.

One of the best pieces of advice I received back when I was doing research for a capstone thesis on current Egyptian politics was to try to be as Egyptian as possible when looking at what was happening around me. It sounds simple, but it is both difficult and vitally important. It's like looking at an orange and breaking it open to find an onion.

Here are a few quick facts about Egyptian politics:
  1. Egypt is a dictatorship. Egypt's 82-year-old president, Hosni Mubarak, has held the position for thirty years.  This makes him Egypt's third-longest ruler ever, including the pharaohs of old. One way Mubarak holds onto his power is through the army. Egypt has lived under Emergency Law - essentially military rule - since Anwar Sadat was assassinated thirty years ago.
  2. Egypt does not have a pluralistic political system. Many outsiders look at Egyptians politics, see the names of many political parties, and come to the conclusion that there is a vibrant, pluralistic political life. In reality, nearly all of Egypt's "opposition" parties have deals with the government whereby they act like opposition for the media in return for certain political or other benefits.
  3. Egyptian elections are neither free nor fair. Egyptians know this. It contributes to the extreme apathy most Egyptians feel. Additionally, Egyptian politicians buy votes. Outright. Egyptians know this as well, and some even call candidates to find out who will pay the most for their vote.
  4. Egyptians are terrified of their government. There are exceptions of course, but many Egyptians would literally start shaking in their boots if someone confronted them with criticism of the government. They whisper that there is always someone listening - and usually, they're right.
Gearing up for tomorrow's elections, the regime has already made it difficult for candidates or observers to expect a fair race. In 2005, the elections were spread out over a period of time to ensure each polling station would be overseen by a judge. This year, all the elections will take place in one day - meaning there is no possible way for judicial oversight.

Secondly, the government waited until a month before the election to announce its official date. It also stipulated that campaigning would only be permitted starting fourteen days before the election. The campaign period was strategically scheduled during a major, week-long Islamic holiday.

More recently, the government has stated that journalists will need special passes to report on the elections and that Egyptian civil society has the right to observe the elections, but not the right to monitor them.

Getting around the restrictions
There is always an exception to the rule. In the case of this year's parliamentary elections, that exception may well be independent candidate Gameela Ismail (for more about Gameela, check out my earlier post about campaigning with her).

"I am outside the regime's calculations," Gameela told me a few weeks ago, just after she had submitted her papers to run for parliament in Qasr el-Nil, a strategic district in downtown Cairo. To outsiders, it may seem impossible an impossible battle.

Yet Gameela may have exactly what it takes to get around the regime's restrictions. Gameela has battled Egyptian State Security for years and knows exactly what it is capable of.

The combination of Gameela's knowledge of State Security's tricks and their strong desire to keep her at arm's length could serve her well in Sunday's polls. Gameela knows how to deal with State Security and State Security knows better than to make her mad. She'll sit in their offices or keep them standing in the street until she gets what she wants - I've witnessed both tactics.

Over the past few days, many independent and opposition candidates have found their petitions to have representatives in the polling stations on Election Day denied outright. Gameela had a day-long verbal battle with State Security in Qasr el-Nil, but at the end of the day she got what she wanted: permission for her representatives to be in the polling stations.

(Representatives are allowed to remain inside the polling stations to keep an eye on the ballot boxes and watch for irregularities.)

Will it be enough to win her the election? Maybe not, but she has a fighting chance.

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