A democratic first

Published : Oct 07, 2005 00:00 IST

President Hosni Mubarak speaks at a campaign meeting in Cario. - NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY/HANDOUT/REUTERS

President Hosni Mubarak speaks at a campaign meeting in Cario. - NATIONAL DEMOCRATIC PARTY/HANDOUT/REUTERS

Hosni Mubarak secures Egypt's first democratically elected presidency, but poor voter turnout prompts Opposition parties to question his legitimacy.

PREDICTABLY, Hosni Mubarak won the presidential election that was held on September 7. Already President for 24 years, he will now be at the helm of affairs in Egypt for another six years. Mubarak won 88.571 per cent of the vote in the country's first multi-candidate election. The second place went to Ayman Nour of the Al-Ghad party, with 7.3 per cent of the vote. The other main Opposition candidate, Nouman Gomaa of the Wafd party, received 2.8 per cent.

Despite the wide victory margin, the election exposed turbulent undercurrents, which could threaten Egypt's iron-clad stability in the future. Most significantly, the voter turnout has become an issue; out of Egypt's 32 million-strong electorate, only 23 per cent came out to vote. Egypt's total population, the highest in the Arab world is around 70 million; the 6.3 million people who voted for Mubarak represent less than 10 per cent. Independent poll monitors and Opposition parties have said that the turnout was infact even lower. The Ibn Khaldun Centre, which sent around 2,200 monitors across the country, claimed that only 18 per cent had voted. The Wafd party estimated that the turnout was a mere 15 per cent.

The poor voter turnout has raised serious questions about the legitimacy of Mubarak's new government. Some commentators have said that the low polling signalled that the majority boycotted the election. According to them, it should therefore be read as a statement of "no confidence" for Mubarak's government. Others, however, while acknowledging the low turnout, point out that the fairness of the poll cannot be seriously doubted despite accusations by Opposition parties that polling irregularities occurred. For instance, all candidates were given equal time to make their case over television. Furthermore, the government also did not manipulate the turnout figures, which it could have done, in order to boost its legitimacy.

The low turnout was partly because several Opposition movements, such as the Marxist Tagammu, the Nasserist party and Kefaya (an anti-Mubarak) group had campaigned for a boycott. However, to a great extent it was because of the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, a key Islamic movement that is known to have a wide popular base, entering the contest.

The Muslim Brotherhood has played a major role in politics since its founding in 1928 by Hassan Al-Banna, a schoolteacher. The movement aimed at promoting social renewal based on Islamic principles, but soon began to confront British imperial rule. Consequently, it was at the forefront of the Egyptian nationalist movement, championing the cause of the disenfranchised masses. In its initial phase this movement was mainly non-violent, though a military wing was secretly formed under the influence of its younger members. Al-Banna was assassinated in 1949, as the Egyptian elite began to feel threatened by the organisation's growing mass base. The movement supported the 1952 overthrow of the monarchy, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, but soon it fell out with the Nasserites as the new regime refused to share power or abolish martial law.

In 1954 the organisation began to face a savage crackdown and was banned after its military wing was accused of plotting Nasser's assassination. Faced with the repression, the movement began to espouse the cause of a violent revolution under the influence of Sayyid Qutb, who was later sentenced to death in 1966. Since then, the Brotherhood has endorsed a reformist strategy - a move that has allowed it to participate in mainstream politics intermittently.

The organisation's entry into mainstream politics began under the rule of Anwar el-Sadat, Nasser's successor, when some of its key members were released from prison. It got a new lease of life when a popular Islamic student activist movement joined it, allowing it to participate in local elections and professional bodies. This enhanced its political profile considerably and expanded its influence, prompting a crackdown by Mubarak's regime in the 1980s. Nevertheless, until now the movement has been `tolerated' and has showed up strongly in a number of parliamentary elections. During the recent presidential election, its members participated in pro-democracy demonstrations along with cadre of the Kefaya movement. As the campaign began to gather momentum, Opposition candidates Ayman Nour and Nouman Gomaa visited the Brotherhood headquarters seeking support. The movement's representatives, however, refrained from backing any particular candidate, and did not call for a poll boycott.

The organisation's ambiguous behaviour has been a source of speculation in Egyptian political circles. There have been rumours that the Brotherhood made a deal with Mubarak not to endorse a particular candidate, so that votes could be divided, in return for the release of its jailed members. Some analysts say that the Brotherhood has stepped back to evaluate the political situation so that it can prepare better for the forthcoming parliamentary polls in November that it is likely to contest.

Egypt's elections and its domestic fallout have caught international attention because of a notable rise in Islamic extremism inside its borders. On July 23, suicide bombers killed 64 people in a string of attacks at the Egyptian resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh. The semi-official Egyptian daily Al-Ahram claimed that the bombers travelled from the north Sinai town of El Arish to carry out the attacks, but declined to suggest that they had international links. El Arish, a town on Mediterranean coast, has been the focus of investigations since October 2004, when a suicide car bomber ploughed his explosive-laden vehicle into a hotel, bringing down 10 storeys on one side of the building. Tourists on two beaches further to the south were also attacked. Several Israeli tourists were killed in the strikes, which Egyptian authorities said were planned and carried out by Iyad Saeed, a Palestinian, and other residents of the city. Unlike Egypt, which discounted broader international links, the Israeli government said its citizens were the target of "an international terror attack with the hallmark of Al Qaeda."

The possible increase in Al Qaeda's influence in Egypt has sent alarm bells ringing worldwide, on account of the country's strategic location. First, Egypt connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez with the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal. Oil tankers bound for Europe and the United States comprise nearly 25 per cent of the shipping through the Suez Canal. In 2003, about 2,800 oil tankers passed through the Suez Canal carrying 1.3 million barrels of oil per day.

Second, the Sumed oil pipeline, a crucial oil artery for north-bound oil, passes through Egyptian soil. The pipeline, with a capacity of about 2.5 million barrels a day, links the Ain Sukhna terminal on the Gulf of Suez with Sidi Kerir on the Mediterranean.

The Arab Petroleum Pipeline Company, a joint venture of oil companies of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar, owns the Sumed pipeline complex. It has been operating since January 1977, and has served as an alternative to the Suez Canal for transportation of loads from tankers that are too large to pass fully laden through the canal. Closure of the Suez Canal or Sumed Pipeline would divert tankers around the southern tip of Africa across the Cape of Good Hope, adding greatly to transit time and effectively tying up tanker capacity.

Despite all its flaws, the Wafd party hailed the presidential vote as the birth of democracy in Egypt. Joseph Samaha, the editor-in-chief of the As Safir daily, pointed out in his column that the election had been marred by "the bias of the state apparatus, the unfairness of the election commission, rigging and mistakes." He, however, acknowledged that, "there is no way to deny the importance of the event."

The Mubarak regime's commitment to democracy will now be tested during the parliamentary elections in November where a larger mobilisation of voters is expected.

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