By: Haroon Siddiqui
We have had acres of newsprint and hours of broadcasts on the flawed elections in Haiti, a nation of 10 million, which has an understandable emotional hold on us but is of little geopolitical significance.
Yet we are not being informed of a far bigger electoral fraud in Egypt, the most populous Arab nation at 83 million, whose fate is inextricably linked to our strategic interests.
Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel and is a friend of the United States and Canada. Its biggest political opposition and grassroots movement, the Muslim Brotherhood — a sworn enemy of Israel and the U.S., and the political mentor of Hamas in Gaza — has just been wiped out in a national election.
Good news, no?
No, it’s very bad news.
Egypt is an authoritarian state rife with human rights violations and rigged elections. For the last 30 years, President Hosni Mubarak has been “elected” with massive majorities. Parliamentary elections are routinely pre-fixed as well.
Yet, even by Egyptian standards, the level of electoral fraud for Sunday’s election to the lower house of parliament was scandalous.
Reporting from Cairo recently, I wrote that the regime was about to end the Brotherhood’s status as the leading opposition bloc, with 88 seats, in the outgoing parliament.
The regime has, and how!
Not one of the 130 Brotherhood candidates was allowed to win in the first round. Even the liberal, secular Wafd party won only three of 508 seats.
Leading up to the election, the regime had barred judges from polling booths, transferring responsibility to its electoral commission. It prohibited foreign election monitors. It banned the media from live broadcasts. It arrested hundreds of Brotherhood supporters.
On voting day, armed plainclothes officials bullied scores of voters. Several polling booths were shut. Election observers, deputized by local human rights groups, were prevented from getting close. But the armed goons had full access, allegedly to stuff ballot boxes.
Voter turnout, usually around 25 per cent, was only 10 per cent of the 41 million registered voters. That was the estimate of a coalition of rights groups, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Egyptian Organization of Human Rights, Cairo Institute for Human Rights, Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, and others.
The government has ended even the pretense of a multi-party system, leaving the ruling National Democratic Party in command.
This is a sign of a paranoid regime, bent on controlling every aspect of an imminent transition from Mubarak, 82 and ailing, to his successor, perhaps his 47-year-old son Gamal, who is disliked by both the public as well as elements of the ruling clique.
It’s clear what lies ahead.
More Egyptians will lose hope for peaceful change (protests are already sweeping the country). The more radical elements of the Brotherhood will be strengthened, the regime weakened.
It is already widely seen as a clumsy client state of America. Receiving $2.2 billion a year, it has long played a double game: doing the American and Israeli bidding while also catering to widespread domestic anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiments.
It has done so partly by pretending to be more Islamic than the Muslim Brotherhood — obtaining favourable fatwas, religious rulings from official clerics, for its draconian policies; allowing the rapid growth of religious TV; playing up Mubarak’s visits to mosques at home and Mecca in Saudi Arabia; and so on.
All this has had the effect of aiding and abetting the transformation of what has essentially been a political protest into a religious one.
This is a game that secularists cannot win, as we have seen throughout the Muslim world. A democratic path, on the other hand, generally leads to religious parties doing well in one election and going steadily down after that. The best estimate of how well the Brotherhood might do in a free and fair election is 25 per cent of the electorate.
The regime is likely to go on playing its many double games while tightening the screws of martial law some more, even on secular dissidents.
This is a recipe for disaster, and not just for Egypt.
Yet Washington is only mildly “worried” and “disappointed” over what’s happening.
That’s about the same terminology that it had used back in the 1970s about Iran under the Shah. A revolution may or may not be brewing in Egypt but the danger signs are not all that difficult to read.