Camilla Hall

November’s ruling by the Egyptian Court of Cassation revealed electoral fraud in various constituencies during the 2oo5 Egyptian parliamentary elections. The ruling has re-ignited the debate over the elections’ legitimacy. If, as the Court recommends, the results are annulled, the National Democratic Party (NDP) majority could be in jeopardy.

The most blatant signs of vote-rigging and electoral fraud were seen in the presidential elections on 7 September 2oo5, Egypt’s first contested presidential elections. A year on, it is now clear that the real battle that took place on 7 September was not between President Hosni Mubarak and the now imprisoned Ayman Nour (Ghad Party) or Noman Gomaa (Wafd Party) but between the regime and Egyptian civil society.

“It was at this point that the contest shifted, and was no longer between the 77-year old incumbent and his other rivals, but between the Mubarak regime and Egypt’s civil society,” said Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a famous Egyptian human rights activist. The weakness of an official secular opposition, timed with the access of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to foreign funding, meant that the real battle for democratisation was between Egyptian NGO ‘monitors’ and Mubarak’s corrupt regime.

With the support of foreign agencies such as the US government-affiliated National Democratic Institute (NDI), International Republican Institute (IRI) and the most generous donor, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Egyptian NGOs were pumped with dollars to act as ‘independent’ monitors for the elections. These international NGO bankrollers ignored the regime’s calls to ban international and domestic monitors. The ‘monitoring process’ gave these US agencies an open invitation to observe Egypt’s political climate and pay lip service to limiting Mubarak’s authoritarianism.

The US has so far shown an inconsistent policy towards promoting ‘democracy’ in Egypt. The Bush administration is simultaneously funding the monitoring of the elections and underpinning Mubarak’s oppressive regime. The US’ phoney commitment to forwarding democracy in Egypt is laughable. Compare Washington’s funding of Egyptian election monitors with the amount of money received in loans and in kind by Mubarak. As a key Middle East ally since the signing of Camp David, Egypt receives the most US funding after Israel. The loss of Mubarak and the democratisation of Egypt would signal an end to any US/Egyptian alliance – a price too high to pay in the name of democracy. What Washington really wants is a democratic, pro-US government in Egypt. The problem is that this is not conducive to the democratic process. Genuine democracy would most probably result in the election of the Muslim Brotherhood, the last opposition group the US want to see in power.

Nonetheless, some Egyptian NGOs were more than happy to rise to the challenge of monitoring the elections and enjoy this free-flowing funding. Three NGO alliances, made up of established human rights groups, were formed alongside a new body, Shayfeencom. The election ‘monitors’ promised a neutral monitoring service but in reality they launched a political attack on the Mubarak regime and another battle in the war between Cairo’s civil society and the NDP government. One could ask why the NGOs failed to unite and form one strong monitoring team. The reason for this is not sheer logistics. The three ‘neutral’ NGO alliances all hold different political stances. Muhammad Zarea’s National Campaign for Election Monitoring would not ally with Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s Independent Commission for Election Monitoring, fearing political association with the extreme Leftist NGOs within Zarea’s group.

These election monitors, with the foreign funding they were receiving, were able to attract far more press attention than the opposition parties who lacked the same charisma and enthusiasm. For the first time, Egypt’s civil society had easy access to the international arena, and the international press could finally hear something other than the official line. During the short campaigning session, these NGOs were met by inconsistent statements from the regime, permitting and then disallowing monitoring, in an attempt to make their work as difficult as possible. On election day, many monitors were forcibly forbidden from entering polling stations, some were kidnapped and others arrested as their work was deemed a threat to the regime. On election day, I saw the will for democratic change in the faces of the monitors, not the will to observe an election. With the clear danger of opposition politics highlighted by the imprisonment of both Noman Gomaa and Ayman Nour, the secular opposition look to NGOs to provide a freer political platform.

What was seen in September 2oo5 and what followed in the parliamentary elections was a powerful call for democracy, not from the Wafd or Ghad Parties but from these advocacy NGOs, the strongest secular opposition in Egypt. Civil society is powerful, in contrast to the official political opposition, but still too weak to take on the regime. Despite generous foreign funding, civil society’s optimism for real political change in Egypt is unfounded, without sincere pressure from the US, Mubarak’s regime will not die before he does.

CAMILLA HALL is a member of the Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She has written for Reuters and the Khaleej Times.


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