Egypt's Elections and Pantomime Democracy

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Amr Abdallah Dalsh / REUTERS

A man walks past electoral banners for Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) showing Egypt's President and head of the ruling NDP Hosni Mubarak (R), his son and NDP deputy head Gamal Mubarak (L) and NDP politician and candidate Ayman Salah Mekled (C) in Cairo November 22, 2010.

Abdel Monem Bakhit is out to win. And in Khalifa district in eastern Cairo, where scores of shiny, modern campaign banners ring medieval mosques and fortresses from an earlier era, the competition is fierce. "Khalifa is now facing a vicious campaign full of money and bullying," Bakhit bellows into a microphone before a crowd of supporters on Tuesday night. His opponent — "the wolf from Moqattam" — is a corrupt businessman, he claims; he doesn't care about the people, and he's buying votes across the district in an effort to gain parliamentary immunity. The hundreds of people who have filled the narrow alleyway behind Ibn Tulun mosque thunder back with drumbeats and chants. "Tell this man who has been buying votes to be afraid of the sons of Khalifa and afraid of God," a supporter shouts into the same microphone. "Tell him we don't want your money. We want Abdel Monem Bakhit!"

Across town, in the Moqattam office of his medical equipment supply business, the opponent, Mokhtar Rashad, says confidently that he'll be the one to win this race. He, too, has been working around the clock, he adds, and Bakhit is full of lies. In Nafoora Square, high banners for Rashad stare directly back at banners for Bakhit across an equally aggressive tangle of traffic.

Indeed, for a country lurching toward parliamentary polls on Nov. 28, under the strains of a repressive police state and the nearly 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak, the competition brewing in Cairo's streets this week might seem like a promising step toward democracy.

But here's the catch: Bakhit and Rashad are both candidates for the ruling National Democratic Party. And, no, this isn't the primary. When Egyptians go to the polls on Sunday, there will be more than 800 NDP candidates on the ballot — for a total of 508 seats. For government officials, the crowd of possibilities (forget the non-NDP opposition) is a sign of a true democracy. For others, it's another sign of democracy being counterfeited, where real parties — even the one that rules — are an illusion, and where power and resources — not platform — are the ties that bind. "If you are ambitious and you want to get something — a job or part of the cake — or even defend what you have, you have to be with the state," says Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. For most wannabe members of parliament out there, it doesn't matter what your politics are, he says, "because nobody believes that there is a multi-party system and you can choose and move easily."

Aside from keeping candidates happy, this year's extra-long ballot list also involves a clever calculation on the part of the regime, NDP members and analysts say. In 2005, many of the parliamentary candidates who sought but failed to get official NDP backing ran as independents — and won. Faced with a minority win after the election, the NDP was forced to absorb its rogue independents back into the party. "They didn't want a repeat of that public embarrassment this year," says Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The result is that a lot more people made the cut. "They realize it is all about powerful families and local or tribal leaders competing for power, and for parliamentary immunity. This way, they can pretend that the people have spoken. They will allow everyone to run and it's a win-win situation for them."

Of course no one expects Sunday's election to be fair or even functionally democratic anyway. Ballot stuffing, opposition arrests and voter intimidation are de rigueur in Mubarak's Egypt. And the usual round-up of the banned Islamist Muslim Brotherhood — which won the largest opposition bloc with its adherents running as independents in the 2005 race — is already well underway. The group says more than 1,000 of its members have been arrested in the past two months alone. And part of the reason there's a flood of NDP candidates this time around, NDP members say, is to put up an additional front — in the form of expanded choices — to the ever-popular Brotherhood. "Normally the NDP nominates candidates that the people don't want, and that's why people go to the Muslim Brotherhood members," explains one of Bakhit's supporters. "Step by step, the government is trying to demolish them."

Still, observers marvel that the regime may have outdone itself with creativity this election season: becoming better at veiling the NDP's lack of a party identity; better at masking government repression with simultaneous reforms; and better at mimicking what a democracy is supposed to look like. "This is a regime that has grown remarkably sophisticated about repression," says Bahgat. "And I believe they've learned quite a bit from the Bush years — managing Bush's freedom agenda." (Egyptian intellectuals credit the Bush Administration with pressuring Mubarak into holding a multiple-candidate presidential race in 2005, including a freer space and more breathing room.)

That means that rather than pass broadly restrictive new legislation to curb freedom of the press — and draw harsh international criticism — ahead of elections, the state has opted for something more subtle, more targeted, Bahgat says. It canceled a popular talk show and fired a vocal opposition newspaper editor. "That's enough for all the other talk shows to get in line," he says. "Enough to unleash the right amount of self-censorship." It restricted mass SMS capabilities, and it issued a permit requirement for every instance a satellite network wants to broadcast live. "In 2005, you could turn on Al-Jazeera on election day, and watch election fraud as it happened, the beating of demonstrators as it happened," says Bahgat. That won't happen this year.

The state has also upheld a 2007 constitutional amendment that did away with judicial oversight, replacing it with a High Electoral Commission that critics say is neither impartial nor particularly effective. And the government has resolutely rejected calls for international election monitors. Still, the state-run National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), which is housed in the same compound as the ruling party headquarters, boasts that it has a sophisticated new system to ensure a free and fair vote. The set-up includes a "situation room" to receive and channel complaints, "mobile units" to respond, and an expected 6,000 domestic monitors to watch the polls.

Then again, if the only real competition this year is ruling party versus ruling party, none of the new infrastructure may be necessary. "My biggest competition is the other NDP candidate," says Al-Hag Magdy, an NDP candidate in Cairo's central Sayyeda Zeinab neighborhood. "Hopefully, Sunday night or Monday morning, he'll be congratulating me."