The running joke in Egypt these days–about the doctors who congratulate themselves on a successful operation, even though the patient died–isn’t new, but the parliamentary elections have given it a new twist.
A review of election day events reveals that what happened was not simply widespread rigging, but the biggest act of organized political corruption seen in Egypt’s modern history. The ruling National Democratic Party’s (NDP) overwhelming electoral victory was orchestrated at the highest levels of government in an act of massive political manipulation.
The plan was implemented through a number of institutions, including the High Elections Commission (HEC), the Ministries of Interior, Justice, Information, Foreign Affairs, and Social Solidarity, and the state-dominated National Council for Human Rights (NCHR), along with state intellectuals and media outlets.
But some of the most egregious violations that took place are bound to have longer-term consequences, intended or not.
The first round of elections has produced a single-party Nasserist-style parliament similar to that which existed before President Anwar al-Sadat allowed for multi-party elections in 1976 (though Sadat’s version of political pluralism was severely constrained by the heavy boot of authoritarianism). The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) won 96.5 percent of seats in the first round, with opposition parties taking anywhere from zero to two seats. As a result, the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood have withdrawn from the run-off stage, and the Tagammu Party is on the verge of splintering.
The electoral slaughter of the opposition in such a scandalous manner will most certainly serve to revive radical political trends and violent tendencies, both in and out of official parties and political groups, and especially among Islamists.
Several human rights organizations had warned early on that the government had no intention of holding free, fair and transparent elections. A press release issued by the Forum of Independent Human Rights Organizations on 9 November predicted the elections would be totally corrupt. A few days later, the Independent Coalition for Election Observation said that election fraud had already begun, well before the 28 November voting day.
A brigade of state-backed writers and journalists began attacking all potential enemies–particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, human rights groups, or any international voices that were critical of the process. This group denied most cases of abuse or rights violations, and they ascribed any seeming irregularities to the shortcomings of individual candidates rather than the party leadership.
Two months before the elections, Egypt witnessed a systematic state campaign to restrict media freedom. The campaign sought to efface the elections from the media entirely by placing live coverage of events in the hands of the Ministry of Information, and launching a series of attacks on prominent media figures, talk shows and satellite channels. This fostered a climate of fear that severely limited election coverage and encouraged media outlets to avoid politically controversial or sensitive issues.
One day before elections, the chair of media monitoring committee formed by the Ministry of Information boasted that the media’s election coverage was much tamer than in the 2005 elections. On election day itself, most satellite channels were unable to broadcast live without government control and the ones that tried had their transmissions cut several times.
Rule of Law
At the same time, the NGO directorate at the Foreign Ministry warned representatives of human rights groups resident in Cairo to be cautious in their activities and abstain from taking public stances critical of the elections. NGOs who failed to heed these warnings were told their applications for official recognition, still pending after many years, would be rejected and their representatives deported.
When the official period for candidate registration began, governorate-level security offices rejected the applications of dozens of would-be candidates without cause. The disqualified nominees turned to the Supreme Administrative Court for redress, and managed to secure hundreds of rulings in their favor. But the HEC refused to implement the court orders, despite a verdict obliging it to do so, while the Interior Ministry appealed the rulings before civil and summary procedures courts with no legal jurisdiction over the matter, simply as a stalling measure.
And so the new parliament has been born in the shadow of illegitimacy, as hundreds of court rulings have been ignored by state institutions whose primary task is to enforce the law. Some observers say this is the most litigation ever to accompany the election of a new parliament in Egypt.
Faced with pressure to allow international election monitors, the Egyptian government and NCHR insisted that foreign observers are unnecessary given the presence of monitors from Egyptian civil society groups. In the end, the NCHR received most of the monitor permits (6,130), which they distributed to dozens of charitable and development organizations, many with no experience in election supervision. Rights groups received some 10 percent of their requested permits, and the Independent Coalition for Election Monitoring did not receive a single one.
Thus, the government rejected international observers, while the Interior Ministry chose which internal observers are worthy of permits. The ministry rejected an EU contract to fund the Independent Coalition for Election Observation. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Social Solidarity signed the rejection letter and the HEC chairperson publicly announced that organizations who claim they received no permits “are lying”!
The same happened with delegates tasked with overseeing the voting process on behalf of their candidate. Up until the election day, no authorized delegates of non-NDP candidates had received permits allowing them to be present inside polling stations. Meanwhile, police stations had granted permits to NDP candidates’ delegates two days prior to elections. And of course, judicial monitors were carefully selected by the Interior Ministry without consulting the General Assembly of the Courts as stipulated by the law.
The NDP's Future Path
So where does the NDP go from here, in the wake of the most pervasively rigged elections the country has seen.
The NDP did not only falsify votes on behalf of its own candidates–it also helped out a few select opposition candidates. This enabled some opposition members to win or, at least, have a chance in the run-offs. But the majority was completely shut out. With the withdrawal of the two largest electoral opposition forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Wafd, the regime has effectively created with a parliament rid of any real opponents.
While some observers see this election as an absolute victory for the NDP, the result does create a peculiar dilemma for next year’s presidential race. Egyptian law requires parties fielding a presidential candidate to hold at least one seat in parliament. One of the NDP’s most important, though unstated, objectives in these parliamentary elections was to ensure a very limited number of victories for opposition candidates, such that opposition parties would be legally entitled to compete in next year’s presidential race. Such an outcome is necessary to avoid a scenario where the presidential vote appears as no more than a referendum over the NDP’s candidate of choice. But the withdrawal of Egypt’s most significant opposition forces due to massive levels of fraud effectively bars them from competing for the country’s highest office in 2011.
It seems fraud has its consequences and the NDP may potentially face a political blowback.
Bahey Eldin Hassan is director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. His column appears every Monday.