After Egypt's Vote, a Surge of Skepticism

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 11, 2005

CAIRO, Sept. 10 -- As the oilcloth campaign posters came down from Cairo street corners, Hayan Saad, whose husband has been jailed since 2003 despite court orders for his release, laughed out loud at the suggestion she might have gone to vote for President Hosni Mubarak.

"What? He is the source of our troubles," said Saad, who was draped in black from head to toe.

Mubarak's victory in Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential election was no surprise. He had 24 years experience in office, legions of campaign workers and effective control over the rules for the vote. But turnout was far lower than officials had expected, suggesting that talk of democracy had not captured the public's imagination. And listening to Saad and others, it was clear that Wednesday's election -- and much of the political agitation of the past year -- played out over the heads of workaday Egyptians.

Anti-Mubarak demonstrations involved mostly hard-core political activists, even as they began to attract wider attention. The wrangling over election rules was legalistic and resolved behind closed doors. Few opposition groups possess the kind of grass-roots network needed to reach poor Egyptians.

While the election focused on the highest level of government -- the presidency -- numerous undemocratic practices that affect Egyptians were out of play. Among them was the Emergency Law that has been in effect since 1981. The law not only inhibits political activity, forbids meetings of more than five people and bans anything that might stain Egypt's image, but also sanctions the kind of jailings that Saad and others are fighting against.

"What did the election do for us? Nothing," Saad said at the Lawyers' Syndicate building, where she and dozens of other women have squatted for three months to protest detentions they say are arbitrary and illegal.

Now that the presidential election is out of the way, Saad said, she harbors even less hope that her voice will be heard. "We took this opportunity to protest and we are happy to have it. But we can still be thrown out in the street any time. That's the way it is, and nothing about the elections changed that," she said.

Such skepticism is rooted partly in the contradictions and mixed signals that have riddled Egypt's year-long political opening. It is easy to find signs that democratic reform is imminent -- or indications that it is all a sham. Wednesday's vote was free of the blatant police intimidation, violence and ballot-box stuffing of past Egyptian parliamentary elections and referendums.

At the same time, the ruling National Democratic Party felt free to treat polling stations as its own territory, handing out pro-Mubarak propaganda, holding rallies and peering over the shoulders of voters. The government's unwillingness to announce results at each polling place led opposition officials to charge that the final outcome was sculpted by the election commission. Mubarak won 88 percent of the vote.

The 19-day campaign was free of violence, yet in the preceding months, opposition rallies were hemmed in by heavy police cordons and harassed by mobs of ruffians organized by the ruling party. Arrests of opposition activists were common; about 70 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the large Islamic group that is banned from political activity, remain in jail after a roundup following the organization's decision last spring to take part in the anti-Mubarak drive. One leading presidential aspirant, Ayman Nour, faces charges of forging official documents, even though the government's chief witness in the case says he was forced to make the accusations under threats of harm to his family.

The question of which Egypt will prevail -- the 50-year-old police state or the newest home of democracy -- is much on the minds of Egyptians. A common pro-Mubarak refrain was sounded by Fatima Salama, a voter interviewed on election day: "We should be happy that Mubarak will be president. He has led us safely." Tarek Abdel Aziz, a tour guide, summed up the view of nonvoters. "Mubarak is just a dictator," he said.

Saad says she leans toward the skeptical side. "We have protested, but nothing has happened," she said in the courtyard of the Lawyers' Syndicate, Egypt's bar association.

Saad's husband, Metwalli Ibrahim, was arrested in May 2003 as he was making a phone call near the house of the interior minister. Saad says her husband didn't know the house was nearby. "He wore a beard. That was enough to mark him as a radical," she said.

Ibrahim was a researcher at Cairo's al-Azhar University, a leading seat of Sunni Muslim scholarship. When he was arrested, he was carrying research he had done into statements attributed to the prophet Muhammad. Ibrahim asserted that Muhammad did not order Muslims to kill apostates and did not forbid Muslim women to marry Jews or Christians. What might be seen as an argument for religious tolerance became, in the eyes of Egyptian prosecutors, blasphemy. Ibrahim was charged with "contempt for the Islamic religion."

After an investigation, prosecutors ordered him released in October 2003, but the Interior Ministry detained him under the Emergency Law. The ministry then ignored five separate orders for his release issued by the Supreme State Security Emergency Court, which is in charge of such cases. Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent human rights watchdog, said Ibrahim was being jailed "simply for exercising his rights to free belief and expression."

Saad said she traveled to Wadi Gadid prison to visit her husband but was not allowed to see him. He went on a hunger strike and is currently hospitalized and being fed intravenously. Saad remains at the Lawyers' Syndicate, bolstered by the presence of Suheila, her 14-year-old daughter, who campaigns with her. "She has become an accomplished leader of chants," Saad said. "She will never chant for Mubarak."

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Mahmoud Fishawy, declined to comment on the case. Shortly after a Washington Post reporter's visit to the Lawyers' Syndicate, a state security official called his interpreter to inquire about the visit with Saad. Someone had informed the ministry about the interview and he just wanted to know, he said.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company