Egypt's Ugly Election

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Saturday, December 10, 2005

THE LAST DAYS of Egypt's month-long parliamentary election were shameful. Government security forces and gangs of thugs from the ruling National Democratic Party blockaded access to dozens of polling sites where opposition candidates were strong. In several cases they opened fire on citizens who tried to vote; 10 people were reported killed. Inside the election stations, government appointees blatantly stuffed ballot boxes in full view of judicial monitors. In some districts, they ignored court orders seeking to prevent them from buying votes or busing in nonresidents to defeat opposition candidates.

President Hosni Mubarak, who received a new six-year mandate in another unfair election in September, used such fraud last month to take away the parliamentary seat of Egypt's foremost liberal democrat, Ayman Nour, who was the runner-up in the presidential election. This week a Cairo judge known for his closeness to Mr. Mubarak ordered Mr. Nour jailed before a session today of his trial on bogus charges of forgery. Several months ago Mr. Nour's principal accuser recanted in court, saying he had been forced by state security police to fabricate his allegations. Yet there appears to be a good chance that Mr. Nour will be declared guilty -- moving the leader of Mr. Mubarak's secular democratic opposition from parliament to prison.

But these are not the only results of an Egyptian election that may well be remembered as a watershed. In the early part of the campaign, Mr. Mubarak conspicuously relaxed police pressure on the banned Muslim Brotherhood, allowing some 140 of its candidates to campaign openly under the slogan "Islam Is the Solution," even as liberal democrats such as Mr. Nour were ruthlessly bullied. The result was an electoral result that shocked and panicked the government: The Islamists captured up to 40 percent of the votes cast and elected 60 percent of their candidates. Despite the widespread fraud and brutality in the final days of voting, the Muslim Brotherhood was left with 20 percent of the seats in parliament, a fivefold increase.

Egypt's rapidly growing independent civil society, meanwhile, rose up to denounce Mr. Mubarak's betrayal of his promise of free and fair elections. A coalition of monitoring groups issued detailed reports about the voting irregularities and violence, and the association of judges that was charged with supervising the vote called for the interior minister's resignation. Forty-four prominent citizens, including leading journalists and intellectuals, issued a statement declaring that "the fraud may lead to a collapse in the legitimacy of the state and the current regime."

Eager to believe Mr. Mubarak's promises that he will lead a gradual democratization of Egypt, the Bush administration has been slow to react to these remarkable events. Last week the State Department issued a foolish statement saying that there was no "indication that the Egyptian government isn't interested in having peaceful, free and fair elections." This week it corrected itself, saying there were "serious concerns about the path of political reform in Egypt." But the administration's next steps will be crucial: Will it support the legalization of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has renounced violence and endorsed democracy -- and which has proven it has the support of millions of Egyptians? Will it demand freedom for Ayman Nour and support the independent civic movement that has demanded genuine political reform? Will Mr. Mubarak's behavior be linked to the $1.8 billion in annual U.S. aid Egypt receives? Egyptians will now see if Mr. Bush is serious about defending the cause of freedom in the center of the Middle East.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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