Free, fair elections still distant prospect for Egypt

Tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators poured back into Tahrir Square on Tuesday as Egypt's would-be revolutionaries sought to break a standstill with the government in their bid to topple President Hosni Mubarak.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 9, 2011; 12:00 AM

CAIRO - As Egypt comes under pressure to hold free and fair elections, democracy activists are expressing growing doubts about whether a ballot slated for September is feasible, and fearing that it could set the country's reform movement back even further.

While millions of Egyptians have taken to the streets to clamor for freedom and the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, the country's pro-democracy forces have been so battered and marginalized by decades of repression that advocates say it would take many months - if not years - to lay the groundwork for open and credible elections.

In recent days, U.S. officials have also moved to highlight the risks inherent in staging elections too quickly. Their assessment has been at the heart of the Obama administration's decision to continue backing Mubarak as he clings to power.

Under Egypt's constitution, the country will be required to hold a presidential election within 60 days if Mubarak quits or is pushed out; only candidates handpicked by Mubarak's party would be eligible to run.

Many of those urging a speedier exit for Mubarak acknowledge that the country is not prepared for quick elections. Some of them support the idea of a transitional government that might take power soon and then wield power for as long as a year, putting off a presidential election until early 2012.

"I'm shocked by what the Americans say - that Mubarak must stay as president so we can prepare for new elections,'' said Negad El Borai, a human rights advocate and lawyer in Cairo. "Mubarak must leave, and then we can talk."

Borai said a caretaker president and prime minister should take over from Mubarak and oversee a coalition government, perhaps for as long as a year, until a proper election can be held.

But there is no guarantee that such a process would go smoothly in a country without democratic institutions. Elections staged last year in Afghanistan were widely viewed as flawed; in Iraq, talks to form a government dragged on for months after parliamentary balloting.

The last time Mubarak promised a fair election in Egypt, for a parliamentary vote in November, ballot boxes were stuffed, cash bribes were handed out, voters were menaced by thugs and international observers were banned from the country. Most of the opposition simply gave up, and Mubarak's party kept the parliament in a landslide.

"We need a new constitution and complete changes of the whole political scene," said Hala Mustafa, editor in chief of the Democracy Review, an academic journal and a rare independent voice in Egypt's political scene. Mubarak's ruling party and the handful of token opposition parties, she added, "should disappear, because they do not represent anyone."

Egypt has no laws governing campaign contributions and advertisements. Independent polling is also illegal, making it almost impossible to predict who would benefit if Egyptian voters were given a free choice.

"Nobody has a clue what anybody thinks or wants in this whole country," said one pro-democracy activist in Cairo, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

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