The Obama administration is “disappointed” by Egypt’s parliamentary elections, citing “numerous reported irregularities” in Sunday’s poll.
While the results have yet to be confirmed, analysts fear that the regime’s determination to quash the opposition Muslim Brotherhood may provoke potentially violent radicalization.
National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer described reports of electoral fraud and “restrictions on basic freedoms” as “worrying.”
“We are disappointed by reports in the pre-election period of disruption of campaign activities of opposition candidates and arrests of their supporters,” said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley.
Given that the results were predetermined, some analysts suggested that the U.S. reaction was the only unpredictable aspect of the poll. Some suggest the administration’s response is couched in “reasonably strong diplomatic language, especially when criticizing an ally.”
The regime banned international observers and impeded domestic civil society groups trying to monitor the poll. The judiciary was also barred from monitoring the poll, but some judges today questioned the integrity of the vote.
President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party seems set to dominate the new parliament. The elections produced “an assembly without opposition,” said the independent daily Al-Shuruk.
Former presidential candidate Ayman Nour dismissed the election as “a scandal,” and asked citizens to reject the results. Most of his liberal Ghad party boycotted the poll, but a breakaway faction contested some seats.
The pro-government daily Al-Ahram reports that the NDP won more than 170 of 508 parliamentary seats from Sunday’s first round. The Muslim Brotherhood held 20 percent of seats in the outgoing assembly, but may be left without a single seat. The group is likely to withdraw from next Sunday’s second round of voting.
The regime’s strategy of marginalizing the Islamists threatens to bolster radical, potentially violent elements hostile to engaging in the political process (as some analysts have cautioned).
“The current government policy is essentially quite dangerous and may ultimately backfire,” according to analyst Sara Hassan. “A younger more radicalized generation of Islamists allied with the group’s hardliners may question this strategy [of political engagement] and in their frustration seek other options”.
While the Brotherhood is committed to establishing an Islamist state, based on sharia law, it has formally rejected terrorism, although recent statements from the leadership suggest an ambivalent approach to political violence.
The movement’s Supreme Guide recently declared that “the improvement and change that the [Muslim] nation seeks can only be attained through jihad and sacrifice and by raising a jihadi generation that pursues death just as our enemies pursue life.”
Others believe the regime’s electoral engineering to minimize the opposition’s profile reflects its sense of insecurity about the forthcoming presidential succession in the face of underlying social turmoil, including violence against the minority Christian Copts and growing labor militancy.
The rigging “should not be seen as a consolidation of power, but a reaction to the increased sub-terrain of discontent,” according to Barak Seener of London’s Royal United Services Institute.
“These election results indicate that the regime is frightened about the impending transition, and they’re not in the mood to take any chances over their own survival,” said Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.
“Previously, Egypt’s level of political repression was never at the level of Syria, Tunisia or Iraq; it was always careful to retain some superficial democratic trappings,’ he said. “But now the government is sending a strong message that opposition will not be tolerated.”
The Brotherhood’s internal leadership elections and policy debates have seen pronounced clashes between reformist advocates of political engagement and traditionalists or conservatives proponents of Islamic dawa – gradually building the movement’s base through religious proselytizing and social services.
The Mubarak regime’s strategy appears designed to undermine relatively reformist elements, but risks empowering more militant Salafist forces considered increasingly influential within the party’s membership.
While critical of Sunday’s election, the U.S. administration also strikes a conciliatory tone, emphasizing that the U.S.would still strive to improve the country’s democratic processes.
“We look forward to continuing to work with the Egyptian government and Egypt’s vibrant civil society to help Egypt achieve its political, social, and economic aspirations consistent with international standards,” he said.
The vitality of civil society was evident throughout the election campaign and on polling day, as activists – including grantees of the National Endowment for Democracy – mobilized voters in defiance of official proscriptions, intimidation and efforts to suppress independent media.
- The Minya-based Justice and Citizenship Center for Human Rights worked with the Partners in Change (PIC) coalition a coalition of 27 provincial NGOs to organized candidate debates and street theater performances to educate voters.
- The coalition also led citizen monitoring efforts on election-day, sending 270 unaccredited monitors to cast their ballots and report irregularities. PIC received technical support and training from the National Democratic Institute, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.
- On election-day, the coalition worked with the Egyptian Democratic Academy to broadcast and report election irregularities live on EDA’s online radio station, Radio Mahrousa.
- The Blogging the Egyptian Elections program mobilized a network of bloggers who designed and launched the U-Shahid (You Are A Witness) website, an interactive, online platform to provide timely and accurate information on the elections. The site received over 2,000 violation reports on election-day alone, replicating the innovative and creative approach used to great effect in Burma’s recent elections. Approximately 50 reports were submitted via SMS despite official restrictions on new social media.
Democracy advocates will hope that civil society’s vibrancy will provide a focus for energizing and empowering opposition groups that represent a rebuke of the regime’s strategic pretense that the status quo is the only alternative to Islamist rule.