9.15.2005

Egypt's imitation election

The New York Times
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 11, 2005

Here are some simple ways to identify a real democratic election. The ruling party should not be allowed to shape the election arrangements and intimidate voters. The candidates should be able to compete on a reasonably level playing field. Impartial observers should be welcome and given time to deploy themselves at polling places nationwide.

Not one of these defining features was evident in last week's Egyptian presidential voting, whose main purpose was to usher President Hosni Mubarak into his fifth six-year term. On Friday he was officially declared the winner, collecting 88.5 percent of the votes.

A few limited gestures were made in the general direction of democracy, thanks to repeated nudging from Mubarak's most important international supporter, President George W. Bush. For the first time in Egyptian history, the names of opposition presidential candidates actually appeared on the ballot. And for the first time in decades limited expressions of political criticism and protest were allowed. Compared with past elections under the half-century-old Egyptian military dictatorship, this one plainly marked an advance.

But compared with the real democracy that Egypt's 76 million people need and deserve, the election was an elaborate and largely meaningless sham. The loosening of the reins may have gone further than first intended, but nobody is counting on any lasting political opening. And while some optimistically hope that last week's imitation election could prepare the way for a more genuinely competitive contest next time around, it could as easily turn out to be the ceremonial opening act of a planned dynastic succession, with the 77-year-old Mubarak's 41-year-old son being groomed to succeed him.

Egyptians need real democracy so that they can demand an end to the corruption and nepotism that stifle economic and educational opportunity and a halt to the social and political injustices that fuel sterile cycles of violent unrest and repression. Unfortunately, the next presidential elections are not due until 2011. That is an awfully long time to wait.

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