Egyptian elections - totally rigged but at least existent

Well the good news with Egypt is that they are openly allowing opposition rallies around the latest presidential election, the first to allow candidates to campaign openly against Hosni Mubarak. Anyhow, well Mubarak can't live forever, and for a farcical sort of democratic election, it set a lot of markers that will eventually be succeeded by some kind of actual democratic government down the road.

In Egypt, no going back

Mona Eltahawy, International Herald Tribune


Some dictators festoon their capitals with their statues. In Egypt, successive regimes have relied on architecture to remind their subjects that it's impossible to beat the system.

In Cairo no building better embodies that message than a huge Soviet-style building called the Mogamma. Universally acknowledged as the home of Egyptian government bureaucracy, this behemoth sits next to one of the busiest squares in Cairo.

And so it took real chutzpah for Ayman Nour to hold his last campaign rally in front of the Mogamma. He was one of 10 candidates contesting Wednesday's presidential election - the first in which Egyptians could choose from more than one candidate.

It doesn't diminish Nour's program, his ambition nor his courage in any way to say straight out that he did not stand a chance of winning the election. Candidates had only 19 days to campaign. Although they had unprecedented access to state-run television, it paled beyond that given to President Hosni Mubarak.

The Egyptian government refused to allow international observers to monitor the polls and its electoral commission succeeded in barring independent Egyptian groups from checking on them. Most of the older opposition parties boycotted the election and preliminary results indicated a low turnout.

During past Egyptian parliamentary elections it was common to see government employees stuffing ballot boxes and names of people long dead appearing on voter ballots.

And so we all knew that Mubarak would win a fifth term that will add another six years to the 24 years he has already spent in power.

But to modify a phrase we learn in the news business, it was never the "what" that mattered - in this case, the election - but the "who, when and where."

And that's why the rally that Nour held on Saturday in front of the Mogamma was so pivotal. By putting himself squarely in front of a government fortress so redolent with the bureaucratic humiliation that government represents for the average Egyptian, Nour was promising a new idea of government.

By focusing most of his speech on domestic policy, Nour was serving notice that Egyptians deserved to be their government's No. 1 priority. By talking about unemployment, poverty, the inability of so many young Egyptian men and women to afford marriage, political prisoners, human rights violations, the rights of women and Christians, and government corruption, he was signaling that instead of courting government officials to get their daily needs met, government officials should be courting ordinary Egyptians to keep their jobs.

Egyptians will not forget this. Regardless of a Mubarak victory, nothing can wipe our memories clean of the criticisms heaped on Mubarak and his cronies by Nour and other opposition candidates.

The concern now is what will happen to the opposition movement after Mubarak wins. Along with Nour and the other candidates contesting Wednesday's poll, there is also a small but active opposition movement that has held almost weekly anti-Mubarak demonstrations since December.

The world must not forget them.

Mubarak will no doubt claim to have been democratically elected, despite the expected vote rigging, despite the fact that it was almost impossible for independents to challenge him, despite the laughably short campaign period. But he must be held to the promises he made to Egyptians, who are wondering why after 24 years in power he seems to have suddenly remembered that they need more jobs and better wages.

Let's see him make good on his campaign promise to lift emergency laws. The fear is that he will use those laws now against the opposition and throw them all in jail.

Egypt is not the country it was just 10 months ago, when the opposition movement defied those laws and took to the streets to say "Kifaya!" - "Enough!" - to Mubarak. A member of Nour's Tomorrow Party told me he wasn't worried about a crackdown because "it is too late to stop the train of democracy or even reduce its speed."

To keep that train on its track, the Bush administration must continue calling on Mubarak to reform. The administration was right to protest the arrest and jailing of Nour earlier this year in a politically motivated trial. It has been postponed until after the election. If he is found guilty, it will be another sign of more of the same from the Egyptian government.

But for many Egyptians, business as usual just won't cut it anymore. At Nour's rally in front of the Mogamma, I met men and women, young and old, and even Egyptians who had flown in from abroad especially to see the election campaigns, so unprecedented they are in Egypt. As I greeted friends I hadn't seen in months, we would point to the Mogamma and then to Nour and exclaim "Can you believe it?"

The Mogamma sits next to a 19th-century square that was renamed Tahrir (Liberation) Square after the coup and revolution of 1952 that was supposed to liberate Egyptians from monarchy and British colonialism.

As buses and cars honked and jostled their way around the frenetic square, Nour reminded us what the name of the square meant. It is time to truly liberate Egyptians, he said.

Is the world listening?

Mona Eltahawy is a columnist for the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

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