Egypt’s first-ever multi-party presidential election on September 7 has helped to open up public debate in the country, Human Rights Watch said today. But the main features of decades-long authoritarian rule remain in place, making a truly free and fair election at this moment beyond reach.

The election will also mark an important step forward if there is no repeat of the widespread fraud and intimidation that have characterized recent votes, Human Rights Watch said.

“The significance of this election isn’t the possibility of unseating Mubarak, but the fact that many Egyptians have boldly challenged his quarter-century of rule,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Their willingness to speak out has generated a serious public debate instead of just another presidential plebiscite.”

In a 13-page briefing paper released today, Human Rights Watch said that the ruling National Democratic Party’s monopoly on political life in the country, its vast patronage network, state control of major media, and an absurdly short three-week window for campaigning have made it impossible for this election to reflect the free choice of the electorate.

“Mubarak’s biggest challenge isn’t winning the election, but generating enough voter turnout to claim popular legitimacy,” Stork said. “It’s no coincidence that recent police violence against the government’s critics occurred when protestors urged the public to boycott the polls.”

The briefing paper critically examines Egypt’s new election law and the government’s refusal to permit international observers or Egyptian nongovernmental organizations to monitor the election. A major flaw of the revised law is that it requires an aspiring independent candidate to secure endorsements from hundreds of members of bodies like the People’s Assembly, which are dominated by the ruling party. This provision precluded any independents from challenging the president.

By contrast, any legally recognized party, no matter how small and insignificant, can put forth a candidate. Of the nine candidates running against Mubarak, only the Ghad Party’s Ayman Nur and the Wafd Party’s Numan Gumaa have constituencies and party networks of any significance. Several other small parties have boycotted the election, calling it a sham.

Egypt’s constitutional requirement for judicial supervision of elections gives the country’s judges leverage in their ongoing campaign for greater autonomy vis-à-vis the executive, Human Rights Watch said. The Judges Club, an unofficial union which represents most of the country’s judges, has threatened to boycott playing any supervisory role on September 7 and says it will announce a final decision today, September 2.

“The real electoral test of political reform in Egypt will come with the People’s Assembly general election due later this year,” Stork said.

“From Plebiscite to Contest? Egypt’s Presidential Election” is available here: