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From Plebiscite to Contest? Egypt’s Presidential Election

A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper

*The following is an introduction; the full briefing paper can be downloaded from the right-side tab as a PDF attachment.*

On September 7, Egypt will hold its first-ever presidential election, as distinct from the single-candidate plebiscites that have so far characterized the “re-elections” of President Husni Mubarak. This election, however, is seriously flawed by requirements that effectively negate the possibility of any opposition leader from seriously challenging President Mubarak’s hold on power.

Mubarak, a former air force general whom President Anwar al-Sadat appointed as his vice-president, took over as president following al-Sadat’s assassination in October 1981. His control of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which has an effective monopoly on formal political life in the country, ensured that he stood unchallenged in 1987, 1993, and 1999 plebiscites. This year Mubarak will face nine other candidates. Only al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party’s Ayman Nur and al-Wafd (Delegation) Party’s Nu`man Gum`a are candidates with constituencies and party networks of any significance. (Nur, who has been most outspoken in his criticism of Mubarak, was jailed earlier this year and still faces trial on charges that appear to be politically-motivated.) Other small but established opposition parties boycotted the election, calling it a sham (see appendix).

Several well-known activists who had put themselves forward initially – democracy activist and sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim, feminist and physician Nawwal al-Saadawi, and former member of parliament Muhammad Farid Hassanein – also withdrew. A major flaw in the revised constitutional amendment governing the presidential election is that it precludes the possibility of an independent candidate by requiring in effect the endorsement of hundreds of members of the ruling party. It is likely that the government insisted on this provision to ensure that the largest political opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains banned and unable to participate legally in national politics, would not be able to put forward a candidate who might represent its agenda. (On August 21, in what many observers saw as a move that on balance favored Mubarak, Brotherhood Supreme Leader Muhammad `Akif urged members to vote rather than boycott the election but refrained from endorsing any candidate.)

The NDP’s dominance in all branches of government, its vast patronage network, state control of electronic and major print media, more than five decades of stultifying restrictions on independent parties and political activity, and an absurdly short campaign window of three weeks make it extremely unlikely that the election on September 7 will reflect the free choice of the electorate. If the September 7 election happens without the serious fraud and intimidation that has characterized some other recent votes, this will be an important advance, but the main features of entrenched authoritarian rule remain very much in place and clearly put a free and fair election at this moment beyond reach. In the view of many Egyptians, the real test of electoral reform will come with the People’s Assembly general elections, due to be called for November.

The biggest challenge facing the president and his party is not winning but generating a sufficiently large turnout to be able to claim a measure of popular legitimacy. The most serious recent incidents of police violence against opponents occurred when protestors urged the public to boycott the polls, as during the constitutional amendment referendum on May 25 and again in demonstrations on July 30 following President Mubarak’s formal declaration that he would stand for a fifth term. 

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