Monday, December 05, 2005

The Election in Perspective

A few days after the past round of parliamentary elections, a common perception is appearing among democracy activists in Egypt: The elections were unfair and marred by massive arrests and violence on the part of security officials, but still the performance of the Egyptian public in resisting continued one-party rule gives reasons for optimism. Says one representative of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Developmental Studies, "It's
not a bad start for Egyptian democracy."

Let's start with the problems. On Friday, Dec. 2, the Independent Committee for Election Monitoring, a group of 16 Egyptian NGOs, released it's preliminary report on the past round of the election. It cited the government failed to provide a free and safe haven for voting; failed to create a transparent election process free from the possibility of fraud; and prevented election monitors from adequately performing their job. The ICEM received numerous reports of violence, "almost exclusively in districts where opposition candidates were seeking seats in Kafr Sheikh, Daqahleya and Sharqiah. At several sites, ICEM monitors themselves were attacked by security forces, the report said.

The mass arrest of Muslim Brothers and Nasserites also was a factor. I have received preliminary reports of additional arrests, which I hope to have a report on tomorrow. The ICEM estimated voter turnout at 18 percent, an exceedingly low figure, and it attributes that to the violence and the "organized disenfranchizement" of large segments of the population.

But if we focus exclusively on the negative aspects of the election, we will miss a larger point. The Egyptian people have for the first time voted in a political minority large enough to prevent the NDP from turning parliament into a complete rubber stamp. Even the fact of the low turnout suggests that where real opposition wasn't a possibility, the voters "voted with their feet." There is little in this election that gives the NDP much ground for strength. The division within the NDP and the government between reformers and the security side may now be unreconcilable.

The fact that the MB is the largest component should both encourage other opposition groups and challenge them to provide a winning program that will attract public support. The MB must also be challenged itself to prove that it has a program beyond "Islam is the Solution" and that it will follow through on its stated commitment to encourage a true democratic process for Egypt.

In 1988, when the Chilean voters rose up and denied Augusto Pinochet another term in office, Chilean activist and writer Ariel Dorfman told me the deciding factor was the "unimaginable patience of the Chilean people." They took the violence of the Pinochet regime, but they abided their time until their moment came, Dorfman said. I am a big fan of patience, not a static, passive kind, but one that shows intelligence; one that avoids quick (and often violent) solutions, but instead works actively to create opportunities for real and lasting change. I believe the Egyptian people are positively patient. They have taken a step toward their own moment for change.

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