It was appropriate to begin November 9 at a polling station inside a school in the Cairo neighbourhood of Bab al-Sheiriyya. After all, that was the day that Egypt was to take an exam in democracy as Egyptians voted in the first round of parliamentary elections.
This year’s parliamentary elections were the big test because they came at the end of a year full of talk of reform in Egypt. Pro-reform activists have taken to the streets of Cairo to stage unprecedented protests, galvanizing debate and introducing an excitement onto the political stage that we haven’t seen in Egypt for decades.
And in September, Egypt held its first contested presidential elections. President Hosni Mubarak’s re-election, giving him a fifth six-year term in office, was no surprise. But the real surprises had to do with a feeling that a greater space had been created for a new kind of opposition. And perhaps most surprising of all was the second place finish for Ayman Nour who had launched al-Ghad party just a year ago.
But after what I saw on Nov. 9 and as the election results are announced, I can unhesitatingly say that Egypt is failing the democracy test. It is failing not because Egyptians do not understand politics as some of our officials insultingly suggest but because the government does not want it to succeed.
To return to that school where I began Election Day, it is as if the Egyptian government had asked its people to take an exam that would allow them to finally graduate from school. But as the people arrived at the school, the government took away their pens before they entered the classroom and then tied their hands after they sat down at their desks to make sure there was no way they could ever attempt to complete the exam.
By pushing Egyptians to fail in this way, the government has guaranteed that the only way to change is to violently break down the gates of the school.
Perhaps the saddest illustration that we are seeing politics as usual was what happened in Bab al-Sheiriyya, where Ayman Nour was defending the parliament seat he has held for 10 years. His challenger was Yehiya Wahdan, a State Security official who resigned his post just a few weeks ago.
Judging from the Wahdan supporters who stood outside the school I went to, intimidation was one of their methods of challenging Ayman Nour.
“Where is democracy? This is the exploitation of people by other people so that we can say we have democracy,” I was told by Nady Abdel-Rahman Ragheb, who complained of threatening behaviour of Wahdan’s supporters as he entered the school to vote for Ayman Nour.
Nour lost. I have yet to hear anyone offer a plausible explanation of how the man who came second in our presidential election could lose a constituency that has twice before selected him as its representative in parliament.
Another sad illustration of politics as usual was the pseudo-battle that the government created by giving unprecedented freedom to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to campaign and take part in these elections.
Many at first thought we were seeing something new when the banners and posters of the banned Brotherhood proclaiming their pseudo-political manifesto “Islam is the Solution” began appearing throughout Cairo neighbourhoods.
But fluttering just as high as the Brotherhood’s banners were the banners and posters of Egypt’s super-rich – our businessmen with political ambitions as large as their bank accounts. They used those accounts to buy both slick election banners and votes. Many represented that National Democratic Party. Others were independents who would join the NDP once they were elected.
And in the end that was the fight to be determined – it was business versus Islam and lost in the middle of this pseudo-battle were ordinary Egyptians who were optimistic enough to believe they could achieve change in their lifetimes.
The government preferred to create a fake fight with the devil it knows best – the Muslim Brotherhood – than deal with an alternative to the State and the Mosque represented by Ayman Nour and the pro-reform activists.
The Brotherhood understood the deal it struck with the government and was burned by it as its own candidates lost to incomplete voter registration lists and nighttime sessions of vote counting in which only government representatives were present to ensure the fake battle ended in the perfect result.
Another sad example of politics as usual was the orchestrated defeat of the deputy head of the Wafd Party Munir Fakhry Abdel-Nour. Coming as it did just a few weeks after the ugly rioting by Muslims outside of a church in Alexandria, such an ugly defeat of a popular Christian politician perfectly illustrated the stupidity of dictatorships.
The sad examples are many but my point is one – the Egyptian government is leading our country down a dangerous road. It was no surprise that Egypt was the reason the democracy conference in Bahrain failed. While U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had plenty of criticism for America’s enemy of the day Syria, it was one of America’s best friends Egypt that scuttled the conference.
Reading Egyptian newspapers on Nov. 10, it was clear there were two Egypt’s. There was the government-owned press’ Egypt which had just been catapulted into the arms of democracy by the Nov. 9 elections while the other Egypt of the independent press was full of complaints of the fraud, intimidation and vote buying of that day.
The gap that lies between those two Egypt’s is a wide field in which the weeds of helplessness, frustration and rage will continue to grow.