ElBaradei versus the Pharaoh

Can former–IAEA Chairman Mohamed ElBaradei rouse the Egyptian masses to stand up to President Hosni Mubarak?

 CAIRO, EGYPT—November 28, over 40 million Egyptians were called upon to cast votes to elect their next parliament. This was only the first round of elections, but independent observers maintain that turnout was extremely low, and irregularities were the norm. In the 2000 and 2005 elections, official participation never exceeded 25 percent, and local nongovernment organizations allege that the true numbers are substantially lower. As in elections past, the regime intimidated opposition supporters and observers alike, and there have been widespread reports of ballot stuffing. Some candidates are filing lawsuits, alleging that they were denied due process of law.

When it is officially reported later this week, the victory of the ruling National Democratic Party will not come as a surprise. Under Egyptian law, the top two candidates in each district who failed to secure an absolute majority of the vote are eligible to run in the second round of elections, on Sunday, December 5. For the opposition, the liberal Wafd party won five seats in the first round, and several more of its candidates can run in the second. The leftist Union party and the liberal Ghad party, led by former political prisoner Ayman Nour, won one seat each. The Muslim Brotherhood officially won no seats in the first round, but twenty-seven of its candidates are contenders in the second round.

At age 82, President Hosni Mubarak has been in office here for nearly three decades, and his frail health leads many to believe that his succession lies just over the horizon. After almost six decades of authoritarian rule, the Egyptian people are unified in their longing for democratic reform, and the opposition hopes to seize this moment to catalyze it.

This first round of legislative elections tested the unity of the opposition and its ability to unify behind a single leader. For much of the past year, Mohamed ElBaradei had suggested he might run to succeed Mr. Mubarak. Trading on his international renown and credibility as the former chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mr. ElBaradei had positioned himself as the prospective head of the country’s political opposition.

But by inducing both the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the liberal Wafd Party not to boycott the elections, the Egyptian regime skillfully maneuvered ElBaradei onto the sidelines. The regime might have promised opposition parties some seats in parliament if they participated, and it likely threatened those that ignored its wishes with unpleasant reprisals—a delicate mixture of suasion and coercion.

For several months prior to the elections, Egyptians witnessed a heated debate among religious and secular parties over whether or not to boycott. Mr. ElBaradei campaigned for months, urging the opposition not to take part in a sham electoral process, but he failed to rally the largest opposition groups behind him. Had the major reform parties heeded his call, it would have established him as the leader of the movement, the sole public figure around whom they could rally in next year’s presidential elections.

The Egyptian regime is keen on having the primary opposition movements take part in the elections. Throughout the Mubarak era, the presence of at least token opposition figures in Parliament has been an important component of the country’s democratic façade.

But for the regime, the opposition cannot be allowed to coalesce behind a leader, who would create an unprecedented challenge to the status quo. During the three decades of Mubarak’s rule, the opposition has rallied at times around programs and principles, but never behind a single man who could lead the political order forward to pluralism. For the ruling elites, ElBaradei stoked fears that a united opposition would confront the regime with a man rather than abstract ideas.

Vote rigging and irregularities are the norm in every Egyptian election. For three decades, Egyptians have lived under an Emergency Law under which the regime has a free hand on the political scene during and outside elections. The government can and does restrict key liberties like freedom of speech, and the opposition cannot change laws in the legislature, allowing the regime to maintain its authoritarian structure. Even at its most permissive, the regime has never allowed the opposition to gain more than a quarter of the seats in parliament.

To some opposition groups, taking part in the elections seems an exercise in futility—and a means of acting as a fig leaf for the regime. To others, boycotting seems a peaceful way to protest an unjust system.

When the Muslim Brotherhood and Wafd decided not to boycott, the regime took comfort that its main Islamist and liberal opponents would lend international legimitacy to the elections. Leftist parties also chose to participate. The Brotherhood and Wafd ran about 150 and 200 candidates each, respectively, to contest 508 seats.

Yet the groups remain deeply divided on the issue. The Brotherhood deliberated for months before it decided to participate, and 43 percent of the Wafd’s General Assembly voted against participation.

Large minorities of the opposition parties that chose to participate clearly favor a boycott, but they took part in the process out of respect for the majorities of their fellow party members, and (ironically) deference to their own internal democratic processes.

In his call for a boycott, Mr. ElBaradei managed only to rally the Ghad and the Democratic Front, the latter led by the eminent public figure Osama Ghazali Harb. The regime can now charge that ElBaradei has no claim to lead the opposition.

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