Elections in Egypt: ‘A Revolution of Sorts’

by on August 29th, 2005

By President Hosni Mubarak’s decision, Egypt is holding its first multi-candidate presidential election on September 7. Barely any attention is being paid to this incredible change in the West, and those who are watching are unreasonably pessimistic.

Sure the election is hardly competitive, and Mubarak is guaranteed to win. He is receiving most of the state-controlled television coverage and has granted very short campaigning time for his opponents to gain popularity (19 days). There are plenty of other reasons to doubt the legitimacy of this outcome: few voters know the voting procedures, no public debates will take place among the candidates, reportedly anti-regime judges have been relieved of their observing duties, and so far pro-democracy organizations have been denied observational access.

Egypt is not a democracy by any stretch of the imagination, but some positive changes are undoubtedly taking place:

Opposition candidates, though running on populist platforms, are slamming the current state of affairs under Mubarak’s watch. One candidate, Noaman Gomaa, has picked the word itkhanana as his slogan, meaning ‘We’ve Suffocated.’ “In Egypt, it is revolutionary,” said Nabil Shawkat, a linguist based in Cairo. “You are using a word that is a borderline insult as a slogan of a campaign.” The slogan is bluntly featured in a two-page ad in daily papers depicting “a group of angry people describing the nation’s chronic ills – poor education, an unattractive job market, [and] deteriorating health policies.”

Egyptians are also noticing the significant changes on the streets. For example, when Egyptian blogger Big Pharaoh saw Noaman Gomaa’s campaign ad, his “eyes literally popped out” since he was “just not used to seeing any political ads except those praising the achievements of Mubarak.”

In response, Mubarak is attempting to appeal to, instead of force, the support of his people. Egyptian press has noted the effort to appear casual and likable by appearing without a tie and having tea with a farmer. The president has been personally campaigning with intensity, revealing that he is not taking his “popularity” for granted.

A blogger named Baheya recognized the significance of the presidential run-off as a “huge, reluctant concession, one whose long-term consequences neither he [Mubarak] nor his successors can anticipate or control. Most unwillingly, Mubarak is actually abetting the rapid deterioration of the mystique surrounding the Egyptian president. And that’s a very good thing.”

The most important part of this quasi-election are the long-term consequences. Tarek Atia brilliantly notes that the election logo that has become “a permanent fixture on [national] channels… may change things. Intentional or not, the flag immediately attracts young children. “What is that?” they ask their parents. The typical response would probably be much like what Kamelia Hamed told her son when he asked, that the flag is part of the election campaign, which is a process by which the public chooses their leader from among several candidates.

In that simple exchange, a revolution of sorts has already occurred.”

No, the significance and the consequences of Egypt’s first presidential election should not be dismissed.

John McDonald