Photo credit: Flickr user Sarah Carr
Egypt’s November parliamentary elections saw, as expected, a sweeping victory for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), though that triumph occurred amid allegations of the worst fraud, electoral rigging, and political repression that Egypt has ever seen. Much has been said in recent weeks about the deeply flawed campaign period and elections but, as protests continue, it is clear that the uproar is about more than electoral politics. The issue, it seems, is not that Egypt’s ailing electoral system will contaminate other facets of the governing structure, but that the electoral problems are just one symptom of the Mubarak regime’s more systemic governance failures. A quick overview of problems over the course of the year reveals the extent to which unaccountable institutions and repressive actions permeate the Egyptian system. These maladies raise serious doubts about the government’s interest in altering the basic rules of the game in a way that will increase confidence in the system as the 2011 presidential election approaches.
Perhaps most notable about 2010 was the steep increase in police brutality and torture. In June, police publically beat to death Khaled Said, a 28-year old Alexandrian, after he posted incriminating videos of local police officers. Protests in Alexandria and across the world apparently did not spur reform by November, when Ahmed Shabaan was found dead in a gutter after having been arbitrarily arrested by police in the same precinct. Most recently, Alexandrian police allegedly beat to death Mustafa Attia, and appear to be withholding information to prevent the outcry that the other two cases have engendered. These deaths are in addition to the everyday accounts of torture and harassment that repeatedly surface about Egypt’s security services. The level of criminality in the security sector and the fact that police can apparently act with nearly complete impunity sends the message that the government either views such behavior as a low priority or, worse, prefers the current set of institutional incentives.
Freedom of expression has also taken a serious hit. Though the state has always had a dominant role in Egyptian media, 2010 has been an especially tough year for Egyptian journalists and bloggers. Ibrahim Eissa, a prominent government critic, was fired as editor of the independent newspaper al-Dustour after publishing an opinion piece critical of the military, and also abruptly left his position as host of a political talk show in the middle of the season. His producers denied that his exit from the show was politically motivated, but Eissa himself refused to comment on the situation, fueling rumors that he was dismissed because of political pressure. In addition, several political talk shows and opinion columns were cancelled following disputes with government agencies. The popular show “Al Qahira Al Youm” was cancelled after a government-owned studio accused the show’s producers of failing to pay its rental fees; however, as was the case with most media closures, people close to the show argued that the cancellation was simply a government attempt to control content in a tense political period.
Sectarian clashes between the Muslim and the Coptic Christian communities are common in Egypt and 2010 has been no exception. Riots spread throughout the country in January, after six Coptic Christians were killed in a drive-by shooting following a Coptic mass, an apparent act of retaliation for the alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Coptic man. In July, conflicting stories about the missing wife of a Coptic priest, rumored in some accounts to have been forcibly prevented from converting to Islam and in others to have been kidnapped by Islamists, incited violent protests in Muslim and Christian communities alike. Government mismanagement of both episodes enabled what could have been isolated unrest to spread throughout the country. The government has in the past used the threat of sectarian violence as an excuse to implement politically repressive measures, but it has been continually unable or unwilling to quell interreligious tensions before they reach the point of violence.
Nor does it seem that the judiciary can play a mediating role in any of these problems. The police who killed Khaled Said were eventually arrested, but were charged with mistreatment rather than Said’s death. Further, it was only a few months ago that the death penalty ordered for a billionaire businessman found guilty of soliciting the murder of his actress girlfriend was summarily overturned and replaced with a 15-year jail sentence before his retrial was even complete. Years after the judiciary was excised from electoral oversight, it is unclear if its attempts to assert independence, most notably in a group of unrelated court cases advancing public freedoms (for example, by expelling police from university campuses, and ruling against the government’s position on SMS regulations can create any real democratic advances.
It is widely thought that the November elections were a trial run for the 2011 presidential elections and that increased repression is a nervous attempt to maintain stability leading up to what will almost certainly be a tumultuous year. Actors within Egypt and abroad have issued post-election calls for sweeping electoral reform that implore the Egyptian government to dissolve the fraudulently-elected parliament and establish a fair and effective framework in time for the 2011 election. Judging by the government’s performance in a range of other areas, however, the state’s attitude toward better governance appears to be “maybe later,” and there is little reason to expect that the elections will be any different.