Vote like an Egyptian: Early and often

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Egyptian elections have always been something of a joke. When it comes to voting irregularities – Egypt has set quite a few land speed records since voting was first introduced in 1923. Every election, the dead are miraculously resurrected -” including a few who probably expired before the very first election.

This ancient land takes tradition seriously. So, it should come as no surprise that Wednesday’s referendum was a very traditional affair where they voted just like an Egyptian -” early and often. Al Wafd, an opposition newspaper, took its cameras to the voting booth and two of its journalists managed to vote six times. They published the pictures to prove it. Election committee workers were also photographed marketing ballots to ward off the boredom of waiting for their next client. And who knows what went on behind closed doors.

Government and private sector employees were given time off and provided with transportation. When they arrived at voting stations, they were greeted with campaign posters that urged them to ‘Say yes to Mubarak’ – even though the referendum was supposed to be about a minor constitutional amendment to allow for multi-candidate presidential elections.

A few brave souls from the opposition Kiffaya movement had the audacity to protest the sham referendum and were beaten senseless by the goons of the National Democratic Party. Uniformed policemen stood by and watched the sorry spectacle without bothering to intervene. You can’t really blame the cops for being neutral -” because some of the thugs administering the beatings were plain-clothes state security men -” who rank over their uniformed brethren.

In reporting the referendum results, a number of eyewitness reporters from the international press covered the beatings in detail -” and their accounts checked with Al Wafd’s version. But Al Ahram, the largest government owned rag sheet, only mentioned the event at the bottom of page 26. The first twenty-five pages were reserved for fawning accounts of enthusiastic citizens flooding into voting stations.

Casually casting journalistic ethics aside, Al Ahram reported that it was the opposition that attacked the ruling party’s goons. Some people would consider that kind of reporting sophomoric propaganda. But the Al Ahram scribes insist they were just reporting like an Egyptian. The only reason decent people pay for this rag is because it has the most comprehensive obituary pages in the country. And Egyptians always show respect for the dead. Hopefully, one day they will bury the whole notion of government controlled newspapers and see if anyone shows up for the funeral.

In any case, the results of the poll met everybody’s expectations. In a country where most people never bother to register, the government claimed that the referendum passed with an 83% majority. That figure might actually be accurate -” if you count all the stuffed ballot boxes. They also insist that 53% of the 32 million eligible voters participated in this scandal. It is that figure that deserves further scrutiny.

First of all, one needs to discount the five million public sector employees who were told that casting a vote was part of their job description. Independent journalists reported that many voting centers were virtually empty and your humble servant spent two days randomly asking a hundred or so Cairo pedestrians if they had ever been caught with a voter registration card in their possession. The answers from this admittedly unscientific survey indicate that a lot of people had no idea a referendum was taking place and there was a high correlation that the small percentage that voted was employed in the public sector.

My favorite response came from a man who was walking out of a pharmacy. He thought that a referendum was some kind of medical condition and volunteered that he had other health problems.

Of course, voting tends to be higher out in the country, where village ‘omdas’ or headmen are usually members of the ruling party. It pays to deliver the vote and no village wants to be on the wrong side of a very powerful central government that can choose to deliver or withhold essential services. But in urban areas, I doubt if more than 20% cast a ballot and half of them get their pay checks from Uncle Mubarak.

It is also worth noting that most citizens have never read the constitution and a few are not even aware that Egypt has a constitution -” much less one that needs amending. So, there was real confusion about what this referendum was about. Roughly half of the folks I talked to knew it had something to do with altering the constitution to allow opposition candidates to stand against Mubarak in the next election -” provided they get an official seal of approval from his ruling party. The rest had all kinds of strange ideas about the affair. One guy said it was to decide if a civilian could run for president. Quite a few were certain it was a vote to re-elect Mubarak. Still others had a vague idea that it was a vote to reform the system and usher in a new age of democracy -” which is exactly how the government marketed it.

In any Egyptian election or referendum, the ruling National Democratic Party has unique advantages. Besides being lavishly financed with public funds, the party inherited the institutional assets of the now dismantled Arab Socialist Union -” which used to operate the country as a one-party state. This translates into a network of organizers who can turn out the vote in even the remotest village in the upper Nile Valley. Virtually every major city has well appointed party headquarters. And the government owned press dwarfs all the opposition party papers combined.

Because of the hegemony of the ruling party, boycotting the referendum was a stroke of genius by the opposition parties who have strenuously criticized the inadequacy of the proposed reform. They knew that most sensible Egyptians wouldn’t voluntarily show up to participate in this or any other sham referendum or election. The politicians ignore them and they ignore the politicians. It’s not that they are politically apathetic. I think despondent is a more accurate description. Egyptians know what real elections look like and they know that Mubarak and his ruling party are not about to leave office any time soon.

Before the first ballot was cast, most observers understood that voting like an Egyptian essentially means not voting at all. A low turn out was certain. The opposition’s boycott tactic sent the government into panic mode. Mubarak and his party never anticipated such a shrewd move by their domestic adversaries. All of a sudden, they had to take them seriously. The referendum was meant to be a safe and smooth cosmetic change to win some sorely needed legitimacy. Something had gone seriously wrong. By miscalculating, they have now delivered the opposition a political windfall.

The parties that staged the boycott will certainly use their newly acquired legitimacy to demand a repeal of the draconian emergency laws -” which are hard wired into the constitution. Mubarak is not obliged to call a referendum to restore suspended civil and political rights -” including the right to peaceful assembly. He can do that with a stroke of a pen.

Even though the opposition won this round -” they paid a stiff price and three thousand political activists have been jailed. The disgraceful public beatings of Kiffaya activists -” many of them respectable middle class professionals -” are certain to scare off those inclined to confront Mubarak’s regime in the street. If this is what an Egyptian referendum looks like -” who needs to wait for the results of the September presidential election?

After three years of observing the Egyptian political scene, it is still hard to predict what measures Mubarak will take to reverse his losses. Many have speculated that the modest constitutional amendment was tailor made to provide his son, Gamal Mubarak, a legitimate path to ascend to the presidency. The recent international indifference to the massacres in Uzbekistan has no doubt emboldened the government to disregard outside pressure for reform.

Mubarak’s regime is still considered a major strategic American ally in the region. The day before the referendum, Laura Bush was in Egypt promoting Mubarak’s ‘bold’ reforms. While the opposition has gained quite a bit of momentum by boycotting the referendum -” it still faces very real domestic and international resistance to any meaningful change in the political environment. As things now stand, it looks like folks in the Nile Valley will be voting like an Egyptian for some time to come. More likely, they won’t vote at all.

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