With 89% of the votes, Egypt’s first contested presidential election on September 7th could have been a crushing victory for Hosni Mubarak. But according to official figures only 23% voted.

No independent monitors were allowed at polling stations. Opponents claim turnout was 10%-15% in the countryside and under 5% in cities. Voting is compulsory in Egypt! At most, fewer than one in five adults voted for the 77-year old president, in power for 24 years.

With so many legal obstacles preventing opposition candidates standing, the election was designed to have only one possible victor. Egyptians joked that only candidates with 24 years presidential experience could stand.

Until now, Egyptians had the choice of voting ’Yes’ or ’No’ to Mubarak every six years in a referendum. To help them make up their minds, soldiers, riot police and torturers stamped on any sign of opposition. In case there was still any doubt, ballot rigging was widespread. In 1999 Mubarak claimed 94% of the vote, with a turnout of 10%.

Growing pressure forced Mubarak to announce this election. Egypt’s economy had been growing quite rapidly during the 1990s until cheaper textiles from East Asia undercut one major industry and attacks on Western tourists, followed by 9/11, seriously weakened another.

44% live on less than $2 a day. Privatisation in the 1990s led to many job losses. Prices, especially of food, went up 30% between 1999 and 2004. Seven million public sector employees lost over half the value of their salaries.

A new wave of privatisation began last year, pushed forward by Mubarak’s son, Gamal - a former investment banker with the Bank of America in Cairo and London. Several businessmen and US-educated economists around him entered the cabinet last year. In response, a number of strikes have taken place, despite trade unions being state-controlled.

Anger at the US invasion of Iraq, soon spread to anger at widespread poverty. 40,000 demonstrated in Cairo when Iraq was invaded in March 2003.

On the first anniversary 2,000 demonstrators assembled, despite the presence of 5,000 security personnel. The demonstration quickly became a protest at the government’s economic policies. "Atef [Ebeid, the Prime Minister] a kilo of beans costs six [Egyptian] pounds! Atef, the people of Egypt [are forced to] eat bricks!" Protest leaders called out: "They wear the latest fashions!" The crowd responded: "And we live ten to a room!"

Satellite TV has become more widespread, making it harder for the Mubarak regime to control the news Egyptians see. Pictures from Iraq and Palestine have fuelled anger against the US and Mubarak, a loyal supporter of the US throughout his rule. Egypt receives the second highest amount of US aid in the world, after Israel. Most of the $2 billion is spent on the armed forces and police.

Bush’s Iraq policy is in a terrible mess. He claimed Saddam’s overthrow would lead to a flowering of democracy in Iraq and become a beacon across the Middle East. As chaos has grown, it became an embarrassment that democracy was as far away as ever in Egypt, their key ally in the region.

Fearing the opposition to Mubarak would boil over, leading to his replacement by a regime much more hostile to US interests, Condoleezza Rice cancelled a visit to Egypt in January and withheld $1 billion aid.

Within days, Mubarak announced his change of heart over elections. But this is not evidence of Bush’s success in bringing democracy to the Middle East.

Some parties boycotted the election. The Muslim Brotherhood is thought to have support from about a quarter of the population. Although prevented from standing themselves, they called on Egyptians to vote for whomever they thought would be a just and fair ruler, rather than join the boycott. The Brotherhood’s leadership (drawn from the better-off layers of society) wants to become a legal party. It is hoping for concessions after not opposing this sham election.

Younger Brotherhood members, especially students, have come under pressure to join protests for democratic rights. ’Kifaya’ (’Enough’) is a grouping of intellectuals, Islamists and activists that has organised many protests for democracy since last December, of between a few hundred and about 3,000. Although these have exposed the limitations of Mubarak’s democratic credentials, with police and hired thugs being used to beat up protestors, Kifaya has not yet been able to organise mass action.

Egypt’s large working class has yet to make its voice heard. No workers’ party is putting forward a programme that could solve the desperate problems of poverty, jobs, housing, education and health, combining it with a programme for democratic rights. There was widespread cynicism during the election that it would make any difference, with the result seen as a foregone conclusion.

The low turnout is a serious setback to Mubarak’s attempt to head off growing pressure against his repressive regime by making concessions from above. It is also another heavy blow to Bush’s Middle East strategy.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

Committee for a workers' International publications

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