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Egyptian Elections and US Foreign Policy

 

Reed Lindsay: It’s election day in Egypt, the second round of parliamentary balloting.  But in this working-class suburb of Cairo, few people seem to care.

“There are no free and fair elections.  All the opposition parties withdrew.  A lot of us are unemployed.  So why should we vote?”

“All we are seeing is corruption, corruption, and more corruption in the elections.  Why should I vote for someone who buys my vote?”

“Nobody solves my neighborhood’s problems.  Nobody is providing services to me.  My vote is useless.”

Reed Lindsay: Enthusiasm for elections is negligible in a country where one man has ruled for three decades.  The government party won 95 percent of the seats in first-round elections marred by accusations of fraud and intimidation.  The opposition decided to boycott the second-round runoffs.

Question: And secondly, on Egypt, there’s reports of massive fraud in the parliamentary elections and — I don’t know, it doesn’t even sound like the opposition has won any seats.  How much —

P.J. Crowley, US State Department: Which country are we talking about?

Question: Egypt. . . .

Crowley: You know, we have serious concerns about what occurred.

Reed Lindsay: But the Obama administration is not concerned enough to touch the nearly $2 billion of foreign aid the US government gives Egypt to ensure it remains a pliant ally.

Barack Obama, US President: The United States and Egypt have worked together closely for many years, and for many of those years President Mubarak has been a leader and a counselor and a friend to the United States.

Reed Lindsay: Twenty-nine years, to be exact.  Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has outlasted four US presidents, Democrats and Republicans.  But the United States has begun hedging its bets, funding opposition groups and NGOs critical of the government, like this electoral monitoring organization.

Basem Fathy, Egyptian Democratic Academy: A lot of groups, they are — whether funded or supported by the USAID, technically supported by the IRI (International Republican Institute), the NDI (National Democratic Institute for International Affairs) –.

Reed Lindsay: But the amount the US invests in so-called democracy promotion is a fraction of the money it funnels into Egypt’s military.  It’s not hard to see why few policymakers in Washington want to see Mubarak go.  The only opposition group with significant popular support boasts the motto “Islam is the solution.”  The Muslim Brotherhood is arguably the world’s most influential Islamic movement, an ally and supporter of Palestine’s Hamas, and a fierce critic of US policy in the region.  A week ago Mohamed Beltagy was campaigning for a seat in Parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood.  Now he’s telling people not to vote.

Mohamed Beltagy: There was a blatant forgery that the whole world has seen and you have witnessed last Sunday.  We are protesting that.  We’re boycotting the elections and won’t participate in the second round, including those candidates who are eligible.

Reed Lindsay: Not a single Muslim Brotherhood candidate won in the first round elections, and Beltagy was among the losers.  But you’d never know it this night.

(A Woman to Beltagy): “May God be with you and give you success.”

Reed Lindsay: This is Shobra, a massive area of narrow dirt streets, alleyways, and brick apartment blocks, home to an estimated 5 million people and a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood.  People here complain of unemployment, stagnant wages, rising food prices, decaying infrastructure, and an unresponsive and corrupt government.  Beltagy and the Brotherhood have filled the void, quietly and methodically winning popular support among the poor by providing health care, medicine, education, and food.  The government has banned the Muslim Brotherhood, and its candidates are forced to run as independents.  Even still, five years ago Beltagy was one of 88 Muslim Brotherhood members to win a seat in Parliament.  It was the most significant opposition victory in an election since Hosni Mubarak came to power three decades ago.  But the group has paid a price.  The government arrested more than 1,200 Brotherhood members in the weeks before this year’s elections, blocked their candidates from running, broke up campaign rallies, and barred their delegates from monitoring the voting.  The Muslim Brotherhood usually campaigns at night to avoid repression by security forces.  During the day, Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party rule Shobra.

“The government?  The government is good.”

“Really?”

“Their people are good.  Can anybody criticize the government?”

“The elections are very fair and free.  Egypt has the best elections.  Egypt has proper elections.”

“The government is good.  It’s the best.  I will vote for Megahed Nassar.”

“Because he’s someone who does a lot of work in this country.”

“He’s a very righteous man.  His pictures are all over the walls.”

Reed Lindsay: This is the local headquarters for the ruling party’s candidate in Shobra, Megahed Nassar.  With the Muslim Brotherhood’s withdrawal, his seat in Parliament is all but assured.

Megahed Nassar: I publicized myself throughout the entire district for four years, until every home knew the name Megahed Nassar.  And that’s why the people made me run for Parliament.

Reed Lindsay: Beltagy’s headquarters look shabby in comparison.  Political activities are held here, but the space doubles as a sort of social services center.

“Is Dr. Mohamed there?”

“No.  Come after the Isha prayer.”

“Will he be there?”

“God willing.”

“Thank you.”

Reed Lindsay: Shobra residents come here to get free medicine from the pharmacy and for a checkup from Beltagy himself, an ear, nose, and throat doctor.  The Muslim Brotherhood has existed since the 1920s and has faced far worse repression in the past.  Beltagy says the social and religious movement is ready to wait for change indefinitely, while continuing to strengthen its base of support.

Mohamed Beltagy: At the Muslim Brotherhood, we’re optimistic.  We have hope and trust in our ability and the ability of other people to change things for the better, even if it takes a while.  The nature of the Muslim Brotherhood is that we work in an incremental way.  We’re not in a hurry.

Reed Lindsay: A US diplomatic cable released last month by WikiLeaks suggests that Hosni Mubarak considers the Muslim Brotherhood his most dangerous political threat.  But Beltagy insists the Brotherhood is a nonviolent movement that has stated its commitment to democracy, political pluralism, and religious tolerance.

Mohamed Beltagy: The Egyptian administration, since around 2005 or a little before that, has been trying to maintain its own survival, along with support from the West, by warning that the Muslim Brotherhood is coming and, if the elections in Egypt were free and fair, the Muslim Brotherhood would take control of Egypt the next day.  They’re trying to induce public panic in the West, to scare the non-Muslim communities in Egypt, to ensure their stay in power throughout the coming years.

Reed Lindsay: The day before the second-round runoff, Beltagy joined with other opposition leaders to denounce the elections.  Many members of Egypt’s secular political parties and left-leaning opposition groups expressed concern about how a Muslim Brotherhood-led government would apply sharia law.  But everyone here seems to agree the Egyptian people should be given a chance to decide for themselves in elections recognized as free and fair.  It doesn’t appear that that will happen anytime soon.  On Sunday, with the results all but decided before the polls opened, security guards and election officials outnumbered voters.

Ashraf Farouk Iskander, Election Monitor: The number of people going to the poll centers right now is approximately 0.5 to 1 percent of those who went last Sunday.

Reed Lindsay: One thousand people were registered to vote in this polling station, but only a dozen had cast their ballots by the early afternoon.  Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party could secure more than 90 percent of the seats in Parliament, which will authorize candidates eligible for next year’s presidential election.  Many Egyptians assume Mubarak will either run for reelection or endorse his son Gamal.  Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party dominated these elections, but whether or not it can be considered a victory is another matter.  The opposition had been divided on the question of whether to boycott the vote or participate in a process that some critics characterize as an elaborate political theater, staged to appease the international community and especially the United States.  Now the opposition is united in denouncing elections that were even less credible than expected, and the plot for next year’s presidential contest is more predictable than ever.


This video was released by The Real News on 11 December 2010.  The text above is an edited partial transcript of the video.  See, also, Asef Bayat, “Revolution without Movement, Movement without Revolution: Comparing Islamic Activism in Iran and Egypt” (Comparative Studies in Society and History 40.1, January 1998), pp. 136-169; Joel Beinin and Zachary Lockman, Workers on the Nile: Nationalism, Communism, Islam, and the Egyptian Working Class, 1882-1954 (The American University in Cairo Press, 1998); Joel Beinin, “Political Islam and the New Global Economy: The Political Economy of Islamist Social Movements in Egypt and Turkey” (Paper delivered at the Conference on “French and US Approaches to Understanding Islam,” France-Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, 12-14 September 2004); “Oposición denuncia fraude electoral en Egipto” (TeleSur, 12 December 2010); Salma Shukrallah, “Opposition Rallies against Parliament” (Ahram Online, 12 December 2010).




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