Election-rigging in Egypt

A minority of Egyptians – probably no more than a third of the 41 million who are registered to vote – will be going to the polls today in a parliamentary election where the ruling party has already made sure of winning by large majority.

Talk of rigged elections usually conjures up images of stuffed ballot boxes but these days, in Egypt at least, election rigging is a whole lot more complicated than that. In the old days, under Nasser, they didn't even need to stuff the ballots, as Amira Nowaira noted last week:

Not many people now realise that during the Nasser era elections were held and people were urged to go out and vote ... Rigging was unnecessary because the government sifted the candidates before nominating them and giving them its blessing. So it mattered little to the regime whether Mohammed, Ahmed or Laila was finally elected.

Having the government decide who can or can't be a candidate is still a feature of Egyptian elections today, though it's only one aspect of the rigging process.

The ruling party's goal is to win at least two-thirds of the parliamentary seats (a total that brings several advantages under the constitution) and it is helped along the way by having 10 of the 518 members not elected but appointed by the president.

At the same time, the regime needs to be able to claim that the election is democratic (a more important consideration now than it was in Nasser's time) and so opposition candidates have to be allowed to win a respectable number of seats. Determining how many they shall be allowed, and ensuring that this will be reflected in the result, is where it starts to get complicated. 

From the government's standpoint, too little restriction of opposition activity could jeopardise its majority; on the other hand, too much restriction could damage the election's credibility and, ultimately, the regime's legitimacy. There are indications this time that the government may have been too restrictive for its own good – especially because attempts at interference are more visible now and get talked about more than in the past.

One of the early signs was the effort to rein-in the media and, unusually, this hasn't been confined to the local media. There wasa clash last week with the BBC over participants in a studio discussion and on Saturday the information minister accused the American al-Hurra TV channel of violating a ban on "electoral propaganda" during the last 24 hours before polling – a ban that the government-run media in Egypt happily ignored in respect of government candidates.

There were also the government's restrictions on SMS messaging (a popular campaigning tool) which a court finally ruled illegal on the eve of polling day.

Then we have the arrests of opposition supporters (around 1,400 from the Muslim Brotherhood during the last few weeks) – arrests which seem calculated to disrupt their campaigning abilities. In Alexandria on Thursday and Friday, 23 of them were sentenced totwo years in jail for distributing election material that contained forbidden religious slogans. More than a dozen of the Brotherhood's candidates have also been disqualified.

Egypt has long rejected calls to allow international election observers on the spurious grounds of national sovereignty, but local observers don't seem to be faring much better. 

According to al-Masry al-Youm, only 10% of those who applied to monitor the polling have been granted permits, and even they will not be allowed to question voters or election officials.

Amid all that (and these are just a few examples), one small story particularly caught my eye. It concerns the people who make banners for hanging across the streets. Nothing in this election is being left to chance, and even they have had visits from state security:

Walid Saad points to a palm-sized rectangular sticker glued to one of the walls of his modest studio. Bearing the label of the Cairo Security Directorate, the white label is covered with stamps and bears the names and contact information of four senior officers. "They said I was to contact them before working on any promotional material for the elections. They have to approve any slogan or message before it goes public."

I can't help thinking that if all the effort that goes into manipulating Egyptian elections were diverted to other purposes – such as governing the country properly – Mubarak's NDP might actually have a chance of winning fairly and squarely.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 November 2010.