Egypt's presidential election: democracy or sham?

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Egypt just had a presidential election, and boy was it a nail-biter! The winner was the incumbent, President Hosni Mubarak. He squeaked by with a mere 88.6 percent of the vote. Finishing a close second was Ayman Nour of the Ghad Party, with 7.6 percent of the vote.

You're probably wondering how exactly an 81 percent margin of victory qualifies as a close election. Let me 'splain.

Last week's election was the first time that Egyptians ever have had an opportunity to choose among multiple presidential candidates. The last three times President Mubarak "won re-election" (in 1987, 1993 and 1999), he was the only candidate on the ballot. Earlier this year, Mubarak changed the rules to allow more than one person to run.

Does that make Egypt a democracy? Hardly.

The presidential election, while more open that it's ever been, was still rigged. The state media, controlled by Mubarak and his National Democratic Party, constantly bombarded Egyptians with pro-Mubarak propaganda. The nine opposition candidates, on the other hand, were given only 19 days of official campaigning to introduce themselves to Egypt's estimated 32 million registered voters.

The country's most popular political opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, wasn't even allowed to field a candidate. The group has been banned from participating in the political process in Egypt since 1954, when one of its members tried to assassinate then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser, who died in 1970, is a towering figure of 20th-century Arab political history. In addition to having an uncanny knack for losing wars to Israel, Nasser is the unofficial godfather of pan-Arab nationalism as well as the architect of Egypt's modern political system, which gives the president near-dictatorial powers.

As if banning the most popular opposition group and controlling the media weren't undemocratic enough, Mubarak & Co. compounded the sham by preventing neutral, foreign observers from monitoring the election. Mubarak did allow "independent" monitoring of the elections by Egyptians, on the condition that the monitoring be done outside of polling places — a condition that's sort of like issuing someone a driver's license while simultaneously making it illegal to touch a steering wheel.

So why did Mubarak even bother with elections if he had no intention of letting anyone else win?

It's a public relations exercise for his benefit. There is a burgeoning desire in Egypt, within and without Mubarak's National Democratic Party, for democratic reform. Egypt's pseudo-dictatorship has failed the Egyptian people. Unemployment is high. Standards of living are low. Mubarak knows that Egyptians aren't thrilled with him. By appearing to embrace democracy, Mubarak is trying to deflate his opposition.

It's also a PR exercise for our benefit. Every fourth word out President Bush's mouth these days is "freedom," "liberty" or "democracy." Last week's election was no doubt an attempt to get the United States off Mubarak's back. It appears to have worked. Despite months of reports that made it clear the elections were phony, the Bush administration has repeatedly praised Mubarak for moving Egypt in the "right direction."

But perhaps the strongest impetus in all this election reforming is good old-fashioned nepotism. Many Egypt-watchers see the election reforms as merely the latest in a series of political maneuvers by Gamal Mubarak (the president's 41-year-old son and chief political adviser) to wrestle power away from the NDP's old guard. At 77, Hosni Mubarak probably won't be around much longer. When daddy kicks the bucket, Gamal wants to be in a position to take over.

Maybe that's why President Bush is constantly expressing his support of Egypt's so-called political reforms. If there's one thing he can appreciate, it's a son riding his dad's coattails.

Am I being too cynical about Egypt's baby steps toward democracy? Maybe. I'm not alone in my cynicism, though. Only 23 percent of Egypt's electorate bothered to show up to vote.