by M.A. Shaikh (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 34, No. 9, Ramadan, 1426)
The presidential election in Egypt on September 7, which returned Husni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 24 years, to a six-year fifth term, is widely seen by both Egyptians and non-Egyptian as having been heavily rigged. The non-Egyptians include foreign media and human-rights observers who condemned the thinly veiled fraud. The fact that the Egyptian government has now been forced to deny that it is using similar methods to secure the results of the parliamentary elections (which are scheduled to begin on November 9), and to pledge that they will be as free as the September 7 poll, shows how desperate it is to earn credibility for the farcical claims of Mubarak and president George W. Bush that they are determined to introduce democratic reforms in the Middle East.
Making this denial, Dr Majdi Radhi, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, also denied on October 23 press allegations that instructions had been issued to editors of national newspapers to side with the ruling party and ignore the role of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood). Dr Radhi said that the prime minster had not issued any instructions to government newspapers, either to highlight the achievements of the ruling party (run by Mubarak's son, Jamal) or to ignore the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen. He added that the media should report accurately and not distort facts about the tussle between the government and political parties and individuals. He claimed, for instance, that one meeting the press had reported was not between the prime minister and newspaper editors, but between himself and the heads of three administrative organisations who had been invited to discuss financial matters.
But Radhi's case had already been ruined two days before, when Dr Ahmed Nadif, the prime minister, repeated his pledge to preserve the transparency of the elections and make them as honest as the presidential elections of September 7. “The conduct of the government will be the same as that it adopted during the presidential poll,” he said. Nadif was responding to a report in Saut al-Ummah, an Egyptian weekly. The report claimed that the prime minister had met the chief editors of the national newspapers several days earlier, ordering them to highlight the ruling party's candidates and ignore those of the Ikhwan.
The reference to the transparency of the presidential poll was a serious mistake, as it was bound to bring to people's attention the allegations that were being denied: that the regime had instructed national newspapers to side with the government and that those opposing Mubarak's candidacy should be ignored. The sales of newspapers and magazines, such as the English-language Cairo magazine, had been suspended; the suppression of media reports and other forms of criticism caught the world's attention. To take one example, Sophie Redmond of Article 19, the international campaign for free expression, was quoted 20 days before the election as saying that the crackdown on Cairo magazine just before an election was a clear sign of fraud. “The stifling of Cairo magazine in this way is particularly worrying in the lead up to the limited presidential elections in September,” she had said. “Restriction placed on media in the run up to elections is a very strong early warning sign, and can be used as an indicator of the fairness of elections.”
There is little doubt that national newspapers have been instructed to portray the ruling party in a good light and its opponents in a negative manner. The Ikhwan, for example, has been blamed for the recent clashes in Alexandria between Muslims and Copts. The absurdity of this was seen when the Ikhwan emerged as the mediator between the two parties in the dispute, arranging a conference to which Shanoda, the head of the Coptic church, and Tantouri, Shaikh of al-Azhar, were invited. Clearly the attempt to involve the Ikhwan in this unfortunate incident was intended to reduce its influence in the elections and increase Coptic support for the ruling National Democratic Party.
One of the government newspapers that is active in promoting both the ruling party and Mubarak's status as a ‘democratic and transparent ruler' is al-Ahram daily. This newspaper even backs the US's claims that it supports democratic reforms in the Middle East and that it is a strong and faithful ally of Egypt. Sometimes it criticises Arab governments that it believesWashington disapproves of. Thus it accepts the conclusions of the UN report on the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the late ex-prime minister of Lebanon, which blames the Syrian government for the murder. Even at a time when other Arab media and indeed politicians, were reserving judgement, al-Ahram has supported the report's conclusions and called for the perpetrators to be punished. Al-Ahram, like other government newspapers, also approves of Mubarak's undertaking diplomatic missions for Bush. Mubarak, who was influential in bringing about the reconciliation between Mu'ammar Qaddafi, the Libyan ruler, and Bush, and is putting not-so-secret pressure on Sudan to improve its relations with Washington, has already taken credit for bringing about ‘peace' between the Palestinians and the Israeli government, and continues to treat Sharon, Israel's prime minister, as an honest seeker for a just settlement between the two sides in the conflict.
This explains the US's praise for Mubarak on his victory in a “just and transparent poll”, and its silence on the widely reported rigging that his regime has practised. To Bush Mubarak is a highly valued ally, and the best replacement for him when he finally bows out in 2011 will be his son, Jamal. The current elections are being designed to produce a parliament that will lay the foundations for Jamal's victory when the presidential polls open that year.