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Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010

Preparing the ground for the Egyptian heir

LONDON — Egyptian elections are always highly predictable affairs, but the second round of this year's parliamentary elections on Dec. 5, was completely pointless. The first round on Nov. 28 showed that the regime was going to suppress even the marginal role permitted to prodemocracy parties in previous elections, so the leading opposition parties simply refused to participate in the second round.

It's hardly news that the Egyptian regime rigs elections: Egyptian voters are wearily familiar with that fact, and the turnout this time was only 10 to 15 percent of the 42 million eligible voters. But the rigging has become embarrassingly blatant. The largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, whose members held almost one-fifth of the elected seats (88 out of 508) in the outgoing parliament, won no seats at all in the first round this time.

It had little hope of winning any in the runoff round either, so it declared that it was withdrawing from the whole charade. The next biggest opposition party, the liberal New Wafd party, whose parliamentary presence looked likely to crash to two seats, did the same. But why, if it was already guaranteed to win, would the regime reduce the elections to a farce by eliminating even a token opposition in the new parliament?

The reason is Gamal Mubarak, the second son of the reigning dictator, 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak. The latter keeps hinting that he is going to run for another term as president next year, 30 years after he inherited the job from the assassinated Anwar Sadat, but his health is poor and few Egyptians believe him. They think he is really going to push his 47-year-old son Gamal into the presidency.

This would not be a first for the Arab world. Syrian dictator Hafiz Assad, who died in 2000 after 30 years in power, chose his son Bashar to succeed him. The ruling Ba'ath Party did his bidding because it was safer than having an open power struggle that might jeopardize its hold on power.

When Libya's dictator Moammar Gadhafi (already in power for over 40 years) finally dies, he too will almost certainly be succeeded by his son. But these are shameless one-party states. Egypt is a more sophisticated place.

The Egyptian regime has always tried to maintain a democratic facade, even though all three of the country's rulers for the past 56 years have been ex-military officers. Since Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal has no military background, he especially needs some form of democratic process to make his power seem legitimate to the outside world.

What the Mubaraks do not need, at this delicate time, is a large and vocal opposition in Parliament that will denounce next year's presidential election as a disgrace to democracy. Yet that was what they were going to face if they didn't rig this year's parliamentary elections, and to do that they needed to change the rules.

The Egyptian constitution of 1971 required judicial supervision of elections ("a judge for every ballot box"), but this never happened in practice until 2000. That was when the Constitutional Court ruled that preceding elections had been invalid because no judges were present in the polling stations — so in the 2000 parliamentary elections, the judges did show up.

The presence of judges made it harder for ruling-party thugs to intimidate voters or even to stuff ballot boxes in the traditional manner. As a result, the opposition parties actually won significant numbers of seats in parliament in the 2000 elections, and even more in 2005. So in 2007 the regime changed the constitution: judicial supervision of elections was abolished.

It was back to the bad old days in this year's election, with NDP candidates coming in first in almost every constituency. Even Washington, the regime's main ally, said it was "dismayed" by the chicanery, but at least there will be no criticism from Parliament when Gamal Mubarak is crowned as his father's heir in next year's presidential election.

There are those who argue that this will be good for Egypt even if it is undemocratic. Gamal Mubarak is a modernizer who has opened up the economy, they point out, and besides he represents stability. Egypt's recent burst of economic growth, after decades of near-stagnation, could not have happened without him.

The corruption and nepotism at the top of Egyptian society are breathtaking even by Middle Eastern standards, and economic growth does not trickle down even to the middle class, let alone to the poor. It is a country ruled by and for a narrow elite, and there is no sign that it will change anytime soon.

Why do Egyptians put up with it? It's not enough to blame it on American support for the Mubaraks, or on fear of the regime's police and spies, although those things do play a role. Egyptians have just lost hope, and numbly accept what they feel they cannot change. But there is a lot of anger beneath the despair, and one day it will come out.

Gwynne Dyer's latest book, "Climate Wars," is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.

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