Neither the polished diplomatic language nor the exchange of compliments between Egypt and Washington last week hid the mutual wrath. Washington demanded Egypt allow foreign observers to be present for its parliamentary elections this coming Monday while Egypt sees this demand as interference in domestic affairs.
"It seems the United States is insisting on not respecting Egyptian society's privacy and is making statements hurtful to Egypt's nationalism," fumed the Egyptian Foreign Ministry.
America's ambassador to Cairo, Margaret Scobey, hastened to reassure: "This isn't intervention in Egypt's domestic affairs," she said. "We just want to encourage a very close friend of ours [that] these elections are very important and the Egyptian people want opportunities for greater partnership in the Egyptian political process and a government that will represent all the constituents of Egyptian society."
If this isn't intervention, it would be interesting to know what intervention looks like. It would be equally interesting to know whether Washington aspires to have the banned Muslim Brotherhood become a part of the "political system."
Washington knows why elections in Egypt need outside supervision, just as the Egyptian administration knows why foreign observers are an unwanted nuisance. Falsifying results, buying votes, arrests of the opposition, threats to opponents and even physical harm have been common in previous elections.
A stunning example of electoral conduct was reported last week on elaph.com, whose correspondent on Cairo, Sabri Hasanin, managed to interview Egyptian women who earn money by "election bullying." These women provide personal security services to candidates and are prepared "make problems" for their clients' rivals, like fabricating sexual harassment or rape charges. They are also prepared to use cold weapons against rivals, harm their families and organize backers' rallies or victory parties.
Each "service" has a price tag. Research by Rif'at Abed Al Hamid, a former top official in the Egyptian Interior Ministry, indicates the tariff for the coming elections is ready. Thus, these women will charge about 47,000 Egyptian pounds if they succeed in causing a candidate to lose; disrupting and breaking up a candidate's rally will cost 10,000 Egyptian pounds; a beating that kills someone costs 15,000; using a knife costs 4,000; telephone threats cost 1,000; and insulting a rival candidate in folk song is possible for 500 Egyptian pounds an hour.
Hairdressers and market hawkers
These women, some of whom work at ordinary jobs like hairdressing or selling vegetables in the markets, do not confine themselves to election periods to earn a bit of extra money. In ordinary times they also provide such services as debt collection and roughing up husbands who refuse to pay alimony or have taken additional wives without their wives' agreement. Sometimes they even help "respectable people" exact revenge on criminals who have harmed them when the authorities can do nothing.
"We operate to get rid of whoever is exploiting anyone who turns to us," said one of the women who were interviewed. "We do good." And good has its price.
If such bullying of candidates is a limited, nearly anecdotal, phenomenon, the tactics the government uses to reduce the opposition are sweeping. Thus, the Interior Ministry decided that campaign advertising would begin only on November 14, two days before the four-day Feast of the Sacrifice, and thus blocked the possibility of open campaigning.
Under a ruling of the Supreme Election Commission a candidate may spend up to 200,000 Egyptian pounds on campaign propaganda but there is no way of checking how much he has received in contributions or from whom or how much he has spent. The regime can decide whom to investigate and can disregard allegations against ruling party candidates and file indictments against opponents.
The page of instructions for a candidates does not explicitly state what documents are required to present to the registration committee so they can harass candidates as they see fit. Human rights organizations intending to supervise the elections have been threatened with losing their licenses and there is a ban on direct broadcast of street interviews. These may be screened only after the TV stations have received special permission from the state Radio and Television Union. The religious television stations have been shut down for weeks.
Journalists have reported receiving anonymous phone calls warning them against "taking a stand."
The Egyptian parliament is not a real forum for political confrontation and the elections this week will not change its makeup in any significant way. The national Democratic Party, which is the ruling party, will continue to hold on to its parliamentary majority and it's not clear whether the Muslim Brotherhood, which is fielding candidates as independents, will achieve more than it did in 2005, when it chalked up 88 of the 454 seats in parliament.
However, this time it is especially important for the ruling party to show a sweeping victory and to take the wind out of the sails of the opposition, which is getting ready for the really important race - next year's presidential elections. President Hosni Mubarak has not yet decided whether he will run or retire, and his son, Gamal Mubarak, is also not letting on just what he will do if his father retires. The ruling party, which has the the country's mechanisms in its grip, will want to ensure its hold on any of the possible scenarios.
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