The Middle East’s Sham Democracy

Egypt held parliamentary elections on Sunday. Egyptians already knew what the results would be in advance however.

Egypt is one of Americas closest and most dependable allies in the Middle East. Yet its openness to political reform and dedication to democracy are anything but genuine.

Ever since Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, the country has been ruled by a single strongman, buffeted by an expansive, brutal and loyal security service. Human rights violations, particularly against political opponents, are commonplace with thousands of protesters thrown into prison on the most frivolous of charges. 

Egypt’s army and police force is given an enormous amount of leeway and jurisdiction when it comes to arresting and detaining “criminals”. After Sadat’s killing, an “Emergency Law” was put into effect that provided the armed forces with unlimited power. Most public officials in the Egyptian government are cronies that depend on handouts and other “goodies” from the regime itself. And as might be expected in any autocracy, civil society groups and political parties must first receive the state’s permission before competing in the electoral process.

Taking all of this into consideration, perhaps it isn’t surprising that Egyptian citizens have not at all been excited about their parliamentary elections Sunday. Many of the poor and most in the middle class brush the elections away as if they are a façade, or a tool used to boost the legitimacy of a unpopular regime.

In many ways, they are right. Human rights organizations and the small political parties that compete with the regime are under the heavy hand of the state during the entire process. The United States are even getting around to the same conclusion. The Obama Administration has expressed its frustrations and reservations to Hosni Mubarak on his lack of political reform, unfortunately to no avail. President George W. Bush was perhaps the most vocal in his criticism, which eventually paved the way for a semi-accountable parliamentary contest in 2005.

Yet whatever accomplishments were made back then, today’s Egypt is returning to its old ways. In fact, Mubarak’s security forces have been much more assertive this year in preempting challengers. Free media, ranging from text messaging, satellite television, independent newspapers and radio broadcasts, has been curtailed to such a degree that it’s difficult to believe Egypt was once considered the center of gravity in the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition bloc to Mubarak’s party, has witnessed over 1,000 of its members rounded up in the streets and thrown into jail. In addition to the arrests, the weeks long crackdown has had a tremendous psychological impact on the entire Brotherhood organization. A group that is usually strong and unified is now coming apart at the seams, with some members questioning why the Brotherhood decided to take part in the elections at all.

Egypt has always been seen as an autocratic state. But this year’s repression is quite remarkable when compared to other cases. Speculation thus far has rested on the idea that the regime is simply trying to create a supportive environment for the next presidential election. Rumors are that the ailing Mubarak will soon give the reigns over to his son Gamal, a young and inexperienced politician who needs all the help he can get in solidifying control.

But the motive may be more black and white than that. In the last parliamentary election, the Muslim Brotherhood shocked the world by capturing 20 percent of the parliament. The Mubarak regime never experienced that type of defeat before. While the ruling party still won the election, the gains that were made by the Brotherhood were quite embarrassing for the regime. The poor showing by the dominant party was both a direct referendum on its ability to govern and a punch to the ego of the Egyptian government. Mubarak doesn’t want this to happen again, and he will use all the power at his disposal to make sure this goal is met.

In the end, Mubarak’s supporters will win Sunday’s elections, but the results will do nothing to improve the regime’s credibility with the Egyptian people. If the United States speak up and denounce the results, Cairo will look exceedingly bad. But if Washington stays silent, as they are projected to do, the average Egyptians will once again be the real losers.