Not fair, not free

December 13, 2005

The last round of Egypt's parliamentary elections exposed the hollowness of President Hosni Mubarak's pledge to democratically reform the Arab world's most populous country. Last Wednesday, the final day of voting, eight people were killed in skirmishes with police. During voting, which took place over the past month, turnout was a dismal 26 percent. In some areas of the country, police firing rubber bullets or swinging batons met Egyptians who tried to vote. Election observers reported many voting irregularities, and Ayman Nour, a vocal opposition figure who challenged Mr. Mubarak for the presidency, was stuck in jail on dubious charges. This was not a free and fair election, as Mr. Mubarak had promised. It was a disgrace.

But despite the government's best efforts to have the election its way, supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood won an unprecedented number of seats as independents. The Muslim Brotherhood increased its representation in parliament fivefold. The group, which had a 20-year history of violence before renouncing it 25 years ago, proposed a series of reforms last year in its drive to join the political mainstream. Some Egyptians reportedly voted for Muslim Brotherhood candidates not because they wanted an Islamic state, but because they wanted a change in the status quo. The group's electoral wins should wake up Mr. Mubarak to the fact that change is afoot. He can stand in its way or help bring it along.

As the self-proclaimed champion of democracy in the Middle East, the Bush administration showed little or no interest in what was going on in Egypt. Its initial comments on election violence bore no resemblance to events on the ground, and its later remarks, expressing "serious concerns" about the pace of reform, stood out for what they were - diplomatic catch-up. If the administration can't persuade the Egyptian government, the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, to institute basic political reforms and ensure a free and fair election, then its Mideast democracy campaign should be unmasked for what it is - political rhetoric.

As for Mr. Mubarak, he has been in office 24 years. He is 77 years old. In the closing days of his political career, Mr. Mubarak can nurture democratic reform and set the example for the Arab world, or he can remain an obstacle to change and sharpen his legacy of political despotism.

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