Hosni Mubarak’s announcement on Tuesday that he would not run for reelection in Egypt’s presidential election in September raised hopes that democracy might actually begin to flourish in that country after years of repression. But while Mubarak leaving is certainly necessary for a legitimate election to be held, it is by no means sufficient. The regime in Egypt has had ample experience rigging elections in its favor, and even with Mubarak himself out of the picture it will still control many of the levers of power. It is far from a sure bet that a presidential election this year will be fair, or that it will produce a favorable result for the thousands of protestors who have driven Mubarak from power.
Past elections in Egypt have been anything but democratic. Before 2005, there were no multi-party presidential elections at all. Instead, the People’s Assembly nominated a candidate and his nomination was confirmed by a national referendum (in Mubarak’s case, always with more than 90 percent approval).
In 2005, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) pushed through a constitutional amendment that opened up presidential elections to competition for the first time. Still, the new election law was widely criticized, particularly for the restrictions it placed on candidates. Recognized political parties were allowed to nominate a candidate, but independents had to collect signatures from 250 elected officials, a daunting task for anyone not approved by the NDP, which dominates all levels of Egypt’s government. This requirement effectively banned the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group (though they were able to run independent candidates in parliamentary elections later that year).
Those candidates that could run had little chance against Mubarak and the NDP. No international observers were allowed, and domestic monitors were only officially given permission to observe inside polling stations two hours after polls opened on Election Day. The NDP’s domination of the political and electoral authorities was sufficient to give Mubarak 88.6 percent of the vote, disappointing by his standards. Perhaps tellingly, later that year his closest competitor, Ayman Nour of the Ghad party, was sentenced to five years in jail on a trumped-up fraud charge.
Mubarak’s regime once again exhibited its talents for electoral manipulation in last year’s parliamentary elections, which the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development (the somewhat oddly acronymed EASD) called “one of the most controversial parliamentary election ever held in Egypt” (EASD’s final report is available as a PDF here). Again there were no international observers, under the pretext that they would interfere in the process and that the Egyptian people would not want them anyway. EASD’s efforts were severely hampered, with about 25 percent of its monitors either being expelled from polling stations or prevented from entering them in the first place.
Once again, the NDP dominated. The Muslim Brotherhood, which had effectively gained 88 seats by running independent candidates in 2005 (allegedly as a message from Mubarak to the Bush administration about the dangers of pushing democracy in the Middle East), lost all but one seat in 2010. Opposition groups alleged widespread fraud, and most boycotted runoff elections in December.
Given this history, it is hard to imagine that Mubarak’s absence will be enough to change things going forward. The NDP will still have a strong incentive to rig things in its favor, particularly in a winner-take-all presidential election that will determine the country’s direction for the next six years. And regardless of any reforms pushed through in the wake of the ongoing protests, the current regime will still be able to exert significant influence over the people and institutions that will run the elections.
That said, there are a few specific questions that will be important in determining how the elections turn out:
Who will be allowed to run?
The candidacy requirements for the 2005 elections drew considerable criticism, and the requirements on the books for 2011 are even stricter. Only parties that have existed for five years and have at least five percent of seats in both houses of parliament can automatically field a candidate (the NDP is the only party that comes close to meeting both criteria). Independents face the same 250 signature requirement as before. Apparently Mubarak pledged in his speech on Tuesday that he would relax candidate restrictions, but it remains to be seen what his proposed changes will be, and how far his party will be willing to go to accept potential challengers.
Will international observers be invited?
As mentioned above, Egypt has refused to invite international observers to any of its recent elections. While these groups cannot collect the same breadth or depth of information as domestic monitors, they do provide important services. For one, they can support domestic monitors by calling the government out on any restrictions it tries to place on their activities. They also generally have greater legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, which will almost certainly play a key role in determining how these elections turn out.
Will domestic monitors be allowed to operate freely?
This may be the most important question. EASD is a large, sophisticated organization that has worked with some of the leading democracy promotion groups in the world, but it faced significant pressure from the government in the last elections. If given free reign, and protected from intimidation and violence, it and other domestic monitoring groups should be able to do a lot to detect and deter any fraud that might occur. If the kind of harassment seen in recent years continues, the NDP may be able to continue its electoral dominance, with or without Mubarak.
If the domestic opposition and the international community can force the regime to allow reforms in these areas, the potential for a fair electoral process will be greatly increased. Those that are pushing for Mubarak to leave should not lose sight of the fact that even after he is gone, there will still be a lot of work left to do.
Bill Gallery is a first-year student in the IPS program, studying Energy, Environment and Natural Resources.