The Struggle over Political Order in Egypt: The 2005 Elections

Article excerpt

Although many have dismissed Egypt's first competitive presidential elections and the parliamentary elections of 2005 as a sham, the election campaigns marked a new departure in the Egyptian political sphere, including a shift in the domestic political balance. This article argues that the convergence of developments in the domestic political arena - including the emergence of new movements - the shifting emphasis of US foreign policy towards democratization, and the emergence of the new Arab media space, give the elections real significance despite the predictability of the results.

The presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt (September - December 2005) marked a new peak in the struggle for power in that country's domestic political arena, and also fueled the growing debate about the possibility of establishing genuine political reform in Arab countries. Following Husni Mubarak's overwhelming victory (88%) in the presidential elections, numerous claims were heard, both in and outside of Egypt, that nothing had changed in the Land of the Nile. A New York Times editorial column, headlined "Egypt's Imitation Election" proclaimed: "the election was an elaborate and largely meaningless sham."1 Similar remarks were heard following the parliamentary elections in December. This article examines these elections in three main contexts: the ongoing struggle for power in the domestic Egyptian political arena, the role of US Middle East policy, and the establishment of the new Arab media space. My conclusion is that in all three contexts, the Egyptian elections have reshuffled the deck. In the struggle for domination of the local political arena, the elections are likely not only to instigate a significant change in power relations between the Egyptian regime and its opponents, but could also possibly become a model for reform in other Arab countries.

Husni Mubarak entered office under tragic circumstances - following the assassination of President Anwar A1-Sadat (October 6, 1981). In his 11-year administration, Sadat initiated significant reforms in his country's internal, foreign, and security policies. His "Open Door Policy" (al-Infitah) was intended to help Egypt emerge from its calamitous economic state by redefining the national agenda. Sadat's political re-orientation was, first and foremost, based on close cooperation with the United States and resolving the conflict with Israel. His foreign and security policies were derived from this position. In the economic field he initiated a series of steps aimed at creating a market economy in Egypt, expanding activity in the private sector, increasing foreign investments, and minimizing the dominance of the public sector. The social implications of this policy were soon evident. Prices and the cost of living rose steadily, while subsidies on consumer products and fuel were reduced continuously. Unemployment rates reached a new high, especially among the educated. The gap between the affluent and the poor widened, and with it a large segment of the population became increasingly frustrated with its inability to break out of the cycle of poverty and suffering.2

Sadat's assassination occurred against a background of an escalating struggle between the regime and the opposition. Sadat acknowledged his commitment to democracy on many occasions, but any steps implemented were minimal and aimed at ensuring the government's continuing dominance in the political arena. The various opposition movements demanded comprehensive reforms, but the Egyptian leadership was only willing to accept limited reforms that would not substantially upset the existing political order. Egypt's multiple security services enabled the government to effectively keep an eye on the opposition. Still, the government was unable to neutralize its domestic opponents or totally silence their intense criticism.

From the beginning of the 1970s, an incipient change was evident in the political arena. …