by William Fisher
American Reporter Correspondent
September 21, 2005
AMERICAN PRESS OFFERS HIGH PRAISE, HARSH CRITICISM FOR EGYPT'S ELECTION
CHATHAM, N.Y. -- Was the recent Egyptian presidential election in which voters retained President Hosni Mubarak a "shameless sham" or "a first step" to democracy and "an event to be saluted?" It depends on the American newspaper that writes about it.
Somehwat objectively, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies' report on the Egyptian elections says the mass media were generally biased toward the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate, President Mubarak. The report noted, though, that the performance of audio and visual mass media was different from that of state-owned and private mass media. State-owned newspapers, in particular daily newspapers, continued to be flagrantly biased toward the ruling party's candidate, as they were during the first week of the campaign, it said.
In the U.S., where media is not controlled by the state but is usually owned by large corporations, journalists and commentators appeared to divide neatly into two camps. One clung to the Bush Administration's view that the election represented "a first step toward democracy."
The other was that the election and the process leading up to it was "a shameless sham" intended only to ensure the uninterrupted flow of aid funds from Washington to Cairo.
In a real democratic election, said the New York Times, "The ruling party should not be allowed to shape the election arrangements and intimidate voters. The candidates should be able to compete on a reasonably level playing field. Impartial observers should be welcome and given time to deploy themselves at polling places nationwide. Not one of these defining features was evident in last week's Egyptian presidential voting, whose main purpose was to usher President Hosni Mubarak into his fifth six-year term."
The San Francisco Chronicle said, "In effect, the BBC's Cairo-based correspondent Fergus Nichol pointed out, alluding to influence from the Bush administration in preparing for this latest 'democratic' contest, Mubarak's regime had been 'forced by outside pressure into an election it never wanted. ..." As a result, Mubarak 'set out not to adapt to change, but to control it, in the process drawing a new template for cynical election management.'"
The influential Washington Post wrote, "For the first time in Egyptian history, multiple candidates were allowed to stand in the election. And many assume that credit is due the Bush administration for its persistent pleas for democracy in the Arab world. But the far more significant outcome of the presidential election is that over the last year, as Egyptians anxiously anticipated election day, a strong and significant opposition movement against Mubarak went public. And who is the backbone of this opposition movement? The Islamists. For the first time since the 1970s, thousands of Egyptians of all political and religious persuasions joined forces in street protests, demanding political reform and an end to the regime. While a fractured opposition had operated behind the scenes for years, this election inspired secularists, leftists and, most of all, Islamists to take the unprecedented step of coordinating their various campaigns against Mubarak's expected victory."
And in the heartland of America, the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Journal-Sentinel wrote, "One in every four Arabs in the world is an Egyptian. Mainly because it is so huge, Egypt has traditionally been the most influential country in the Arab world, which, in turn, is why the slightly democratic election that was held in that country last week was an event to be saluted. 'Slightly democratic' is a term of faint praise, which is what President Hosni Mubarak deserves. The election he permitted - or acquiesced in - featured nine opposition candidates, and it allowed for the possibility, however remote, of a Mubarak defeat after 24 years in power."
On America's West Coast, the Los Angeles Times editorialized, "When Mubarak announced in late July that he would run in a real presidential campaign, it might have been a watershed moment for the United States. Egypt, its most stalwart Arab ally, was finally coming around to democracy. But then came events that undermined what seemed like a positive step: security forces cracking down on peaceful public protests; the government disqualifying 19 candidates without explanation; state-run press and tv openly stumping for Mubarak despite rules requiring them to be neutral. Mubarak also refused international monitors for the election, disregarding U.S. requests. The result was an election under the watchful eye of the state, with voters filling out ballots as Mubarak supporters peered over their shoulders. The turnout was 23%, with fewer than one in four registered voters casting a ballot."
One of America's more thoughtful liberal news-weeklies, The New Republic, said, "Last week, in the state controlled newspapers, the president offered a vague promise to expand civil liberties, though he stopped short of promising to release some of the thousands of political prisoners who have languished in jails for years under the Emergency Laws. The Muslim Brotherhood, which gained new stature and visibility during the campaign, has vowed to keep the pressure on the regime. 'We want the abolishment of all the laws that limit the freedom of the Egyptian citizens,' Mohammed Mahdi Akef, supreme guide of the Brotherhood, told Newsweek. 'We will not rest until the people of Egypt know what it is to live in a free society.' In the November parliamentary elections, analysts predict, the regime will almost certainly allow opposition parties to make substantial gains, though not enough to loosen the regime's hold on power. The question for the newly energized opposition--and for the youngbloods - is whether Egyptians will settle for that."
U.S.A Today, one of this country's few national newspapers, wrote, "The government said the decision to allow challengers signals a move toward greater democracy in a country that has seen only authoritarian rule for more than a half-century. Opponents dismissed the reform claims as a sham, noting that Mubarak's party controls most of the government, including the election process, and that restrictions make it difficult for opponents to gain ground. The country's biggest Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, is banned entirely."
In Boston, the Globe newspaper wrote, "There should be no illusions about the authenticity of Wednesday's presidential election in Egypt. Even if reports of workers for President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party paying people to vote for him are unfounded, and even if objective monitors had been permitted at all 10,000 polling stations in Egypt, the exercise, with its foregone conclusion, would still be a derisory mimicking of a truly democratic election."
Whether the election created an opening for a more inclusive, more transparent and more representative process in the future will be argued for years. Only time will tell. But, speaking personally, I wouldn't hold my breath!
William Fisher is a former American diplomat. His blog, "The World According to Bill Fisher," addresses human rights issues.