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INSIGHT

Egyptian Elections

Aired March 7, 2006 - 18:00:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


JONATHAN MANN, CNN HOST: A year of living dangerously. Twelve months ago, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak promised his country its first democratic presidential elections. The politicians and voters, judgers and journalists who didn't know what to expect know better know.
Hello and welcome.

One year ago, President Hosni Mubarak stunned his country. He promised to change the system that had kept him in power, essentially without opposition, for a quarter-century. Mubarak, like his predecessors, had always been routinely confirmed in office with rubberstamp referendums. No campaign, no other candidates, no election. Just a simple yes or no to six more years of the same.

Instead, Egypt was to get a real election, an end to emergency laws that have put strict limits on political life and a chance at real democracy. Egypt has now had its chance and by most accounts has missed it.

On our program today, the pyramid scheme.

CNN's Ben Wedeman, our Cairo bureau chief, has this look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CAIRO BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): For a year Egyptians have done something they haven't done in a long time: raise their voices against their rulers and their government.

Some called it the Arab spring, but here that spring seems to be coming to an end.

At the offices of an opposition weekly, journalists peck away at the latest edition of a newspaper that may soon die. They haven't been paid in months. The paper owes more than $100,000 to the state-owned printer. It's the official publication of the liberal (INAUDIBLE) or Tomorrow Party. The party's leader, Ayman Nour, runner-up in Egypt's first-ever competitive presidential elections last September.

Today he's behind bars, serving a five-year sentence for allegedly forging signatures on the petition to legalize the party. Human rights groups say the trial was a sham.

Nour's wife, Gamila, says her husband's fall is a cautionary tale.

GAMILA ISMAIL, WIFE OF AYMAN NOUR: The message by the regime to everybody, that whoever dares to put his head up, he will immediately be hit by all means, personal, career, politically, socially, financially, everything. He won't be there. He won't exist. Not him, not his family, not his supporters, not his relatives, not his party members. Nobody.

WEDEMAN: A year ago, President Hosni Mubarak called for a constitutional amendment ending the old system of yes or no referenda for the presidency. It marked the beginning of a hot year of upheaval in a land where autocratic habits go back to the days of the pharaohs.

But now a chill has descended on Cairo. Judge Kishan Bastluisi (ph) accused fellow magistrates tasked with overseeing parliamentary elections of aiding and abetting government-inspired electoral fraud. The elections were marred by irregularities. State security forces, uniformed and plain clothed, used violence and intimidation to stop voters from casting their ballots. More than 10 people were killed in election-related clashes.

Now Bastluisi (ph) and several likeminded judges face possible legal action for speaking out.

"It's like schizophrenia," he says of the regime's rulers. "They talk about democracy, but act like dictators. They talk about an independent judiciary then try to control it. They talk about combating corruption while corruption increases."

The parliamentary elections ended with the Fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, officially banned but tolerated, winning one-fifth of the seats, and the secular opposition in tatters. Seventy-seven-year-old Mubarak, many fear, has no intention of leaving power.

ISMAIL: That's the democracy of Alzheimer. I mean, if you have an old president, as old as President Mubarak, he's doing this, so this must be the democracy of Alzheimer. This is not what we expected. This is not what we -- what we, you know, thought will happen to us, to other opposition, to the judges, to everybody.

WEDEMAN: The Bush administration pushed Egypt on its reluctant lurch toward democratic reform. But recently in Cairo, America's top diplomat voiced only muted criticism of the Mubarak regime.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE, U.S. SECY. OF STATE: We understand that it is a process to come to a political system that opens up from being a closed system to one that is pluralistic, from where there is one candidate to many, where parliamentary elections are completely free. It takes time. We understand that.

WEDEMAN: Such understanding leaves some wondering if American enthusiasm for reform has cooled following the Brotherhood's stunning gains here and Hamas' victory in the Palestinian territories.

GHADA SHAHBANDAR, DEMOCRACY ACTIVIST: People say this is not an ally we can rely on.

WEDEMAN: Ghada Shahbandar runs an election monitoring group called (UNINTELLIGIBLE), Arabic for We're Watching You.

SHAHBANDAR: American policymakers are all switching sides. They want change and then oh, maybe not that much change.

WEDEMAN: Other activists worry Egypt can ill-afford more years of what they say is a politically bankrupt dictatorship.

HISHAM QASIM, INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER PUBLISHER: It's left us on the verge of state failure.

WEDEMAN: Hisham Qasim runs one of Egypt's few independent daily newspapers.

QASIM: It's difficult to talk about a reform process when power is so centralized in the hands of one man and a few people around him.

WEDEMAN: Effective power still sits with the ruling National Democratic Party, the NDP. The party, critics say, has been asleep at the wheel for decades.

Mohamed Kamal is trying to rouse the party from within and insists political reform is real.

MOHAMED KAMAL, NDP: I don't think these were cosmetic changes. I think these were real changes. I think these were real changes. We have achieved many things, but I say also we still have a long way to go and there is no going back on democracy.

WEDEMAN: Even within the ruling party there is dissatisfaction. Hala Mustafa joined the NDP hoping it would be a vehicle for change. Now she's disillusioned.

HALA MUSTAFA, NDP: I think we go one step forward and two steps back, and I'm afraid that after a period of time that we will return back to the same stagnant situation that Egypt is stuck at for more than 20 years.

WEDEMAN (on camera): A sandstorm now obscures hopes for a political spring here. Police recently rounded up several prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood and municipal elections, in which the Brotherhood was expected to do well, have been postponed for two years. Old habits, as they say, die hard.

Ben Wedeman, CNN, Cairo.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MANN: We're going to take a break and then talk more about what went wrong on Egypt's road to reform, but first a look back at some important stops along the way.

The unexpected opening began last February when President Mubarak, as we mentioned, called for the first multi-candidate elections for the presidency.

In the months that followed he set another precedent by actually campaigning for reelection where, most remarkably, he allowed himself to be publicly criticized as never before. When the presidential ballots were cast and counted in September, Mubarak was credited with 88 percent of the vote. His closest rival, Ayman Nour, was officially given 7 percent of the vote. The most telling number, perhaps, three-quarters of the country didn't bother to cast ballots; turnout only 23 percent.

Egypt's parliamentary ballot followed in November and December I three rounds of voting. The Muslim Brotherhood made enormous gains from the very first round. Observers said the second and third rounds were notable for their level of government violence and intimidation.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Egyptian activists call May 25, 2005 Black Wednesday. Reform supporters demonstrating in Cairo were beaten and sexually assaulted by thugs who were said to have been assisted by police. The Cairo Prosecutor General's office launched an investigation, but then closed it months later without ever laying charges. Despite witness accounts and widely available video and photographs of the incident, the prosecutor said no basis for a criminal suit exists because the culprits are unknown.

Welcome back.

For some activists, that day in May was a turning point, a sign that the regime had finally gone too far with a crude crackdown violating the modesty of Muslim women. But the government has closed the books on Black Wednesday, and apparently the possibility of reform as well.

Joining us now to talk about that is Mona Eltahawy, a columnist with the London-based newspaper "Asharq Al Awsat," who spent months covering the Egyptian elections.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Let me ask you first of all about the entire election season. There was the presidential vote and then there was the parliamentary vote which itself took two months to complete. To your mind, was it suspect from beginning to end, top to bottom? Or was there for a time an element of real reform in what Egyptian's were living through?

MONA ELTAHAWY, "ASHARQ AL-AWSAT": I think the suspicions began quite early last year when President Hosni Mubarak announced that we would have our first contested presidential election in Egypt, because it became apparent very quickly that it would be -- it would be almost impossible for independent candidates to run for president, for the presidency. Not this first time, around, but in the future.

So it looked like the system was being rigged from the get-go, so to speak, so I think a lot of people had their suspicions quite early on. And several of the protest movements urged Egyptians to boycott the referendum that would eventually make legal this change to the constitution that allowed the contested presidential elections.

And for the parliamentary elections, people started -- you know, the antlers went up when the Muslim Brotherhood were given unprecedented access to campaign and to run for seats in parliament. We're used to -- in Egypt, we're used to the Muslim Brotherhood being arrested en masse in the run-up to parliamentary elections. This year, they were released from prison and almost encouraged to campaign. So that got some people's suspicions going, definitely.

MANN: Well, suspicions? Or would that have made people more optimistic? The opposition as allowed to organize. People who had been thrown in jail for saying things said them again and were let out of jail. The Muslim Brotherhood faced hundreds of arrests but was out in the streets, was more open than ever before. Did anything at all change because of that?

ELTAHAWY: Well, I think the general climate -- the climate in general had improved in the sense that you did have newspapers, like the newspaper whose publisher you spoke with, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and other independent publications that were very critical of President Mubarak and his family, in particular, which is unprecedented for Egypt.

But alongside this climate, a lot of people were noticing that the most -- the people who were enjoying this freedom the most were the Muslim Brotherhood. It was that state and the mosque dichotomy again and people who were advocating a more liberal and secular approach to politics, like Ayman Nour, were being tried. So you had these two parallel developments running side by side, and people were wondering exactly what would win in the end, and obviously it was the Muslim Brotherhood winning the largest block in parliament, and emergency laws staying in place.

And if we talk about real reform in Egypt, we need to dismantle emergency laws, because they're the ones that stand in the way of any kind of opposition to either the government or the Muslim Brotherhood.

And one good thing that I can say came out of last year, although I don't know how long it will take to see results from this, is that President Mubarak actually gave us a campaign agenda. He said, "I will do A, B and C." And we can now hold that up to him and say, look, you haven't done any of this, and number one on this list is the repeal of emergency laws, which we still haven't seen in Egypt.

MANN: The Muslim Brotherhood is still illegal. Does it emerge stronger, though, now? Does it emerge even more likely to become someday a mainstream part of the political process?

ELTAHAWY: Well, it's mainstream in the sense that now they are the largest opposition block in parliament, but it's like this on again/off again switch that the government uses. Because it became very clear as the parliamentary elections moved along, during those three rounds, in November and December, that the government realized that the Muslim Brotherhood were going to do much better than they had anticipated, which is why we saw the crackdown on the violence. And it was almost as if the Egyptian government had declared war on its own people, because you had front-page photographs on opposition newspapers showing security forces opening fire and shooting tear gas at Egyptians.

So the Muslim Brotherhood definitely has that presence on the street, but as your correspondent mentioned, they've been arrested -- several of their prominent members were arrested over the past few days. So the government is still -- the government is in control of everything, and that is the message that we come away from -- come away from that past year with.

MANN: So where does that leave the opposition now? Is it back to where it was before the apparent opening, or does it have something that it can build on?

ELTAHAWY: Well, the opposition, the secular liberal opposition, be they leftist or liberals, is in tatters, as your report made clear. And they realize they need to rebuild, because they are not viable political parties in Egypt. They're out of touch with the street. They're out of touch with the needs of most Egyptians. So they need to basically just start from zero, but in order to do that they need to have an open political environment, and this is where the United States administration and where the West in general and those who advocate for democracy in Egypt come in.

If the Bush administration is sincerely interested in democracy in Egypt, this is the point it must stress to the Egyptian government, that they must repeal emergency laws and they must allow a greater opening in the political environment that would allow these opposition parties to go out there and get their message out to Egyptians.

MANN: You're anticipating an important conversation, and we're going to have it in a moment, but let me ask you just one last question about internal Egyptian politics. Hosni Mubarak is nearly 80 years old. He's not going to live forever. His party -- at least some elements of his party -- know that there has to be change and that there will eventually be a successor. Does Egyptian government, does the regime, does the party know what is going to happen next?

ELTAHAWY: Well, we haven't had a vice president since President Hosni Mubarak took over after the assassination of Anwar Sadat. He was the vice president to Anwar Sadat. But he has never named a vice president, so we don't have that mechanism in place.

But what we do have in Egypt is many, many rumors that have been rife for a couple of years now, that his son, Gamal Mubarak, will take over from the father. And we saw Gamal play quite a leading role in the run-up to the presidential and parliamentary elections last year. And he has began -- after the "reformers," quote/unquote, within the National Democratic Party, were defeated within their own party by those who were more conservative and more hard-line, Gamal kind of disappeared for a while, but he's back now.

And this is what most Egyptians think is going to happen, that the son will succeed the father in the way that Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father and that we've seen happen in several other Arab countries, that the Republic of Egypt will basically turn into this kind of, I don't know, monarchy by, I don't know, democratic monarchy of some kind. But this is what Egyptians think is going to happen because, as you said, President Mubarak is not a young man.

MANN: Mona Eltahawy, of "Asharq Al Awsat," thanks so much for talking with us.

ELTAHAWY: Thank you.

MANN: We have to take a break now once again. When we come back, what happened to the other people who said they wanted democracy in Egypt, the Americans?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

MANN: Her comings and goings might offer a clue. One year ago, Condoleezza Rice cancelled a planned visit to Egypt after the arrest of activist Ayman Nour. He was released and she relented, making a public show of support for Nour and the broader movement for reform. But Nour, as we've heard, has been sentenced to five years behind bars, and last month Rice went back anyway.

Welcome back.

Many Egyptians were cynical about their president's sudden democratic sympathies. They explained it as a result of U.S. pressure and they were cynical about the U.S. pressure as well. Did the United States start the process and then abandon it?

Joining us now to talk about that is Khaled Dawoud, chief Washington correspondent of the Egyptian government daily newspapers "Al Ahram."

Thanks so much for being with us.

KHALED DAWOUD, "AL AHRAM": Thank you, Jonathan.

MANN: Let me ask you that question from the very outset. There was reason from the very first days that Hosni Mubarak was talking about a real democratic presidential election to doubt his sincerity when President Bush announced that a campaign for democracy in the Middle East was going to be one of the hallmarks of his second term in office.

Were you, were your readers, cynical from the very start?

DAWOUD: To a certain extent, because we have a very long experience of the United States, not just this administration but previous administrations as well, of saying that they are all going for democracy and reforms in the Middle East but then at the end of the day, the reality on the ground, the strategic interest of the United States and the situation in the region itself dictates how the United States behaves in the end.

Like, for example, when you have the relation between the United States and Saudi, if pushing too much for democracy in Saudi would lead to internal problems and increase of the oil prices, I think maybe the Bush administration will slow down. The same maybe sometimes applies to Egypt in the case of the situation we have right now in Gaza. The United States definitely needs the Egyptian government, whether in Palestinian, in Iraq, on several issues. So this definitely has pushed several administrations to go through ups and downs.

MANN: You've covered a lot of ground there. Let me go back and ask you to just be more concrete.

To your mind, as someone who watches both American and Egyptian politics closely, fair to say that whatever pressure Washington was putting on Mubarak's government to change is now over?

DAWOUD: I don't think so. I mean, I was actually privileged to have a -- to take part in a round table with Secretary Rice before she left to the region recently. A number of Arabic reporters. And what I can say, Jonathan, is that there is a little bit a change of tone, but not change of the final objective, which is to have democracy in the region, because the present administration does believe that one of the main reasons for the rise of extremism is the lack of democracy.

But at the same time, there apparently seems to be now more of a long-term policy approach, if I might say, by this administration, that the secretary sounded more understanding of the need, maybe, to be a little bit slower in order to make sure that perhaps upsetting victories, like the one that happened by Hamas in Palestinian, does not repeat itself in Egypt or in several other countries.

But at the same time, for example, Jonathan, Egypt wanted to sign the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, or start the negotiations, but because of the Ayman Nour issue, in fact that these negotiations seem to be a little bit delayed.

So I think the United States is still trying to practice pressure in this respect.

MANN: How much does the example of Hamas weigh on all of this, the idea that if the United States supports a democratic alternative in Egypt, in might end up with the Muslim Brotherhood, the same way it ended up with Hamas in the Palestinian territories?

DAWOUD: Well, I think the Hamas situation is slightly different, because of the fact this is people under occupation, at least from the Arab perspective, and that's a very important factor in this respect.

But in the case of Egypt, I mean, I don't think the Muslim Brotherhood is equally that strong, but at the same time the worry that some sort of an extremist or fundamentalist group will take power is a fact that we have to put into consideration and there are a lot of people in the region who are saying that you have to set the rules of the game first before you start allowing to have democracy or elections. But if you have a group in power which discriminates against women or against minorities and they get 60 or 70 percent support, that this means that they are allowed to remain in power.

At the same time, Jonathan, if you will allow me to tell you that the policies of the administration here, like the war in Iraq and basic sorts of different stories, the Palestinian issue, has led to the increasing influence of extremist groups, and that's another challenge we are facing in our region right now.

MANN: Have Washington and Cairo essentially switched places when it comes to democracy in the Middle East? Now Washington urging caution and leaders like Hosni Mubarak saying that you can hardly resist what the Palestinian people with their votes are trying to say, essentially Hosni Mubarak supporting respect for democratic principles and Washington urging all kinds of caution, that democracy can sometimes be inappropriate?

DAWOUD: I think Egypt and the United States, by virtue of their long relation and understanding, are trying to reach maybe a middle ground concerning this Hamas victory and try to look perhaps at the bright side of this.

If Hamas now is coming into this Palestinian government under the Oslo agreements and slowly gets into the peace process itself, recognizes Israel and accepts a two-state solution, I think that will be a very big victory for those who are seeking peace in the region.

MANN: Let me jump in, though, and ask you to bring it back to Egypt. Does it take the pressure of Egypt? Does it take the pressure off Hosni Mubarak for years to come, given what has happened in the Palestinian territories and what might have happened if the Muslim Brotherhood had been allowed to succeed more fully?

DAWOUD: I don't think so, Jonathan, because I also believe that there is a very strong and vibrant democratic pro-democracy movement right now in Egypt and it doesn't really have to do only with U.S. pressures.

You mentioned in your reports out of Cairo that there has been a different political climate, there has been more opening, there has been criticism of the president, his family, his government, more than any other time. I have seen myself, having only left Egypt three years ago, and when I go there I get stunned myself by the amount of liberties now we have, and you can't reverse all the back.

And the region is really volatile in all terms, and I'm sure you're going to see more to come. And I'm sure also by being an Egyptian myself that a lot of Egyptians will not give the quest for democracy and the right to have a sound government, accountable government.

MANN: Khaled Dawoud, of "Al Ahram," thanks so much for talking with us.

DAWOUD: Thank you.

MANN: That's INSIGHT. I'm Jonathan Mann. The news continues.

END

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