By Mike Rowley
The government of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak claims an 83% “yes” vote on a 54% turnout in its constitutional referendum last week. This will allow opposition candidates to stand for the presidency against Mubarak, but only if they are selected by the dictator’s own oddly named “National Democratic Party”.
However, reporters and observers saw only deserted polling stations. Supporters of the opposition Wafd Party, which called for a boycott of the referendum, followed government supporters who voted at eight separate polling stations, their ballot papers not being checked. Many opposition demonstrators were arrested, and by contrast the police stood by while armed Mubarak supporters attacked oppositionists.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and best-organised party of the political-Islamist right, supported the boycott call. The Muslim Brotherhood is illegal in Egypt, but has much support among the middle class, controlling the lawyers’ and other professional associations. Mubarak’s government has responded to the Brotherhood’s popularity by trying to prove itself as right-wing as they are, most prominently by persecuting gays.
Internationally, the Bush administration has supported the referendum, declaring it a step on the way to “democracy” in the Middle East. The US government is keen for apparent “reforms” in Arab countries to give some credibility to their Middle East policy, but Egypt is a valuable regional ally and they are unlikely to risk upsetting Mubarak by pressing too hard for real change.
Egypt has a strong secular democratic opposition movement, and this movement has denounced Bush for hailing the “wisdom” of Mubarak’s referendum. The US government is thereby encouraging repression of the sort that was seen in Egypt around the referendum, and abandoning Egyptian secular democrats to the twin enemies of dictatorship and fundamentalism.