Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Analysis: US wary of pushing Egypt on flawed vote

By TAREK EL-TABLAWY
The Associated Press
Wednesday, December 8, 2010; 1:44 AM

CAIRO -- Egypt's ruling party swept parliament elections through what observers call blatant vote fraud, and the United States raised only tepid objections - a sign both Cairo and Washington want no trouble as this key U.S. ally approaches a critical turning point over who will lead the country next.

With 82-year-old President Hosni Mubarak's health in question ahead of presidential elections next year, the Arab world's most populous nation could enter a period of tremendous uncertainty once its leader of nearly 30 years eventually leaves the political stage. The government appears determined to tighten its grip to ensure a smooth transition.

That posed a problem for the Americans: Lay on pressure for democracy, or accept the status quo and avoid unsettling a government that has kept stability in Egypt, maintained peace with Israel and generally backed the U.S. agenda in the region.

Weighing on the question are the unknowns of the future. There is no clear successor to Mubarak, raising worries over who has the clout to contain mounting dissatisfaction in the country amid frequent protests over economic woes. The most powerful opposition movement is the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, and secular opposition parties are notoriously weak, mainly from government efforts to keep them that way.

"Who said that the Americans don't want the result that came about?" said Gehad Ouda, an Egyptian political scientist close to the ruling National Democratic Party. "This serves their interests in the long run. It lengthens the shadow of the regime, and my opinion is that this is their real desire - to prolong the shadow of the future of the regime."

Results of a run-off vote released Monday showed the NDP winning 83 percent parliament's 518 seats, a total likely to rise to 96 percent if many winning independent candidates join the ruling party after taking their posts, as expected.

The Brotherhood went from holding 20 percent of parliament to none - meaning that the voices of dissent in the legislature were quashed.

Allegations of vote rigging and ballot box stuffing in the Nov. 28 first round were so widespread that the Brotherhood boycotted last Sunday's run-off. Perhaps more damaging to the government's credibility, it was joined by the top secular opposition party, the Wafd.

In the U.S.'s most recent remarks, State Department spokeswoman Megan Mattson said Monday, "We hope that all necessary improvements will be made swiftly to ensure that future elections are free and fair."

With its mild prodding for a fair vote, the Obama administration seemed intent not to offend its ally after relations soured under the previous Bush administration, which for a time made Egypt the centerpiece of its calls for greater democracy in the Mideast.

"There's ... a calculation that criticizing the Egyptians in public wouldn't get us anything, and would anger the Egyptians," said Jon Alterman, director the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies' Mideast program.

Alterman said the Brotherhood and opposition likely wouldn't have posed much of a challenge to the regime even with a presence in parliament - so the ruling party's overkill against them was telling.

The election was "intended to be a show of strength but it strikes me overwhelmingly as a show of weakness," he said.

The NDP was likely betting condemnation would be mild - or just didn't care, more concerned with its professed goal of crushing the Brotherhood. Ahead of the election, authorities rounded up 1,400 Brotherhood supporters.

Increasing public discontent may have strengthened the regime's feeling it must tighten control. Protests over the past year have been fueled by Egyptians' complaints over unemployment, low wages, a soaring cost of living and a feeling of general neglect by the government. The demonstrations suggest that the government's ability to maintain quiet could be tested in any transition.

Earlier this year, Mubarak underwent gall bladder surgery in Germany. He has not said whether he will seek re-election, though NDP officials insist he will. Even if he does, some question if he will serve out a full 6-year term.

His younger son Gamal, an investment banker turned politician, is widely seen as next in line, though many analysts doubt he has the same clout with the powerful military establishment that his air force pilot father enjoyed.

Other potential contenders have popped up, including intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. But posters for Suleiman were ripped down almost as quickly as they appeared on Cairo's streets. Others, like the reform-minded former U.N. nuclear watchdog agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, are widely seen wishful thinking on the part of many Egyptians.

For the U.S., a smooth transition is key to ensuring its interests.

Egypt remains a major player in the Arab-Israeli peace process and has helped seal the Gaza Strip to put pressure on its Hamas leaders. Egypt controls the Suez Canal, a key international trade artery, allows the U.S. overflight access in military operations and is a main intelligence-gathering partner.

The ruling party, meanwhile, likely feels safe that any face lost in the election will have little effect. It may be counting on its economic reform program, launched in 2005, to be enough of a placebo to distract the population from political woes. The reforms have helped fuel strong growth rates for Egypt - projected at 6 percent this year. But the broader public has yet to feel the effects.

"The trickle down is still slow, even though it's getting faster," said Ouda, the political scientist. "But you still haven't reached the level of accumulation that allows you to take off. You have just enough to show off."

The thinking within the NDP, Ouda said, is "we have an agenda, and we want to complete it, and it appears to be a success."

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Tarek el-Tablawi is AP's Mideast business editor and has covered the country since 1996.

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