Anxieties linger as Egypt gears up for first free elections | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 25.11.2011
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Anxieties linger as Egypt gears up for first free elections

With the first post-Mubarak elections just ahead, the mood in Egypt is mixed. A court decision means that members of the former dictator's party will take part, and suspicion of the interim government remains.

Picture of Egyptian ballot box

Europeans and many Egyptians fear an Islamist majority

The mood in Cairo is optimistic as Egypt's first parliamentary elections since the ouster of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak draw closer, with the first wave due to begin on November 28.

"We are excited. In the streets and the coffee-shops you find new parties addressing people. It's the first time in the history of Egypt that we have this kind of election," independent journalist Muhammad Mansour told Deutsche Welle from Cairo. "It's quiet, there are fewer demonstrations than before."

But the decision to allow former members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) - officially dissolved in April - to run in the legislature elections has sparked fury among many opponents.

Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court recently overturned a ruling that had barred members of the NDP from contesting the election in one province.

"It's a smart idea," said Mansour. "If you didn't allow any NDP people to form a political party, they will be working in other parties and you wouldn't be able to identify them."

But the decision went against the wishes of many elements of the protest movement that took part in Egypt's uprising, including Islamists, liberals and secular youth groups. Yet there was little immediate reaction from those groups, which still hope that a promised law will weed out some ex-regime figures found to have been involved in corruption.

Egyptian policeman and woman outside polling booth

Previous Egyptian elections have been marred by violence and police intervention

Delaying tactics

Anthony Dworkin, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), thinks the controversy shows the uncertainty in Egypt. "There hasn't been a consensus yet on how to handle people that were involved in the previous regime," he told Deutsche Welle. "Across Egyptian society we see confusion about how far to exclude them and how far to permit them."

"I don't think it's too worrying," he added. "I think it would be wrong to exclude everyone who had some connection with the NDP."

Possibly the more pressing question is what role the military, which forms the interim government, will play after the elections. The ruling junta's role has proved highly controversial in the past few months. Top generals initially said they would relinquish power six months after the popular uprising, but have extended the transition period to allow political parties to build support before elections. Now it remains unclear when the presidential election will take place.

"We can't trust the (military) ... They kill all of our hope," Bothaina Kamel, the nation's first female presidential candidate said on Tuesday.

"They announced at the beginning that the presidential election will be in April 2012 ... and now they announce that it will be in 2013," Kamel, who is expected to run on an anti-corruption platform, told Reuters news agency.

Dworkin is also critical of the military. "It's very good that the elections are taking place," he says. "But I think the way the military is handling the transition is extremely concerning. They're really cracking down on a lot of opposition. The approach they're pursuing is divisive, opaque and really counterproductive in terms of creating a positive environment for democracy."

Thousands of Egyptians protest in Cairo's central Tahrir Square

The weekly protests in Cairo have dwindled as the election draws near

According to Maha Azzam, associate fellow at Britain's Chatham House think tank, there's concern that Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will continue to interfere after the elections.

"On the one hand, it's obviously an enormous political change happening Egypt - the idea that people can compete in free and fair elections is unprecedented," she told Deutsche Welle. "But there's also great anxiety, partly because during this transfer period, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been seen as continuing some of the policies of the previous regime."

Passive West

Many observers are growing critical of Europe's apparently lackluster response to the Arab Spring. Dworkin published a paper in May in which he compared Europe's attitude to a big NGO offering handouts, rather than a regional power with an interest in the southern Mediterranean.

"The position of the EU is difficult because they're not getting a lot of access to the government," he told Deutsche Welle. "But I think they should be taking a more active stance. I think they should be speaking out against any moves to constrain democracy, as the United States has started to do - rather late, but they have started to do it."

Guido Westerwelle in Cairo

Critics say not enough EU politicians have visited Egypt to show their support

Despite their apprehensions about the military regime, Azzam thinks Egyptians have little interest having their elections observed from the outside.

"There are mixed signals, but I think on the whole Egyptians want to do this whole thing on their own," she says. "I only have anecdotal evidence, but I've been to Egypt regularly since January, and the majority of people I spoke to feel they can administer this on their own."

But Dworkin thinks the EU is sending out the wrong political message. "I don't think there have been enough European leaders going there," he said. "There hasn't been enough of a positive message that it is throwing its support behind the people."

"In the past it was easy for Europe to work with the regimes that were there, and I think the danger now is that the EU is not forward-looking enough," added Dworkin. "The EU is now focussed on itself and there's a sense that while they welcome the revolutions in the Middle East rhetorically, they really see them in terms of the dangers they pose – particularly in terms of migration, and the forces that democracy might unleash."

Azzam says many Egyptians have similar fears that a strongly Islamist party could win a majority, but she says that international powers would do best to simply accept such a result.

"I think Europe should continue to monitor the situation through its NGOs and agencies and yes, during this interim period, the military trials for civilians could have been more vociferously condemned," she says. "But in terms of the election, I think there's very little that the US or Europe could do or should do this late in the day."

Author: Ben Knight

Editor: Rob Mudge

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