Egypt's elections: a time of danger

The other day a volunteer in the Amnesty media office where I work said “there’s always violence” in Egypt when they have elections. She was in the country for the 2005 elections, she said, and “We didn’t go out of the house. It was too dangerous”.

A sad indictment, but surely a bit exaggerated? Not really.

In 2005 violence on the streets, mass arrests of political candidates, supporters and even election monitors, and a general feeling of instability were – unfortunately – part and parcel of the elections in Egypt. Perhaps not surprisingly, less than a quarter of Egypt’s registered voters turned out to vote. (Compare this to the UK’s own 2005 election: 61% of registered voters voted and even this led to a bout of hand-wringing over falling electoral turn-outs).

For sure, the UK doesn’t exactly have super-smooth elections either. Recall those chaotic scenes outside polling stations in May: long queues of angry people barred from voting (including at St Trinity polling station in Dalston, east London, just down the road from where live). Very messy.

But at least, you have to say, no-one was killed. In Egypt’s 2005 elections the police opened fire on crowds outside polling stations killing 11 people and injuring many more. Our office volunteer had a point.

So, how is it looking for Egypt’s parliamentary elections this Sunday? Frankly, not good. Some people are already calling them “rigged” , a "black comedy". Amnesty has just published its own very worrying assessment, detailing, for example:

· the breaking up of peaceful protests (sometimes violently, with reports of protestors being badly beaten up) · the arrest of hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members (familiar bugbears to the authorities) · the arrest of members of the “6 April Movement” youth opposition group · TV channels being taken off the air (12 in one fell swoop on 19 October), and others being issued with warning letters about what not to report · the sacking of outspoken journalists

Egypt, as even its staunchest supporters would concede, is a country assailed by some very serious human rights problems, many, it has to be said, flowing from the authoritarian mindset of those in power.

Elections are a time of danger. They seem to bring to the fore some of the worst, most illiberal tendencies of those in positions of authority. Take this comment from Hassan Nash’at el Qassas from the ruling National Democratic Party: “I don't know why the Interior Ministry is so lenient with [demonstrators] … Instead of using water hoses to disperse them, the police ought to shoot them; they deserve it.”

When did he say this? Was it a Gordon-Brown-like moment of madness caught by a forgotten mic? No. He said it quite boldly at a parliamentary meeting earlier this year to discuss human rights violations committed by the security forces against protestors. Fingers crossed for Sunday.

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