Egypt is expected to hold its first multi-candidate presidential election Wednesday, an event that will pose challenge, albeit a fairly moderate one, to President Hosni Mubarak . Mubarak, who has been in power almost a quarter of a century, is being challenged by nine other candidates. Among them is Ayman Nour , who earlier this year was jailed by the government.
Emad Shahin of the American University in Cairo, also a visiting professor at Georgetown University, was online Wednesday, Sept. 7, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss Egypt’s momentous elections.
The transcript follows.
Detroit, Mich.: I have heard Americans express concern that we are giving substantial economic aid to Egypt when the latter is not a true democracy and there is substantial corruption in Egypt. Is there any accounting for how this aid is being spent?
Emad Shahin: It is true that Egypt is one of the largest recipients of US aid; it comes second after Israel. Most of this aid goes to infrastructure projects and education. There is a close monitoring by US government of how the aid money is being spent.
Harrisburg, Pa.: Can we trust the election results in Egypt? What is the level of known voter and elections fraud in Egypt?
Emad Shahin: Past electoral experiences have shown clear signs of irregularities and rigging. That includes manipulation of the voters registration lists, banning some people from voting, and even forging the results. This presidential election is attracting much attention and hopefully it would be conducted with less irregularities.
Philadelphia, Pa.: How do you feel about this election? Most Egyptians do not believe that these elections will change anything, it is a window dressing to please the U.S. administration.
In Egypt, there is a strong alliance between the political elite, the business community and the military. I believe Egypt will be like Nigeria very soon.
What is your fair analysis?
Emad Shahin: Observers would agree that the results of the elections are a foregone conclusion, as the incumbent President Hosni Mubarak will emerge as the winner. However, the process within which this election takes place is a real transformation from a referendum-based to a contested multi-candidate election. More important, the process has generated a new sense of dynamism for Egyptian politics. Several opposition movements have emerged and have become emboldened; several fears barriers have been crossed; and the possibility that Egypt would turn into a hereditary rule is increasingly becoming remote.
I do not think that Egypt would turn into another Nigeria. The country’s civil society is gaining strength and vitality and the opposition to autocratic and repressive measures is already taking place. We should watch the coming years closely because they will carry many reforms and changes.
Ashburn, Va.: So it’s likely Mubarak will win this “election” handily. Can we expect any substantial democratic reforms in the 5th term of the Mubarak Dynasty? What about his son, Gamal?
Emad Shahin: It is expected that Mubarak will win the elections, with a comfortable majority (84 to 86% of the votes). However, during his coming term he has to put up with a strong movement for reform and change. He also has to heed to a strong opposition that includes independent judges, Muslim Brothers, Kefaya (Enough) movement, and other pro-reform groups. The coming term will not be an easy one for him as he also made several electoral promises that he is expected to deliver.
Mubarak’s son Gamal is assuming an extremely influential position within the regime’s National Democratic Party. The regime has been grooming him for years to succeed his father. However, the last year has produced many changes and pro-change groups that would make Gamal’s coming to power very difficult, if not impossible.
Skandria: When do you expect that Hosni Mubarak’s son will run for President? What is the line of succession if Hosni Mubarak dies, who will become president?
Emad Shahin: The next presidential election is supposed to take place after 6 years, i.e., 2011. Gamal Mubarak can of course run as a candidate in a contested elections. If Mubarak dies, the Speaker of the House (People’s Assembly) will become an interim president for 45 days, during which new presidential elections should take place. It is worth mentioning that since he took over power in 1981, Mubarak has not appointed a vice-president.
Skandria: Why do you consider this to be Egypt’s momentous election?
Emad Shahin: It is a momentous election because it has changed the landscape of the political life in Egypt. It simply has provided the opportunity for a thriving politics, where a true momentum for change is currently underway. Egypt is witnessing vibrant opposition groups that agree on a list of clear reforms: ending of the state of emergency, amending the constitution; putting restrictions on the powers of the executive branch; respect for human rights and individual freedoms. I believe this momentum will continue after the election.
Potomac, Md.: How many people are expected to vote? What is the voting age? What percentage of the voting age population is expected to vote? What percentage of the total population is above voting age?
Emad Shahin: There are 32 million registered voters. Past elections have shown a small turn out (3% to 15%). However, the regime usually inflates that number. for example, in the last referendum that took place in May, the government claimed a 55% turnout, whereas independent reports put that number at only 3%.
Fairfax, Va.: While surfing the Internet I came up with the phrase on Google “according to the Yemeni Constitution”. Is it true that there are Arab countries with a constitution? If so Iraq will not be the first Arabic country with a constitution. Does Egypt have a constitution?
Emad Shahin: All Arab countries have written constitutions. Saudi Arabia calls is the Basic Laws, though. Some of these constitutions are old and date back to the early 20th century. Definitely, Iraq is not the first Arab country to have a constitution. The constitutional experience in Egypt started in the 19th century, and the country’s current constitution was written in the early seventies of the 20th century.
Bethesda, Md.: Can women vote?
Emad Shahin: According to the Egyptian constitution, women in Egypt can vote and can run for the presidency. They have equal political rights to men. In fact, there was a women presidential candidate in the earliest phases of this election, Dr. Nawal Sadawi, who had to withdraw because of conditionalities that were placed on candidates.
Juneau, Alaska: Having worked on USAID projects in Egypt I think you misrepresent how the money is spent. Infrastructure is correct, one of the biggest groups in AID/Egypt is Environment and Infrastructure. But the biggest area that our money goes into is the military, be it building bases, supplying weaponry or general support. The number I recall was 40% mil and 60% nonmil, but the 60% included some nontraditional mil stuff like “security” monies.
But that not my question. When I lived in Egypt I believed that in a free and fair election Osama would smoke Hosni. Any comments?
Emad Shahin: Thank for the follow-up on the aid question. Your comment is correct. I am afraid I do not have much to say on the Osama hypothetical.
Cairo,Egypt: I am a Georgetown student currently studying abroad in Cairo. I’ve been through Midan Tahrir several times today in search of the protests I’ve been reading about in the American media and have seen nothing other than people waiting to catch a bus. I’ve yet to see an ink stain on the finger of an Egyptian who has voted. Even the most intelligent, progressive Egyptians I’ve met in my two weeks here are not voting in the election. From my perspective the elections seem not nearly as important to Egyptians as to foreigners like myself, and especially the Americans. Is this characterization closer to the truth? Are these elections as important or as meaningful as American commentators make them to be?
Emad Shahin: Characteristically, Egyptian elections suffer from a low turn out. For long years, voters have felt that their votes do not count and would not change the results. It takes long years to change the political culture and create a sense of deference.
Alexandria, Va.: Will they have exit polls for the election? How long do you expect it will take to count the vote? Are women allowed to vote? How do you verify that a woman wearing a burqa is who she is in a Muslim country?
Emad Shahin: The voting process should be completed in one day. The results are expected within three days. Women in Egypt are allowed to vote. To verify the identity of a woman wearing burqa, she is asked when necessary to uncover her face.
washingtonpost.com: Thank you all for joining us today.
This post is adapted from The Washington Post