Dr. Hassaballa in the Chicago Tribune

In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful

Thanks be to the Lord God, my article was published in the October 2, 2005 issue of the Chicago Tribune. It is reproduced for you below:

A significant vote, but hardly fair
By Hesham A. Hassaballa

For the first time in a more than 5,000-year history, a contested presidential election took place in Egypt. It was a momentous and historic occasion, especially for me, an American of Egyptian ancestry.

Almost everyone knew it was a foregone conclusion that incumbent President Hosni Mubarak would win a fifth 6-year term. His victory was decisive: more than 80 percent of the vote. His closest competitor, Ayman Nour, won about 7 percent. Still, the fact that voters even had a choice is significant. Before the Sept. 7 election, Egyptians could only vote “yes” or “no” for one candidate: Mubarak.

Despite all this, however, the vote was hardly fair. Independent election monitors documented vote buying, voter intimidation and repeat voting, among other irregularities.Before the election, Human Rights Watch said the ruling National Democratic Party’s “dominance in all branches of government, its vast patronage network, state control of electronic and major print media, more than five decades of stultifying restrictions on independent parties and political activity, and an absurdly short campaign window of three weeks make it extremely unlikely that the election on September 7 will reflect the free choice of the electorate.”

Cabdriver Adel Abdel Malek, told the San Francisco Chronicle why he did not even vote: “After Hosni Mubarak wins, they’ll come and see that I voted against the president; they can arrest anyone. The government is like that in our country. We’re all afraid. If we weren’t afraid, then no one would vote for Mubarak.”

Is sham democracy better than no democracy? The Bush administration has made the spread of democracy across the “greater Middle East” one of its top foreign policy objectives. Egypt, a close U.S. ally and recipient of more than $2 billion a year in foreign aid, must have felt tremendous pressure to change its ways and bring democracy. Yet, if the government rigs the election to ensure Mubarak’s victory, was a choice made at all? Do the results mean anything if they were obtained fraudulently? If, in the future, dictators–hoping to curry favor with the United States–seek to legitimize their authoritarian rules through sham elections, has anything meaningful been accomplished? Would spreading democracy across the world be truly worth it?

Absolutely, but with a rub. The Egyptian election was far from perfect. Yet for the first time in the memories of most Egyptians, Mubarak was openly criticized–in public, in print and on the airwaves. The electoral process, its unjustness notwithstanding, sparked a flame long extinguished among the Egyptian people.

“Many Egyptians see it in a positive way, the impact of the overall process had been the politicization of Egyptian society, which had been depoliticized for decades,” Gamal Abdel Gawad told MSNBC.com.”

It’s the first time I feel I have a voice in the country,” Cairo University student Ali Omar told the San Francisco Chronicle. “My vote has importance and can contribute to a candidate’s success or failure.”

The proverbial genie has been let out of the bottle.It remains to be seen whether the Egyptian government will fulfill its promise of true democratic reform. In November, parliamentary elections are scheduled, and they are “considered a more accurate gauge of the government’s commitment to reform and will provide a playing field where opposition candidates stand a better chance,” wrote the San Francisco Chronicle’s Charles Levinson.

Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, echoed this sentiment: “The real electoral test of political reform in Egypt will come with the People’s Assembly general election.”The U.S. should accept nothing short of a free and fair election and should make this absolutely clear to the Egyptian government. The U.S. may even consider tying future foreign aid to concrete benchmarks of reform, such as a parliamentary election free from government meddling and fraud.

The same should be done with other countries, including our less-than-democratic energy suppliers or allies in the war on terror, and herein lies the rub. The U.S. must ensure that the democracy for which it advocates is free and fair, without rig or gerrymander, and it must be willing to accept the result of that free and fair process, even if it yields someone like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.

Moreover, the U.S. must not let geopolitical expediency compel it to look the other way when democracy is made a farce and human rights are trampled on. All people deserve to live in freedom. All people deserve the chance to determine their own future.

As the Egyptian election demonstrated, once people taste political enfranchisement, once they feel they truly have a say in what their future will be, their desire for more power will be insatiable.

The genie can never go back in the bottle. And what you end up with is a world where the edifices of tyranny and the citadels of injustice come crashing down, to the benefit and mutual security of the entire world community, including the United States. Our national security deserves nothing less.

(C) 2005 Chicago Tribune


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