Election in Egypt: The Opposition's Bitter Struggle

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Maneuvering her car through the crammed alleyways of downtown Cairo with one hand 12 days before the election, Parliamentary candidate Gameela Ismail smoothed her long auburn hair with the other. She rearranged her tired features into a beaming smile and honked the horn. Leaning through the open window, the opposition party candidate greeted the residents of her district. Behind us, a megaphone mounted on a truck boomed Ismail's slogans, as five cars crammed with her supporters brought up the rear.

As the procession stalled in traffic, a campaign volunteer appeared at the window with a video camera, yipping in adolescent excitement. He said he had proof her ruling-party opponent was distributing money to voters. "Bravo!" she shouted back, "He's giving money, that's the point!" She repeated to me as the car jerked through Cairo's congested streets.

On Sunday, Egyptians went to the polls to elect a new People's Assembly, the lower house of parliament. Ismail and other opposition candidates from across the country challenged president Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party, which has dominated elections for the past three decades. The official results are expected later today. But everyone already knows that the opposition had lost.

Sunday's elections were arguably the least free Egypt has seen in a decade. Constitutional amendments, passed in 2007, transferred official oversight of ballot boxes from the judiciary to a government-controlled electoral commission. The judges posted at the polls in 2000 and 2005 had been crucial allies in the opposition's quest for freer polls, as had President George W. Bush, who pressured President Hosni Mubarak's government to liberalize.

This week's elections exhibited all the trademarks of Egyptian democracy at its worst: fraud, vote buying and widespread reports of violence and voter intimidation, especially towards opposition supporters.

Nobody in Cairo seems surprised. From Islamists to the secular left, membership in Egypt's disparate and enfeebled opposition groups is dangerous--and not just during elections. Divided, ineffective, and trumped by billions of dollars in U.S. support for the Mubarak regime, opponents admit they are waging a losing battle. And yet they continue fighting, usually at great personal cost.

Opposition candidates say that the regime treats everything as fair game--their families, their reputations, their livelihoods--whatever it takes to wear them down. And that pressure doesn't stop after poll day.

Ismail says her campaign posters were torn down, her supporters hassled and detained by Egypt's notorious police, and worse. State-affiliated media published articles accusing her son of cheating on his university exams. Ismail has taken the editors to court.

Taking a stand means risking the regime's wrath, explains her campaign manager Naglaa Fawzy. "It is like you are a drug dealer, it's very dangerous," she told me. "It's a difficult life. It affects my work, my family, my personal life."

"I love my country. I love Egypt," she explained. "I believe that this regime is dangerous and I must change it. This is a principle for me, so I go on. Even if they're going to arrest me many times, even if I go to prison--I will go." She has been detained once.

If there is one thing Egypt's fractured opposition can agree on, it is resistance to a Mubarak dynasty. Rumors that the octogenarian Mubarak, who has ruled with an ironclad grip for 29 years, is preparing his son, Gamal, to succeed him have been rampant for years. The opposition has united somewhat against this threat and, now under the banner of the National Association for Change (NAC), led by former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammad ElBaradei.

When the NAC authored a seven-point petition, which demands, among other things, the end of a 2007 constitutional amendment barring independent candidates such as ElBaradei for running for the presidency, it gained nearly one million signatures.

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Sarah A. Topol is a Cairo-based journalist. She has reported from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. Her writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, GQ, the New Republic, Newsweek, and Slate, among others.

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