Hand-picked candidates, votes for sale and manipulated elections results: were Egypt to see electoral business as usual this campaign season, it seems certain that there would be no surprises in November parliamentary elections. The National Democratic Party of President Hosni Mubarak would secure impossibly large margins of victory and the foundations the "Pharaoh's" 29-year grip on power would remain firm.
But there is a power struggle underway on the Nile, and these parliamentary elections are only a prelude. In the next 18 months there won't just be elections for the National Assembly, but also for president. And whether Mubarak, or his son Gamal, who has been groomed for the throne, can maintain power is far from certain.
Perhaps the most dangerous threat to the Mubaraks is Mohamed ElBaradei. Earlier this week, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was more critical of Mubarak than ever before. Speaking to a crowd of cheering followers, he compared the almost three decades of Mubarak's rule to a "decaying, almost broken down temple," that was built on poverty, illiteracy, and contempt for human rights.
He also laid out his blueprint for how the Mubarak era can be brought to an end. "If the whole population were to boycott the elections, in my opinion, it would be the end of the regime," said ElBaradei, a recipient of the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize for his work at the IAEA.
Hereditary Egyptian Dictatorship
It was the most daring appearance ElBaradei has made since his return to Egypt in February of this year. And his appeal could be enough to unite unhappy Egyptians and deliver a serious blow to the regime. A boycott would deprive members of Mubarak's clique, who have for years relied on fraudulent elections to maintain their grip on power, of their legitimacy. In the long run, he could also prevent Mubarak's son from taking over from his sick father, thwarting their chances of establishing a hereditary Egyptian dictatorship.
Rampant electoral fraud has resulted in limited public enthusiasm for elections. At most, only 25 percent of the population voted in the last parliamentary election. If voter turnout drops even further this time, it would be a clear signal of growing dissatisfaction among the populace.
Conditions in Egypt would certainly warrant such dissatisfaction. One in four Egyptians lives under the poverty line and must get by on two US dollars a day. Illiteracy hovers around 40 percent. Economic progress made possible by ambitious reforms has not trickled down to the average citizen. The government hardly seems to care. Public anger is high.
The success of ElBaradei's proposed boycott depends on the Muslim Brotherhood. The Islamists are the strongest opposition group in the country. Officially forbidden, they are tolerated by the government in part because their members have competed as independent candidates in past elections thus providing the polls with some legitimacy. Whether the Brotherhood will join the boycott, however, remains to be seen.
An opposition boycott of the parliamentary elections would likely only be the first step towards a season of civil disobedience -- protests that could ultimately influence the presidential elections as well.
A Powerful Signal
And even beyond. Egypt, as the largest Arab country, remains a political heavyweight in the region. What happens on the Nile sends a powerful signal to its neighbors.
Many Egyptians are hopeful that ElBaradei can help end the misery of their people. Every 10th user of the Internet platform Facebook is a member of a group that supports ElBaradei as an alternative to Mubarak.
Yet the constitution doesn't allow ElBaradei, who served at the top of the Atomic Agency for 12 years, easy access to the ballot. He would need the support of 250 representatives and municipal councils, a significant hurdle given that both the upper and lower houses of parliament and the provincial governments are strongly under the control of Mubarak's National Democratic Party.
ElBaradei has called for a change to the constitution in order to clear his path to the polls. In addition, he has urged that all election results be checked by Egyptian courts and demanded that the state of emergency -- which has, since it was established in 1981, allowed authorities to quickly squelch opposition -- be abolished. Almost one million Egyptians have signed a petition supporting his calls for political reform.
Smear Campaign Against ElBaradei
As ElBaradei's popularity has grown, so too has the regime's unease. Last month, photos of ElBaradei's daughter in a bikini and the family enjoying alcoholic beverages were anonymously posted on the Internet -- an apparent attempt to portray him as hopelessly Westernized, as someone who tramples on the value of Islam. Newspapers have spread rumors that ElBaradei supported the US invasion of Iraq. Imams in the state-controlled mosques are calling for their believers to stay away from him saying he repudiates God and the prophets.
The seriously ill, 82-year-old Mubarak has given little indication as to whether his name will be on the presidential ballot next year. He has, however, clearly been trying to groom his son Gamal as his political successor. Indeed, Gamal was along for the ride on his trip to Washington for the Middle East peace conference two weeks ago. And last month, posters appeared in Cairo that promoted Gamal as the successor to his father. Analysts consider the posters a trial run to test the popularity of the 47-year-old.
But other posters show that there is also doubt within Mubarak's National Democratic Party about Gamal's qualifications for the presidency. Last week, posters appeared touting long-time intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, also a member of the NDP, as the best qualified leader for Egypt.
The NDP has dismissed any connection to the posters, but most believe that internal party opponents of Gamal were behind the campaign.