Egypt may very well have just experienced the most fraudulent parliamentary elections in its recent history. The main parliamentary opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, was reduced from 20% of the seats in the previous parliament to zero.
The second largest group, the liberal Wafd party, won a mere three seats in the first round of elections (out of a total of 518 seats). The results strained the credulity of even those most sympathetic to the regime.
Egypt has in the past at least allowed the appearance of democracy, though not necessarily the substance. Within constraints, the opposition was allowed to participate.
The parliament, while ultimately dominated by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), had, in recent years, come somewhat alive. There was a relatively boisterous independent press. Elections were rigged but not stolen outright.
None of this, of course, changed the outcome – a repressive regime that refused to share power – but it did, at least, give the opposition an opening.
That opening is now gone. It is worth noting that the results of 28 November were genuinely surprising to nearly everyone, including NDP officials who had hoped for a more “credible” result.
It would be misleading to say that Egypt is “on the brink” – as several experts have recently claimed – although it may be.
Analysts have long warned that the Egyptian regime, while seemingly durable, is increasingly unpopular and perceived as illegitimate.
Meanwhile, Egyptians themselves, long accused of political passivity, have taken to the streets in unprecedented numbers, protesting against their country’s economic and political deterioration.
This does not mean Egypt, one of America’s closest allies in the region, will fall. But with these most recent elections, the regime has over-reached.
In opting to wipe out its opposition, and with such lack of subtlety, it has made a major and potentially debilitating miscalculation.
The regime has lost whatever legitimacy it had left. More importantly, however, it has breathed new life into what was just one month ago an aimless, fractious opposition that couldn’t agree on whether or not to boycott the elections.
Repression, when it reaches a certain level, can help unify an otherwise divided opposition. The Brotherhood and the Wafd, wary of each other in the lead-up to elections, are now promising greater co-operation. They will have to; the regime no longer has anything to offer them.
Seeds of collapse
Meanwhile, Egypt will have a parliament but one with virtually no opposition. The Egyptian regime appears unaware of something its neighbours have long known: the most effective autocracies are the ones that manage rather than destroy their opposition.
And with no-one to fight, the NDP may very well end up fighting itself. Rather unwittingly, the ruling party has created the very political context most likely to tear it apart.
There are reports, and much speculation, about internal rifts within the regime over who will succeed the ailing president, Hosni Mubarak, now nearly 30 years in power. And for the first time since he took over, no-one is quite sure who the next president will be.
Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, has long been the favourite but there are those in the NDP who are searching quietly – and sometimes not so quietly – for an alternative.
Political scientists Guillermo O’Donnell and Philippe Schmitter, in their book Transitions from Authoritarian Rule, write that “there is no transition whose beginning is not the consequences – direct or indirect – of important divisions within the authoritarian regime itself”. Those divisions, in Egypt, are only likely to grow.
For the NDP to make a strategic blunder at such a crucial moment in Egypt’s history suggests a regime that is nervous, unsure of itself and increasingly incoherent.
This was the first such mistake. Whether there will be more – and whether the opposition manages to capitalise – will determine the course Egypt takes in the coming, critical months.