Incumbent Hosni Mubarak campaigned hard against nine opponents in last week's Egyptian election, the first multiparty presidential race in the country's history. Not surprisingly, he won hands down with 88% of the vote. He could rely on the entrenched election machine of his ruling National Democratic Party, as well as the weakness of smaller opposition parties, which learned only in February that he was allowing a contest.
But voter apathy as well as cries of foul play undercut Mubarak's effort to portray the election as a showcase for democratic change. Egypt's Independent Committee for Election Monitoring (icem) issued a critical report citing violations from ballot stuffing to vote buying to voter intimidation. The committee slammed election officials for banning most of its 2,200 observers from the polls, declaring "No election can be called free, fair and transparent if voters have been denied the right to monitor and scrutinize the process."
Even so, the official Presidential Election Commission rejected a petition from leading opposition candidate Ayman Nour, the runner-up with 7.3%, to throw out the ballot because of the alleged irregularities. After the vote U.S. President George W. Bush called President Mubarak to congratulate him, but a White House statement offered only faint praise, calling the poll "an important step toward holding fully free and fair competitive multiparty elections" and pointedly hoping that "the flaws that were visible in this election will be corrected for November's parliamentary election." In particular, a U.S. official told Time, the U.S. found fault with the ban on international poll monitors contrary to what Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had urged last June and the state-financed media's overwhelming focus on Mubarak during a campaign period that was too brief for opposition candidates to promote their messages. "But we do see the election as a crucial step," says the official, a sentiment shared by icem coordinator Sherif Mansour.
He told Time that last week's ballot was "a public show that won't change anything," but thinks the government has set a precedent by allowing any monitoring at all. "Next time," Mansour said, referring to the November elections, "we'll be able to get into the polling stations and do a better job." If that happens, Mubarak's promises of democratic reform may amount to something substantial.