The first stifling gusts of summer heat have arrived in Cairo, a city experiencing a political winter of discontent. Last Wednesday, the Egyptian authorities invited the nation to a referendum and a very small percentage accepted the invitation. No matter, ballot boxes were duly stuffed and the Ministry of the interior just released the official results.
The government is claiming that 53% of eligible voters turned out to express support for an amendment to the constitution that would allow opposition candidates to contest Mubarak in the next election. According to government figures, the measure was approved by an overwhelming majority of 87%. Cynical Egyptians -- accustomed to Soviet style referendums that pass by margins of 99% -- were not impressed.
You can’t blame the cynics. The country held a total of thirteen referendums since the 1952 revolution. The first twelve passed by margins ranging from a low of 98.2% cent to a high of 99.999% -- when Hosny Mubarak was elected after the assassination of Anwar el Sadat. By 1987, Mubarak’s popularity had declined -- but his poll numbers had him winning a second term with 99.5% of the vote. Fortunately, he regained his popularity and earned his third term in office with a 99.7% majority. And his numbers edged up in the 1999 elections to a respectable 99.8%.
A few days ago, Al Wafd -- a respected opposition newspaper -- published a comprehensive article on election results since the 1952 revolution. Unfortunately, they only gave participation statistics for 7 referendums held during Sadat’s tenure (1971 to 1981). Reported voter turn out ranged from a low of 85.4% to a high of 98% of registered voters.
As can be seen, the results from the recently held referendum paled in comparison to the first twelve referendums. But this time, the government published numbers that had a ring of legitimacy. A 53.6% participation rate sounds plausible and an 82.6% affirmative score is within the realm of probability. So, one should be grateful for small favors in the sense that this latest insult to the collective intelligence of the Egyptian people was easier to swallow.
Even so, it is unlikely that 16.5 million Egyptians went to the polls on May 25, 2005. It just didn’t happen. I have been asking people for months if they had ever registered to vote. The majority have never registered, never voted and couldn’t think of any close relatives or friends who had ever bothered to vote -- unless they were government employees. Due to an official boycott by a coalition of opposition parties -- a considerable number of registered voters simply refused to participate in the latest sham.
The ruling party -- which basically owns all government newspapers and television and radio stations -- has spent weeks tormenting Egyptians with “get out the vote” campaigns. Posters were plastered all over the place. Public sector employees were given time off and bused to voting stations. But despite their best efforts - the whole fraudulent exercise was a fiasco.
An old Egyptian joke has Sadat, Jimmy Carter and British Prime Minister Wilson comparing the fastest way to tabulate election results. Wilson maintained that due to advances in British technology, results could be announced eight hours after the vote. Not to be out done, Carter boasted that -- due to the marvels of exit polling -- election results in America could be accurately determined before the last vote was cast. With obvious pride, Sadat informed both men that “We are much more advanced in Egypt. We can tabulate the results before the first vote is cast.”
The Egyptian government has never been particularly embarrassed about cooking up outrageous election statistics for public consumption. The public was indifferent. They knew the whole process was a joke and they could always use a good laugh.
But this time things were different. The world was paying attention and the boycott by opposition parties further complicated matters. If they claimed another 99% victory, the international press would have a field day. If they published actual results, it would become clear that only public sector and government workers had voted for the measure -- especially in the cities.
For Mubarak’s government, the second option was more dangerous than the first. Because it would allow the opposition to claim a major victory and the success of the boycott would be seen as a verdict on the legitimacy of the ruling party. So, they came up with some nice reasonable sounding figures half way between reality and Soviet style science fiction.
As things turned out, the results of the referendum were certainly a victory for Al Wafd, an opposition paper that led the call for a boycott. On the morning of the election, they devoted their entire front page to three giant white-lettered words against a totally black background announcing “a day of national mourning.” In the days that followed, they published photo essays that were clear proof that the government was stuffing ballot boxes. They also gave front-page coverage to the violent and very public beatings administered by ruling party goons against those who dared to participate in a demonstration calling for a boycott.
Al Ahram, the government operated Egyptian version of Pravda, had a completely different take on the referendum. Its reporters published officially reported election results as gospel truth. They also failed to notice any election irregularities. Worst still, they actually claimed that ruling party goons were the victims of an attack by opposition demonstrators.
Fortunately, international reporters were on hand to corroborate Al Wafd’s version of the assault in front of the Journalist Union building in Cairo. The internationals also noticed the empty voting stations and a few wrote about the pervasive voter fraud.
By Friday, the emboldened opposition was staging demonstrations calling into question the official referendum results. I first heard about them from a friend who attended the service at Al Azhar mosque. As he was leaving the mosque, protesters simply started chanting ‘Batil. Batil’ which translates into ‘invalid’. The security men were ready for them and so was the ruling party. Before long, both sides were shouting pro-Mubarak and anti-Mubarak slogans at each other and a few blows were exchanged. A few demonstrators and a couple of reporters were arrested. My first hand source was left with the impression that there was nothing spontaneous about the whole affair. Both sides knew they would be meeting their adversaries after prayers. It was going to be a show of strength.
On Saturday, Al Ahram reported the demonstration as follows:
“Followers of the National Democratic Party and the Social Justice party staged a demonstration of support for President Hosny Mubarak after Friday prayers at Al Azhar. The demonstrators hailed the participation of the Egyptian people in last Wednesday’s election and shouted slogans in support of President Mubarak and raised signs affirming their approval of President Mubarak and his policies which are directed at achieving future political reforms.” That was the entire text. It was published on page 14 and was accompanied by a picture of demonstrators carrying huge signs and pictures of Mubarak.
Al Wafd reported its version of the Al Azhar events on the front page accompanied by a completely different picture in which two groups of mostly young men were taking blows at each other. The caption underneath read “Hired National Party supporters attack demonstrators denouncing the referendum inside Al Azhar.”
So, there you have it. Two Egyptian papers. Same event. Different pictures. Different tale. I don’t know why -- but I am inclined to believe a third source -- my friend. I called him up the next day to tell him how Al Ahram had reported the story. He had a good laugh.
In the Middle East, Al Ahram is treated with the reverence of Le Monde. It is the Egyptian paper of record. I must admit I used to have a wee bit of respect for Egypt’s gray lady. But over the course of the last week, they have totally discredited themselves and displayed outright contempt for journalistic ethics. Every line in that paper must now be considered suspect. That’s just the way it goes. You can only lose your virginity so many times -- even in a government owned media establishment.
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