It's that time again: the Egyptian election cycle is heating up. Parliamentary elections are due to be held on 29 November 2010, while presidential elections are due to be held in September 2011. A lot of the buzz surrounding these elections has focused on the possible presidential candidacy of former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohammed el-Baradei. These elections are taking place in a significantly different context than the 2005-06 cycle, so what has changed? What hasn't?
First off, Egypt's standing in the Arab world has not been immune to the series of crises that have shaken up the regional power dynamics since the last presidential election in 2006. During the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, President Mubarak denounced the Israeli killing of civilians but ended up laying the blame squarely on Hezbollah. In June 2007, Egypt's security forces shipped arms and trained Fatah fighters who were preparing to oust Hamas from Gaza, only to watch those fighters pre-emptively overrun by their Hamas counterparts. Though Egypt has been attempting to bring Hamas and Fatah together since then, it has repeatedly failed to do so, and has been charged with not being an honest broker in the matter. Finally, the Israeli assault on Gaza from December 2008 to January 2009 was orchestrated with apparent Egyptian approval. Israeli foreign minister Tsipi Livni visited Cairo two days before the assault began in order to inform Mubarak. Needless to say, this pattern of cooperation with unpopular Israeli policies has not and will not win the regime any friends at home. Perhaps this regional insecurity explains why al-Ahram felt compelled to doctor this now infamous photo of Mubarak leading the group at the White House.
Another change worth noting is the modest increase in media freedom since 2006. A variety of independent newspapers have been allowed to thrive since then, particularly al-Masri al-Youm, al-Dustor, and al-Sharouq. It is also noteworthy that several of Egypt's most prominent commentators (Fahmy Huweidi, Jalal Amin, Salameh Ahmad Salameh) have recently bolted from the government-affiliated daily al-Ahram to write in the independent dailies.
Though this has been tolerated by the regime, there are signs that a government crackdown on media freedoms is underway in light of the upcoming election year. Earlier this week, Ibrahim Eissa was fired from his post as editor of al-Dustor. Eissa is arguably the single most influential critic of the regime, so his sacking has raised some eyebrows. The rumor is that he was going to publish this critical article by Mohammed el-Baradei on the 6 October war. Issandr El Amrani has more on this at The Arabist for those of you who are interested.
So will unpopular policies towards Israel coupled with a modest increase in media freedom (though this is doubtful to last) be able to significantly shake up the power dynamics underlying Egyptian politics? Probably not. It is practically guaranteed that the ruling party - the NDP - will use whatever means necessary to secure victory at the polls this November. However, as Mona El-Ghobashy pursuasively argues in MERIP, Egyptian elections are not about winning for the regime. Winning is guaranteed. Rather, parliamentary elections are about re-establishing networks of patronage by renewing political alliances, redistributing economic resources to the regime's vast pyramid of partners.
This point is helpful to keep in mind when thinking about Egyptian politics, because far too often, this entrenched, complex, shadowy system of patronage politics is overlooked. There is a tendency to simplify Egyptian politics by focusing on the role of Mubarak himself. If only Baradei could find a way to compete next year and win, goes the thinking, Egypt would be different. But what about the system of entrenched patronage that includes partners stretching from the highest corridors of power in Cairo to the lowest-level clients in the Delta? As Ghobashy's piece shows, micro-level politics in Egypt matter. We can't deny these people agency by assuming that the power dynamics underlying the regime are confined to a handful of elites in Cairo. After all, US officials made a similar assumption after invading Iraq, and they made it at their own peril.