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Postmortem: Egypt's parliamentary election

Egypt's parliamentary elections went off today basically as expected, with vote buying, voter intimidation and fraud the norm across the country despite protests. What will change in Egypt as a result of today's parliamentary election? Probably nothing, but the election hints at what we might be able to expect in the future from the regime in Cairo.

"I apologize if I gave some people the impression that these elections were elections, in any real sense of the word. They were not," wrote Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Institution and a blogger at Democracy Arsenal. They certainly weren't elections as an American would recognize them. To an Egyptian, though, they are all too familiar.

It will probably be a few days until the results are announced, but it's clear that President Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party will take a majority of the votes and continue to control the parliament, as it has done for almost 30 years.

Over the course of the daythere were numerous reports of abuses: from democracy activists beaten in Nile Delta cities to repeated attacks on journalists by state security forces to candidates in Cairo slumspaying 100 Egyptian pounds (about $20) per vote, and much more.

"We all expected violence will be the name of the game today, but I think the level of violence that actually happened has surpassed some of our wildest expectations," Hossam el-Hamalawy, a blogger, activist and journalist told me in an online chat.

In the past weeks there was a discussion of whether or not to send monitors to the election in Arab world's most populous country. President Mubarak, naturally, opposed the idea and monitors weren't accredited. That didn't stop the Middle East director of Human Rights Watch from dispatching himself to a small city in the Nile Delta. He was subsequently detained by police.

The elections have been violent, and, at times, deadly. In Alexandria, rival members of the rulingparty battled in the streets. At least three people are confirmed dead by the government from election-related violence and there is speculation that the number could actually be closer to seven. The son of an opposition candidate was stabbed todeath the night before elections while putting up posters for his father.

Then again, police don't even need to directly intimidate voters. Police intimidation runs deep in Egypt, where police kill citizens with a startling regularity, as Jack Shenker reported in The Guardian.

Most reports of election-day irregularities came from the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest and best-organized opposition group. As Ashraf Khalil wrote for FP, the Brotherhood, which is officially banned, has been under tremendous pressure from the regime in the run up to the election. The group won an unprecedented number of seats in the last parliamentary election in 2005, an experience that the government doesn't seem eager to repeat. 

Today's parliamentary elections are largely being viewed as a test run for next year's presidential election, when Egypt's octogenarian ruler will be up for another six-year term. There is widespread speculation that Hosni Mubarak intends to pass the presidency on to his son Gamal at some point, but the mechanism for such a transfer of power is unclear.

Today's events show that the regime is willing to use violence or outright fraud to maintain power. That's a lesson both Hosni Mubarak and his opponents will keep in mind next year.

PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images

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Has WikiLeaks finally gone too far?

UPDATE: The Times' and the Guardian's coverage of the cables is up.

Roy Greenslade, a journalism professor and commentator for the Guardian, castigates British editors for their critical coverage of WikiLeaks, the self-proclaimed whistleblower site that is about to release some 250,000 U.S. diplomatic cables into the wild:

Aren't we in the job of ferreting out secrets so that our readers - the voters - can know what their elected governments are doing in their name? Isn't it therefore better that we can, at last, get at them?

It's a fair question. I must confess that, like plenty of other editors, I can't wait to read this batch of documents. Unlike with the last two dumps, which consisted mainly of raw reports from the field about events that had already been widely reported, it seems there are genuine revelations this time around. Already, news outlets are reporting that we can expect unvarnished American views of the shortcomings of British leaders, critical comments about Nelson Mandela, remarks about Islam that may come across poorly, allegations of corruption among Russian politicians, and so on. For news junkies like me, it promises to be good reading. I know I'm going to be up late tonight.

As a general precedent, though, it's troubling. U.S. diplomats should be able to share their assessments candidly with the folks back in Washington without fear of waking up and finding their cables splashed across the front page of the New York Times. People who take great risks to share sensitive information with embassy officials won't come forward if they worry that the Kremlin, or the Mugabe regime, is going to punish them for their candor. And sometimes too much media attention can get in the way of quiet progress, as in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Still, where do you draw the line? Obviously, aggressive news outlets like the New York Times publish revelations every day that cause heartburn for U.S. officials -- often thanks to sources whose motivations may or may not be good ones. That's our job. Had FP gotten its hands on these cables, no doubt we would be publishing many of them (after doing proper due diligence and allowing the State Department to make its case). We're certainly going to comment on their contents. News is news.

But is there a principle that says it's OK to publish one-off scoops, but not 250,000 -- or for that matter 2.7 million -- of them all at once? The former feels like journalism; the latter seems grotesque and irresponsible, more like "information vandalism," in the words of secrecy expert Steven Aftergood. And even if responsible papers like the New York Times have a chance to review and contextualize them, there's no way they can dot every i and cross every t in the time allotted. There's just too much.

WikiLeaks breezily sidesteps these sorts of questions, arguing that the global public ought to have a right to read classified documents anytime, from any government. But that may be ex post facto rationalization for a decision to publish documents the group was handed on a silver platter. It clearly doesn't work as a general rule -- otherwise, there would be chaos. And it clearly doesn't work unless you're convinced, like Julian Assange apparently is, that everything the U.S. government does is inherently nefarious.

What do you think? Readers, please weigh in via comments, or email me at blake[dot]hounshell[at]foreignpolicy.com.