Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

It’s getting harder and harder to cheat at the elections game these days. So what’s a Ugandan strongman to do?

KAMPALA — On Friday, Feb. 18, Uganda will hold national presidential elections. Incumbent Yoweri Museveni is seeking a fourth term to extend his 25-year rule, and by most accounts he will almost certainly win.

Given all the advantages working in his favor -- from state electoral machinery to a deservedly solid reputation for fostering economic growth -- the winner of this contest is almost preordained. But Museveni is still dropping millions of dollars to ensure the result. These days in Uganda, it seems, it's not as cheap to buy an election as it used to be.

It's hard to overstate Museveni's advantage in Friday's ballot. He has significantly more campaign funds -- both legitimate and under the table -- than the opposition. He has access to state resources to mobilize his supporters, and the loyalty of the security services. Uganda has seen record economic growth in recent years under his oversight. And Museveni has strong Western backing, winning praise for example for his innovative HIV/AIDS campaign and his commitment to fighting terrorism. (It also helps, of course, that he appointed the electoral commission.)

Sounds easy, right? Yet Museveni and his party, the National Resistance Movement (NRM), are leaving nothing to chance. Across Kampala, major billboards usually devoted to expensive advertisements for Coca-Cola, phone companies, or other big spenders have almost all been replaced with NRM campaign items. The party has even hired a helicopter to fly around the city dropping leaflets and blaring Museveni's campaign song -- a remixed version of his attempt to bond with young voters by rapping at a rally. And then there is Museveni's use of government resources, like the presidential helicopter, to travel around the country and campaign.

Since it's not officially reported, campaign spending is hard to gauge here. But Andrew Mwenda, editor of the Independent weekly magazine and consistent critic of Museveni's regime, has an estimate: "Museveni has spent $350 million dollars on this election alone," he told me.

Meanwhile, the government is effectively bankrupt. In January, parliament passed a supplemental budget increase of $260 million, yet just weeks later, Minister of Finance Syda Bbumba announced that the government was broke and ministries would be examining emergency cost-cutting measures. According to local newspaper reports, government officials confirm that money was diverted to NRM campaigns for the presidency and parliamentary seats, and $1.3 billion, or almost a third of the annual budget was spent in January alone. (Unsurprisingly, the IMF refused last week to sign off on Uganda's economic policies, diplomatically describing them as "inconsistent" with previous agreements with the fund.)

So why is Museveni spending so much if he's a shoo-in?

First and foremost because the stakes of the election are incredibly high -- worth, it seems, a major front-end investment. Whoever wins has access to the state treasury -- and skimming off the top is common. With Uganda set to begin producing oil in the next year or so, government revenues are expected to skyrocket; whoever is in power will have an even greater ability to trade patronage for support. For now, there's no obvious downside to the corruption. There have been no serious attempts at prosecuting government officials, even when newspaper or parliamentary investigations more or less provide all the necessary evidence.

Oil might also be the reason why Museveni isn't worried about spending too much now. "In previous elections, you saw Museveni buying individuals," said Godber Tumushabe, a lawyer and director of prominent think tank Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment. "In this election he is buying constituencies and groups. If the oil money starts flowing, you could see that deepening, essentially putting every other group on the payroll."

But that's not the only reason Museveni is on a spending spree. The money flowing into Friday's election suggests that the NRM believes it can no longer resort to the kind of thuggery it has used to win elections in the past. In 2006, for example, leading opposition candidate Kizza Besigye was repeatedly arrested and his supporters beaten by official security agencies as well as un-uniformed goons who were later alleged to be government agents. In part because of international pressure, Tumushabe points out, as well as the example of the International Criminal Court indicting politicians in next-door Kenya for instigating election violence, outright physical coercion is mostly off the table.

The election system itself is also more reliable and transparent than it has been previously, according to Silvestre Rwomukubwe, chairperson of DEMGroup, a coalition of pro-democracy civil society organizations. This year's election will use improved ballots. And it will be watched by both international and local party observers, the latter of whom plan to tally their own results. The largest opposition party, for example, will deploy 19 party agents at every polling station, a total of more than 900,000 people, to help avoid malpractice and encourage turnout. Even the Museveni-appointed electoral commission has gone to great lengths to equip observers and media with information about each step of the tallying process and provided phone numbers in each polling area where voters can report abuse. That kind of transparency will make actual vote rigging much more difficult this time around.

Efforts have even been made to tackle perhaps the trickiest form of rigging: voter bribery, which is happening on both sides of the campaign (despite the opposition groups' much smaller budgets). With support from Western donors, Rwomukubwe's DEMGroup created a monitoring system called Uganda Watch through which anyone can report electoral complaints by text message. The incidents are then displayed on the Uganda Watch website and, if possible, followed up upon by DEMGroup's network of activists. The organization has members throughout the country, who, Rwomukubwe said, may call police, media, or electoral officials with the complaints.

A final reason for the NRM's insecurity is that the opposition may have a better chance than analysts and even polls have indicated. A poll conducted in late 2010 by Afrobarometer, a respected African survey organization focused on public opinions about democracy, showed (pdf) Museveni with 65 percent of the expected vote. But Hussein Kyanjo, spokesman for the largest opposition group, Besigye's Inter-Party Coalition (IPC), is quick to argue that more than half of respondents also said they thought the polling agents were sent by the Ugandan government, and thus overstated their support for Museveni out of fear.

Kyanjo's own calculation is that Besigye will come in with about 60-65 percent of the vote, putting Museveni at 35 percent. Even if this estimate proves optimistic, Museveni's popularity has dropped in every election cycle, from more than 75 percent in 1996 to just 59 percent in 2006. And many pressing issues such as corruption, poverty, and access to medical care have not improved since then. If neither Museveni nor the IPC win more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will follow, and the two other major opposition parties, the Democratic Party and the Uganda People's Congress, as well as some smaller parties, would likely unite with the IPC against Museveni.

Nor will the opposition go down quietly if the vote is somehow rigged. Besigye has made it clear that he will not contest any malpractice in the court system, as he has did unsuccessfully in 2001 and 2006. Instead, "we will go to the court of the people who support us," warned spokesman Kyanjo. That means protests -- maybe violent ones. "If the [electoral commission] tries to rig, we are going to riot," said George, a journalism student and Besigye supporter who declined to give his last name. "What has happened in Tunisia and Egypt is going to happen here." The police and army have been preparing for exactly that outcome, investing in crowd-control equipment like water cannons. On Thursday, the Uganda Communications Commission also issued a directive requiring mobile phone operators to block text messages with words like "Egypt," "dictator," "teargas," and even "people power." Yet none of this may prove enough to keep demonstrators from gathering.

Could Museveni actually lose power? Despite the opposition's hopes, the flurry of government spending might work, and if Museveni finds his chances seriously threatened, the government has a history of cracking down on dissent. In 2006, military jamming equipment was used to shut down a radio station's live tally of voting. Both the police and army have shown little restraint in firing on civilians in recent years during riots and protests. While Museveni values his close connections with the West and is considered a key U.S. ally for promoting stability in Somalia and Southern Sudan, Western pressure is unlikely to have much of an effect. Those same security concerns may also keep the United States from condemning any anti-democratic actions by Museveni as strongly as it has in other countries, such as the Ivory Coast or Zimbabwe.

Although he has pledged to abide by the election results, a more famous line of Museveni's still rings in the ears of many Ugandans:

"I came to power by the gun and can't be removed by [a] mere piece of paper."



Egypt's Cauldron of Revolt

It was striking workers that first inspired the Egyptian uprising. And they're still at it.

CAIRO — In the sprawling factories of El-Mahalla el-Kubra, a gritty, industrial town a few hours' drive north of Cairo, lies what many say is the heart of the Egyptian revolution. "This is our Sidi Bouzid," says Muhammad Marai, a labor activist, referring to the town in Tunisia where a frustrated street vendor set himself on fire, sparking the revolution there.

Indeed, the roots of the mass uprising that swept dictator Hosni Mubarak from power lie in the central role this dust-swept company town played years ago in sparking workers' strikes and grassroots movements countrywide. And it is the symbolic core of the latest shift in the revolution: a wave of strikes meant to tackle social and economic inequities, which has brought parts of Egypt to a standstill.

Here in Mahalla's smog-beaten, faded yellow factories and textile mills, a series of workers' strikes demanding better pay and benefits erupted in 2006. The actions, in a country where large demonstrations were rare and independent labor organizing remains illegal, galvanized a youth movement that played a key role in eventually toppling Mubarak.

More than 24,000 workers at dozens of state-owned and private textile mills, in particular the mammoth Egypt Spinning and Weaving plant, went on strike and occupied factories for six days in 2006, winning a pay raise and some health benefits. Similar actions took place in 2007.

Then, on April 6, 2008, thousands joined protesting workers in one of the town's central squares, a frenetic array of vegetable stalls and shouting street vendors. "At first, there were only a few of us," said Marai. "We chanted 'Down, down with Hosni Mubarak!' and people started joining us."

Within hours, the protest had grown to thousands and riveted the country. Incredibly, demonstrators pulled down a poster of Mubarak and stomped on it; some clashed with the police and torched vehicles. Such images had not been seen in Egypt for almost 30 years and shook the government to its core, according to former officials.

The workers immediately won concessions -- as they had in the strikes of 2006 and 2007 -- including bonuses and pay hikes. The success spawned a Facebook group, the April 6 Youth Movement, which has played a prominent part in the current uprising, and inspired a strike wave over the next two years.

"After Mahalla in 2008, the first weaknesses in the regime appeared," says Gamal Eid of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. "Nothing was the same in Egypt after that."

Perhaps most importantly, the Mahalla strikes birthed a new opposition movement as socialists, left-wing lawyers, and Internet activists forged lasting links with labor leaders and facilitated connections between factories. The U.S. Embassy observed at the time that "in Mahalla, a new organic opposition force bubbled to the surface, defying current political labels, and apparently not affiliated with the [Muslim Brotherhood]. This may require the government to change its script," according to a classified document released by WikiLeaks.

In recent weeks, Mahalla workers joined a nationwide general strike that started on Feb. 9 and likely tilted momentum in favor of the Tahrir Square protesters and hastened Mubarak's fall two days later. "The workers have tremendous power to change society," says Kamal al-Fayumi, a labor leader who works at a power station and has been imprisoned a number of times for his activities. "When we entered the picture, it signaled the end for Mubarak."

Once a symbol of the grandeur and vision of the country's economic nationalism, Mahalla was home to the first fully Egyptian-owned enterprise, the Egypt Spinning and Weaving plant, established in the 1930s. By the 1960s, the plant was the largest factory in the Middle East, employing tens of thousands.

But under Mubarak, a large number of state firms were privatized, including some in Mahalla, pushing thousands into relative job insecurity. And many state subsidies were slashed -- food subsidies alone dropped by more than half during his rule.

After 2004, these changes accelerated with the appointment of a "reform cabinet" of business tycoons who pushed further liberalization of the economy along IMF-suggested lines. On the one hand, this produced robust growth rates and attracted investment; on the other it fostered official corruption and exacerbated woes for the poor, who faced soaring inflation and food prices.

By 2008, the U.S. Embassy was noting that the "fundamental unspoken Egyptians [sic] social pact -- the peoples' obeisance in exchange for a modest but government-guaranteed standard of living -- is under stress," according to the document leaked by WikiLeaks.

Many in Mahalla say the reforms have put tremendous pressure on them. "I have five children and I can barely survive," says Khala Muhammad, a striking worker. "I can't afford even basic things."

Fayumi, who works at the power station, says he and his colleagues work double shifts or two jobs to make ends meet. He works from 7 a.m. to 12 a.m. every day and still finds it difficult to pay the rent.

Wages have not kept pace with rising staple prices. According to official statistics, the average base salary for employees in Mahalla is about $100 a month, a derisory sum that is nonetheless more than in many other towns, thanks to the previous strikes. Elsewhere, this could be as low as $50 a month.

Such pressures have fueled widespread labor actions across the country, buoyed by the anti-Mubarak protests and growing since his departure. There have been work stoppages and protests in government banks, the oil and gas ministry, the transportation sector, the telecommunications ministry, the health ministry and more, in dozens of cities across the country.

Many of the strikers are state employees or workers in public-sector factories who are concerned about privatization. "Privatization would make us like temporary workers who can be fired on whim," says Yasser Ishaq Ahmed, who is on strike from Elegikt, a state-owned electricity company.

Most are also demanding raising (and enforcing) the minimum wage. "How can I support my children? I make 400 pounds a month," about $65, he says. "All of the workers in the company make 135,000 pounds per month combined, but the CEO alone makes 180,000."

A number of strikes have already won some or all of their demands, most notably at the Tawfiq al-Nour department store chain, when 5,000 employees from around the country descended on Cairo to demand shorter working hours and benefits. Strikers won a 12-hour day (down from 16) and a sizable pay raise.

The spread of strikes in the wake of Mubarak's resignation has alarmed Egyptian officials. On Feb. 14, citing economic instability, the Army urged strikers to "go back to work," in what many took to be a thinly veiled threat. On state TV and radio the striking workers have been repeatedly denounced as selfish and upsetting the economy, even while the protesters who were in Tahrir are now praised.

But the two groups are not so easily separated -- thousands of workers joined the demonstrations in Tahrir, and many say the political space provided by Mubarak's fall has emboldened them to strike. "This is the time to act. We want an overthrow of this whole system, not just the removal of one person," says a labor leader from Mahalla, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Still, labor organizers say they take the Army's threats seriously -- the memory of a pair of striking workers hanged by the new government following the 1952 revolution, which brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power, has not faded. And as economic instability continues, they risk losing the urban middle-class allies that helped make the revolution possible. "Dear Egyptians, go back to your work on Sunday," tweeted Wael Ghonim, a Google marketing executive whose account of his detention by Egyptian security services galvanized protesters. "Work like never before and help Egypt become a developed country."

In Mahalla's crowded coffee shops, where the air is thick with shisha smoke and the tea served in dirty glasses, labor activists are debating and planning their next move. Ironically, while the rest of the country is engulfed in labor unrest, there have been no strikes in Mahalla this week.

Instead, workers here are planning the launch of an independent labor union, a rarity in a country where most unions are tied to the state. Some see this as a move with clear political implications. "When you are fighting a state-controlled union, that is inherently a political demand, not just an economic one," says Marai, the Mahalla labor activist.

In fact, many of the strikes assert political and economic demands simultaneously, in part because the CEOs of many firms are tied to the Mubarak regime. And with a few exceptions, such as steel magnate and National Democratic Party kingpin Ahmed Ezz, those CEOs are still in positions of power.a

"A lot of us here in Mahalla are talking about democracy and political freedom alongside better wages and living conditions," says Marai. "Some people felt that our mission was accomplished after Mubarak fell, but I think our revolution is just beginning."

-/AFP/Getty Images