What’s at stake in Egypt election

Egypt’s new parliament will confront issues such as emergency law and the first presidential succession in 30 years.

Kifaya, Arabic for “enough,” is one of an assortment of vocal but restricted opposition movements [EPA]

Egypt will hold just its eighth-ever multi-party parliamentary election on November 28. But five years on from a uniquely open vote that saw huge gains by the Muslim Brotherhood, the big question this time is not who will win, but how badly the opposition will lose.

At stake is the lower house of Egypt’s parliament, the People’s Assembly, where 518 politicians – 10 of whom are appointed by the president – will represent the country’s nearly 80.5 million citizens. This year, 5,181 candidates are in the running, including 380 women vying for 64 seats allotted for female lawmakers by a new law.

Despite this impression of vigorous competition, most expect this year’s vote to mark a step backward from the relative openness Egypt experienced in 2005. That year, in spite of Egypt’s ban on religious political parties, Brotherhood members running as “independents” won an unprecedented 88 seats in parliament. With nearly 20 per cent of the assembly, they were largest minority party the country had ever seen.

In 2010, the Muslim Brotherhood’s bloc in parliament is expected to crumble. In part due to disagreements within the organization, the Brotherhood has put forward fewer candidates than they did in 2005, and the repression those candidates and their supporters have received from the government have put a damper on the Brotherhood’s chances at the ballot box. Most experts think their representation in parliament will fall by at least two-thirds, while the liberal but regime-friendly New Wafd party is expected to see its fortunes rise.

Weighty issues will confront Egypt’s new parliament: the country’s onerous, decades-old “emergency” national security laws, a restive and increasingly eager-to-protest labour movement, calls for judicial independence and an end to state abuse, and the ramifications of the first presidential transition in 30 years, either via the 2011 election or the potential death in office of ailing president Hosni Mubarak.

But whether the average Egyptian thinks they have any chance to address those issues through their elected parliament – that is very much in doubt.

Learned apathy

High stakes have never driven Egyptians to the polls. Even by the government’s sunny estimates, turnout in Egyptian elections – both presidential and parliamentary – have never been high: Around 9 per cent of the population may have voted for president in 2005.

That lack of participation has encouraged the stereotype of Egypt as politically apathetic and lethargic. Like most caricatures, the portrait is drawn from truth.

“I don’t think the election matters a lot,” said Ziad Moussa, a researcher with the Egyptian Studies unit of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “For the regime, definitely it’s a matter of re-establishing sovereignty, and I honestly don’t see it as a question of legitimacy”.

Egyptians, Moussa said, are on a “completely different wavelength” from their government, and elections, which bring well-heeled politicians promenading down trash-strewn streets distributing food, money and promises, are “very much tarnished within the psyche of the everyday, regular Egyptian citizen”.

The regime will remain, Moussa said, regardless of the election.

It is not an accident (nor an indication of the populace’s enthusiasm) that Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has maintained a veto-enabling two-third’s majority in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of parliament, ever since the government began holding multi-party elections in 1979. With 311 of 454 seats in the current assembly (the last election occurred before the addition of 64 women-only spots) the NDP is at its lowest ebb ever, perhaps one reason why nobody expects this year’s vote to be free or fair.

Lost in the rigging

To protect its majority, the NDP pulls on levers provided by the party’s vast bureaucratic and patronage networks.

Basem Fathy, the 26-year-old projects director for the Cairo-based Egyptian Democratic Academy, said the government’s influence during election season is pervasive. He cited several examples of recent government activity that has seemed aimed at influencing the outcome of the vote and is likely indicative of the way things are going throughout the country.

In a neighbourhood in Alexandria, an NDP candidate has pasted campaign posters around the entrance to a police station, an act that is prohibited by election law but encourages citizens to believe (and fear) that the NDP is backed by the police. In Cairo, supporters of a female opposition candidate, Gameela Ismail, have been arrested and her posters torn down. As recently as Friday night, people marching in support of Muslim Brotherhood candidates in Alexandria found themselves confronted by lines of police in riot gear. A violent clash ensued, and marchers threw bricks and other debris; many were injured, and hundreds of people with Brotherhood connections were arrested across the country.

This YouTube video posted by an activist associated with the Muslim Brotherhood allegedly shows Egyptians receiving money as they arrive at a polling place during Shura Council elections in June.

The government employs other tactics to gerrymander elections, Fathy said. Much of the vote-rigging battle is fought around access to polling stations – getting the right supporters in and keeping the wrong ones out. Stations will unpredictably open late or close early; government ministries, presumably filled with those who owe their jobs to the NDP apparatus, bus their employees to vote; conservative-looking people, such as men with prominent beards, might be turned away out of suspicion that they are Brotherhood members or sympathizers.

In poorer districts, residents have been known to receive payment in exchange for voting for a particular candidate, Fathy said: In 2005 a vote sold for between 50 and 100 Egyptian pounds, or $9 to $18.

In the worst-case scenario, it appears, the government can simply alter the vote count after the fact. Again in 2005, Fathy said, election officials in the Dokki neighbourhood of Cairo announced the night of the vote that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Hazem Salah Abu Ismail had won. The next day, they said that Amal Othman, a government minister in the NDP party, was the actual winner. The same scenario played out in Damanhur, in northern Egypt, when Brotherhood member Gamal Hashmat saw his initial victory handed over to high-ranking NDP candidate Mostafa al-Fikky, Fathy said.

Fathy’s organization has put more than 150 volunteers in the field this election season to file reports on fraud and abuse using an open-source, location-based reporting program first employed in Kenya in 2007.

The High Elections Commission, which has assumed power over Egyptian elections since it was created by constitutional amendment in 2007, will allow civil society organizations to monitor the voting, but it has imposed strict rules. Monitors can access polling stations, but only at election officials’ discretion; they cannot question poll workers, nor can they question or even converse with voters.

The Commission has been tight-fisted in issuing permits to such monitors, and one major Egyptian group – the Association for Community Participation Enhancement – has sued to be given its permits. The Mubarak administration, meanwhile, has publicly and bluntly rebuffed US calls for the government to allow international observers.

In with the old

Fraud aside, if the Wafd – which traces its origins to Egypt’s colonial era – does become Egypt’s largest opposition party, what does that mean for the country’s politics?

While others accuse the Wafd of acting as an NDP puppet – regime critic and al-Dustor newspaper editor-in-chief Ibrahim Eissa was fired shortly after Wafd chairman Sayyid al-Badawi bought the paper – Moussa said that the Wafd would mark an improvement over the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood, despite being vocal, has failed to achieve anything of significance in the past five years and exposes the opposition as a whole to peoples’ fears of Islamism, he said.

“That kind of argument [over Islamism], which consumes a lot of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political activity, will not be there if a secular force is in parliament,” he said.

But Moussa acknowledged that the Wafd is “more in accordance” with the NDP than other opposition groups and that it will likely be less confrontational.

Not that it seems to matter much, anyway, since “the only force that is actually capable of bringing about political change in Egypt is the National Democratic Party,” he said.

Said Haddadi, a Middle East and North Africa researcher for Amnesty International, said that whatever the makeup of the new parliament, it must move more forcefully to protect human rights.

Mufid Shihab, Egypt’s minister of legal and parliamentary affairs, pledged in a speech before the United Nations in February that the government would pass legislation bringing its definition of torture in line with international standards, Haddadi said, but so far it has not.

In interviews with Egyptian officials, he said, only bureaucrats in the foreign affairs ministry are willing to admit that their colleagues in the ministries of interior and justice allow a “revolving-door” policy of illegal detention whereby prisoners are released after their sentence is served, only to be transferred to some other location and repeatedly issued with orders extended their detention.

Authorities have also been “quite dismissive” about torture allegations, such as the separate high-profile deaths in recent months of two young men in Alexandria, Khaled Said and Ahmed Shaaban. Such incidents are isolated and not endemic among security forces, authorities have told Haddadi.

A change in parliament does not seem likely to change such attitudes, since they are engrained in the perpetual NDP majority, Haddadi said.

“I think in general, because the parliament is dominated by the ruling party, it hasn’t done much to restrict the emergency powers or introduce other laws that could protect human rights,” he said.

A repressive ruling party, a secular opposition eager to compromise, and a sidelined Islamist movement that even Moussa admits cannot be excluded if Egypt is to open up its mostly-in-name democracy – these seem to be the ingredients of the 2010 parliament.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that Moussa says he’s not even going to bother casting a vote.

“I really don’t think that my participation in the election would make any difference,” he said. 

Source : Al Jazeera

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