The Egyptian Shura Council elections, which ended their second round yesterday, are largely viewed as an insignificant political event. Though commonly known as the “upper house”, the council merely acts as a consultative branch of the Egyptian parliament, and enjoys no official authority in law-making. Nevertheless, the results of this year’s elections will leave an important mark on the Egyptian political scene.
The regime has created a new order where the Muslim Brotherhood no longer has a place, and, more importantly, the old guard of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) are back in power. Such radical shifts in Egyptian politics are highly significant as elections for the People’s Assembly and the presidency quickly approach.
The results of the Shura elections were surprising. As usual, the NDP won with a sweeping majority. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, failed to secure a single seat. This was a major blow, especially after they won 20 percent in the 2005 People’s Assembly elections. Secular opposition parties, on the other hand, won four seats, an unprecedented number in the council’s history (only two opposition members have ever made it to the Shura Council in the last 30 years).
The elections mark the end of a deal between the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s regime, which instead has decided to win over a handful of much weaker opposition parties. Moreover, one of the NDP’s most fascinating old elites, Safwat el-Sherif, has resurfaced, having successfully marginalized the younger “reformers” of the ruling party during the nomination process.
Former President Anwar Sadat founded the Shura Council in 1980–shortly after signing a peace treaty with Israel–as an institution to co-opt regime opponents. He used the council to appease his opponents through the extension of privileges, without granting them any actual power. According to law, the council was established to “protect the principles of the two revolutions of 23 July 1952 and 15 May 1971; …to protect the coalition of the working classes and the socialist gains; …to deepen the socialist democratic system and expand its scope.”
Today, this mission sounds irrelevant–especially under Mubarak’s policies of economic liberalization which have accelerated since the 1990s–but the council still exists as a mechanism to integrate rivals into the political system. The president appoints one third of its members, most of whom are opposition party leaders, syndicate chiefs and prominent intellectuals.
In 2004, el-Sherif was appointed as the Shura Council speaker. The former media minister gave it a sudden breath of life and forged a new, unexpected place for the council in Egyptian politics. Many argued at the time that a younger generation was taking over the NDP, represented by Gamal Mubarak’s Policies Secretariat and business tycoon Ahmed Ezz, under the slogan of reform. But el-Sherif would soon use two instruments of the Shura Council to reassert a new, decisive role for himself and for the council: newspapers and permission to form political parties.
In the weeks leading up to this year’s Shura elections, el-Sherif played a key role in nominating NDP candidates. Ezz pushed for more transparent methods to select nominees, like opinion polls and internal party elections, but eventually el-Sherif’s choices triumphed. Disputes arose within the party’s governorate offices and provincial members questioned all the rhetoric about reforming the party.
Amidst documented fraud and violent confrontations in some districts, el-Sherif’s nominees not only won party candidacy, but also the council seats. The regime, for its part, insisted on not allowing judicial, civil society, or international monitoring of the elections.
This was not el-Sherif’s only victory during the elections. In the past few weeks he has also announced several times that the regime made no deals with the Muslim Brotherhood this time around. He was not joking. In one of the most scandalous Brotherhood statements, Supreme Guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef revealed a few months ago that the Brothers did in fact cut a deal with the regime to secure 88 seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections. This not only raised doubts about the Brotherhood’s mass appeal, but also served as a reminder that Egypt’s authoritarian regime holds ultimate control over elections.
In the Shura elections, all 14 Brotherhood candidates lost in the first round, while four opposition candidates won. This is an indicator that the regime has clearly chosen its new allies for the upcoming parliamentary elections in November.
Reacting to the loss, the Brotherhood immediately turned to ElBaradei, declaring their support for his National Association for Change. On 2 June, 3,000 Brotherhood members received ElBaradei in Fayoum, and two days later ElBaradei visited the Brotherhood’s parliamentary block leader Mohamed Saad el-Katatny and sealed the newly born alliance.
Some observers argue the Brothers are simply maneuvering; they have no intention of making a clean break with the regime and are using ElBaradei to pressure Mubarak’s government into a new deal before November. If the NDP’s old guard uses its Shura tactics in the parliamentary elections (i.e. marginalizing its younger party members, excluding the Brotherhood, and co-opting puppet opposition parties) then the winner of the 2011 presidential elections has already been determined. Within this new–or rather old–order of things, Gamal Mubarak, may apparently have no place.
Zeinab Abul-Magd is an assistant professor of history at Oberlin College in Ohio.