Elections 2010: What’s new?

Just two months ahead of parliamentary elections in Egypt, a foreign visitor might have reasonably concluded from a perusal of the Egyptian independent and opposition press that the elections scheduled for 28 November are not for the parliament, but for the office of president. The news of Gamal Mubarak’s  campaign to stand in the presidential elections vied with contradictory statements that President Mubarak would be the sole presidential candidate for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and these items appeared next to news of the campaign for Mohamed ElBaradei, reform advocate and former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and various other potential opposition presidential candidates.

In 2005, presidential elections preceded the parliamentary poll, which was held about two months later, but the different sequence of this round of elections does not explain the concern with presidential over parliamentary elections this year.

In 2005, President Hosni Mubarak’s status as the sole possible regime candidate was not in dispute. Since early 2010 however, there have been many indications that Mubarak might be unable to run in the impending presidential elections either due to his old age or his poor health, or because there is a significant segment of the ruling elite that has come to believe that President Mubarak has given all he can and that his continued grip on power is no longer in their interest or the regime’s interest, even if his health were to permit it. The problem is that this is happening at a time when the regime is incapable of putting forth a strong alternative who can garner the undivided support of the ruling elite.

The search for consensus within the ruling elite is only one dimension of the current crisis of governance in Egypt. A second, and more significant aspect, is the political legitimacy of the new president: It is accepted in theory but denied in practice that this legitimacy should be based on modern democratic mechanisms, primarily the acceptance of truly free and fair elections. The crisis is exacerbated by the six-decade failure of political and economic performance and the unprecedented expansion of economic and social protests over the last two years.

The July Revolution has been the main prop of political legitimacy for presidents over the last 58 years. Although it was severely undermined by the military defeat of June 1967, the October 1973 victory temporarily restored this pillar of legitimacy for both former President Anwar al-Sadat, the commander of the victory, and President Mubarak, who is consistently referred to in the government media as the “commander of the first air strike” in the battles that took place 37 years ago.

The regime's failure to achieve consensus on a presidential candidate and on a new source of legitimacy has engendered an underlying internal struggle. The regime has failed on every occasion for the past 58 years to resolve similar disputes among various parties in the ruling elite using political methods. This tension consequently casts its shadow over the upcoming election eventhough it is not for the presidency. Foreign observers, as well, are focused on this same issue and for the same reasons.

The changed international climate from 2005 to 2010 is another significant element in the current politics of elections. In 2005, the international community made political reform in Egypt and the Arab world a priority as a reaction to the attacks of September 11. The EU, the US, and the G8 nations sponsored successive reform initiatives, and a new interest in Egypt helped limit naked oppression on several occasions, thus widening the margin of action for civil society and political groups. Several independent newspapers and later private satellite channels were established, and the presidential referendum system was abandoned for multi-candidate elections (regardless of the fact that it reproduced the referendum in a more palatable form). This helped reduce government interference in 50 percent of election rounds. Finally, international attention pushed the regime to make some promises that it lacked the political will to fulfill, such as the end to the current state of emergency.

In 2010, political reform is no longer on the international agenda and as a result the regime faces no serious pressure, with the exception of a statement here and there, and the regime realizes that these statements are merely attempts by American and European officials to mollify certain actors of their own people. In turn, the regime knows very well that even if the upcoming parliamentary elections are the worst in 58 years, it will incur no more than a harsh word or two, as was the case with the so-called elections for the Shura Council in June.

A true independent press emerged in Egypt in 2004, along with several private television channels that began to timidly show an interest in public affairs, an area enthusiastically embraced earlier by Al-Jazeera and other non-Egyptians stations. These stations broadcast to the world live scenes of the widespread repression and blatant security interference that characterized the second phase of parliamentary elections in 2005.

But in 2010, we see the opposite trend. Al-Dostor, the boldest and most courageous independent paper and the most critical of the regime, is being crushed and a couple of vital talk show programs have been suspended or had their directors removed. News channels have been warned, and satellite channels have had their ability to broadcast live restricted, as they now require advance permission from the authorities. That is, government television now holds a monopoly on live broadcasts. This is in addition to restrictions introduced to text messaging and preparations to ban Facebook and the adoption of new law on electronic crimes. At the same time, journalists at independent and opposition papers are increasingly complaining of growing security pressure on their editorial policies. Gradually, the vital arteries and nerves connecting parties and opposition blocs in society are being cut and the space for a media blackout has increased.

While the 2005 elections took place amid relatively free media coverage, which played an important role in exposing government intervention in elections, the 2010 elections will take place in darkness and without judicial oversight. Further, they may also take place without monitoring from human rights groups–these organizations were prevented from monitoring the Shura Council elections earlier this year–as judicial supervision has been replaced by a judicial commission which has refused to respect a previous court ruling allowing civil society groups to monitor elections.

In the 2005 elections, the regime compensated the official, friendly opposition parties with a few seats. A major deal was struck with the Muslim Brotherhood, as the group’s Supreme Guide later admitted. They won a degree of representation in parliament that would not threaten the ruling party and its supporters, but would be sufficient to shock the international community and convince it that the sole alternative to the current regime is the Islamists, and hence that it should abandon its interest in political reform.

The Muslim Brothers achieved a tactical victory by winning 20 percent of the seats, although this did not enable them to stop or even modify one piece of legislation. The regime, meanwhile, won a strategic victory; successfully taking back the control that had gradually begun to elude it since 9/11.

In the 2010 electoral cycle, a major deal have been concluded with the official opposition parties, which with time have become near appendages of the ruling party. But this time the deal is much larger than a handful of seats. As part of a comprehensive political bargain, these parties will win most of the seats that went to the Muslim Brothers in the last elections. In return, the opposition is loudly "opposing" the unofficial opposition and its calls for boycott, as well as the demands for international election observers and the concern Egyptians abroad show for the issue of liberties in their native country. The official opposition has even helped destroy Al-Dostor which advocated an election boycott and supported the non-official opposition, of which Mohamed ElBaradei is the most prominent figure.

The change in partners is reflected in new security policies. In the weeks before the 2005 elections, after the bargain was concluded, all Muslim Brotherhood detainees were gradually released. Now, the Brothers are facing successive security blows in the same pre-election period.

A month before the parliamentary elections, student elections were held in Egyptian universities. The elections saw acts of repression and widespread interference, including the disqualification of many candidates. Indeed, most union representatives were chosen in no-contest races without the need for elections. And when it was necessary to hold elections, it turned out to be difficult to find voters.

What should we expect, then, in parliamentary elections that will play a fundamental role in determining the ability to declare candidacy in the presidential elections?

Aside from elections, two other battles are looming, perhaps even more significant since they are linked with the future of the country. The first is taking place off the stage altogether and concerns the degree to which unofficial, boycotting opposition groups, youth groups and non-youth groups, will be able to work effectively together and have a political impact on the electoral scene, though not the elections themselves. To what extent will they be able to project a coherent, influential message to the mass of regular Egyptians, most of whom have boycotted elections as a matter of course for more than half a century?

What is different in 2010 is that youth groups have become the prime component of the unofficial opposition, and have successfully incorporated new web-based communication methods into their work. This explains why alternative media has become a political enemy.

The second battle is taking place behind the scenes between sparring factions within the regime. These factions are struggling over their own future, the next president, and, in turn, the success of favored candidates in parliamentary elections, whether official NDP candidates or independents. This is the real electoral battle, and it will be much fiercer and perhaps bloodier than the elections themselves. This is a struggle over who will head a regime that is based on individual rule, and it will determine how the 80 percent of parliamentary seats, which the regime will not abandon, are divided.

As for the rest of the seats, there is no great battle looming over them. As senior NDP and government officials have stated, the Wafd Party will be the biggest “opposition” party in parliament. That is, it will replace the Muslim Brotherhood, but with less than half their seats, with the rest distributed to various parties based on the " political ring" of their names. The incoming parliament will hold the most diverse array of parties in any parliament since July 1952. This will help market the elections outcome and repair the regime's deteriorating political legitimacy. It matters not that most of these parties exist only on the files they submitted to obtain government approval for their establishment. As for the most influential opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, they will get the same number of seats as the 2000 elections according to an NDP official–about 15 seats.

The political composition of the incoming parliament has already been announced. All that remains is for the electoral commission–on behalf on the Interior Ministry, the real agent behind the organization and administration of elections–to announce the names of those people who will flesh out the percentages and sit on the seats. In this context, we can understand the perspective of regular Egyptians who do not vote, but not in response to appeals for a boycott. Advocates of a boycott are ultimately a minority within the over whelming majority of people who have been boycotting general elections for more than half a century.

Bahey el-din Hassan is the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.

Related Articles

Back to top button