A loss for all

A loss for all

 A mere cursory numerical scan of the parliamentary election results could be misleading when it comes to determining the winners or losers and to identifying the contours of political life in the coming years. Such a reading would tell us instantly and unequivocally that the National Democratic Party (NDP) swept the elections while the opposition parties staggered in with a handful of seats and the Muslim Brotherhood was left empty-handed. But when we set aside the figures and look at the circumstances of the elections, their indirect results and their possible repercussions on the Egyptian political system over the next few years we can only conclude that everyone lost. The ruling party may have captured an overwhelming majority, but in the aftermath of the elections it will have to contend with three concurrent dilemmas:

– A credibility crisis: For months, right up to the eve of the elections, the NDP kept promising the Egyptian people that the electoral process would meet all the necessary guarantees for transparency, integrity and equal opportunity for contestants. That promise was not fulfilled by any means, to which testify eyewitness accounts, concrete evidence and numerous judicial rulings contesting the probity of the polls and their legality. The authorities thus stand accused of flagrant rigging without consideration for maintaining even a façade of political correctness and respect for law, let alone for the understandings that were reached with the opposition parties that this year’s elections would mark a new beginning in the process of strengthening the parties in the face of movements — such as Kifaya (Enough) and the National Association for Change — that are pressing for radical political reform from outside the political party and parliamentary process. Top NDP officials said over and over again that the time has come to expand and enhance the profile of political parties in order to protect the Egyptian political system from elements that might erode it. The opposition parties swallowed the bait and entered the elections. They are now paying the price. As the secretary-general of the Nasserist Party — all of whose candidates lost in the first round — put it, "We were hoodwinked and deceived."

– A structural crisis: The political system that currently exists in Egypt was built on an equation derived from the "party forums" that president Anwar El-Sadat devised in 1976 for the left, centre and right wings of the state party. When Hosni Mubarak came to power these gave rise to what Egyptian political scientists have termed "restricted party plurality", a system that relied on a strong ruling party surrounded by a group of smaller parties that lent a democratic veneer to the system but that would not have the opportunity to pose as an alternative to the ruling party and the prospect of coming to power via the polls. Confined by emergency laws that obstructed their natural means of communication and interaction with the public and hampered by the ruling party’s control over the shape of the political map by means of the Shura Council’s Committee for Political Party Affairs, which is headed by the NDP secretary-general, the opposition parties settled for the role of décor and contented themselves with the political crumbs that were thrown to them. Then — as time passed — there developed between the opposition party leaderships and the authorities a variety of links heavily sustained by mutual benefits and back-scratching.

The results of the People’s Assembly elections this year disrupted the equation and put paid to any notion of restricted plurality. It simultaneously shattered the dreams of those who had believed that political life in Egypt could bit-by-bit evolve into a genuine multi- party system that would function in a climate in which all parties would have equal opportunity to compete for power democratically. But the ruling party has also harmed itself, because it singlehandedly destroyed the façade that enabled it to market itself abroad and turned the political clock in Egypt back to the days of the National Union, the Arab Socialist Union, and the Arab Socialist Party of Egypt, all of which were monolithic state parties or national fronts that emerged successively following the 1952 revolution. The political system in Egypt has reverted to something akin to the system in Syria today, or to that which had existed in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

– A legitimacy crisis: The Egyptian regime desperately needs to revive its legitimacy. Its revolutionary legitimacy has dwindled because of its departure from the political and ideological orientations of the Free Officers Movement and there is no opportunity to build a legitimacy based on accomplishment due to the structural weaknesses that have beset Egypt in recent decades and the inability of the government to produce effective solutions to the country’s accumulating problems. Of course, traditional legitimacy is out of bounds for a republican system that does not rest on dynastic or other kinship relations. Therefore, the regime’s only alternative is to rebuild itself on "constitutional legitimacy" by means of a political reform process that would attract the public and persuade the people that it is earnest about implementing the "new thinking" espoused by the group that has gathered around the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak. Yet the elections only served to reveal the continued reluctance of the public to participate in the political process because of the general lack of conviction in the government’s propaganda regarding fair and honest elections. Although the Higher Election Commission cited a 35 per cent turnout of about 40 million eligible voters, the actual figure as reported by Egyptian civil society organizations that were allowed to monitor the polls did not exceed 10 per cent. Given the familiar government habit of exaggerating voter turnout figures in previous elections, whether for municipal councils, parliament or the presidency, one is strongly inclined to believe the latter figure. This would mean that no more than four million people voted, of which, let’s say for argument’s sake, three million voted for the NDP (adding together the ballots of those who voted by conviction and the other types of ballots). This is a paltry turnout for a country with a population of 80 million.

These crises of legitimacy, credibility and structure render the ruling party’s sweeping victory meaningless. Consider, above all, the fact that the victors, for all practical purposes, are split between two trends or wings, to which many refer as the "old guard" and "new guard", between which there seethes a silent conflict. The elections effectively turned out to be a battle between these two camps, each of which fought to strengthen its presence in parliament. It was towards this end that they resorted to a tactic unprecedented in electoral processes around the world: the ruling party fielding more than one candidate for every seat in most constituencies.

At the same time, the opposition parties and the Muslim Brothers sustained a debilitating defeat in the first round due to breaches and illegalities that pervaded the balloting process, but also due to the structural weaknesses that plague these parties and that are the product of the protracted siege of emergency law. Add to this that the opposition parties lack the diverse sources of funding that the ruling party enjoys as the consequence of its control over the government bureaucracy, the security agencies and the economic capacities of the state, all of which it turns to the benefit of the party and its candidates.

Nevertheless, the defeat of the opposition parties will not work in the direction that the NDP wants. The ruling party believed that the loss of its opponents would be its net gain, adding to its political and social assets. The reverse is the case. The withdrawal of the Wafd and the Muslim Brothers from the second round won them long sought after popular sympathy because the step was in harmony of the overwhelming national mood, which was most disinterested in the elections and which is growing more frustrated at the performance of the NDP government with every passing day.

The electoral defeat may also trigger internal tensions in those parties that were content to act as window-dressing, leading to a change in leaderships that would rupture the back-scratching relations between these parties and the NDP. In addition, it would bring to their helms leaders that actually believe that an opposition party should not content itself with the little corner set aside for it by the regime, but rather that it should rebel against the wretched condition to which it has been confined for three decades and reorganise its ranks, repair its cracks, and mend its fences with the other opposition parties preparatory to taking on the ruling party. Therefore, the opposition parties may well turn their loss into a gain, while the ruling NDP, in spite of the great electoral victory that it has in its pocket, may find itself gradually losing after having destroyed with its own hands the quasi-consensual system it had built up and in which it thrived as it ruled the people and issued orders to obsequious opposition parties.