• November 11, 2005
  • 6 minutes read

A political apathy

A political apathy
Is politics about to win the day? Omayma Abdel-Latif looks for an answer

Islam Hamdoun, Ghad Party candidate in Imbaba, stands in the middle of a crowd explaining his election platform. "The door of democracy is now open," he tells his audience. "Make use of the opportunity and take from it as much as you can."

Quite what his constituents make of such rhetoric is unclear. His aim, though, as he tells Al-Ahram Weekly later, is to help people make the link between what he terms their sub-human living conditions and the policies of the ruling party.

"I wanted them to realise that the suffering they endure is a result of the NDP and that it is time to change," says 37- year-old Hamdoun.

But in a constituency that has more than its fair share of slum areas, where the majority of people live on less than a dollar a day, promises about introducing electricity and providing access to clean water — such as those made by Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif last week — are likely to carry more weight with voters than statements about political reform.

Many hope that the political momentum that has gathered strength in recent months, during which debate about political reform and political freedoms took centre stage, will prove sufficient to shake the voters’ long-standing apathy when it comes to politics. But ideas are unlikely to win the day with an electorate whose immediate concerns are as basic as access to drinking water. And at a time when civil society organisations are fighting an uphill battle to ensure that votes will not be tampered with the parliamentary elections, predict many observers, will show that some voting habits are hard to break. It will be the perceived ability of candidates to provide services that will sway voters, they say, a dynamic that plays in favour of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Like Hamdoun, candidates from the opposition and Muslim Brotherhood ranks running under the banner of political reform are having a tough time trying to convince the electorate to vote for politics rather than services. NDP candidates, on the other hand, have been armed with a battery of statements from Nazif and other ministers. The promises, which have been viewed by the opposition as an attempt by the government to bolster the position of NDP candidates, have provoked harsh criticism, with the government being accused of using public funds as if they belonged to the NDP and effectively bribing voters to support the ruling party. It is hardly a coincidence that in electoral banners and slogans NDP candidates have repeatedly stressed that they are indeed the state.

"Parliamentary elections in Egypt have long been fought on the one hand over the connection between candidates and the voting blocs within their constituencies, and on the other over the candidates’ connections with the state," wrote Mohamed El-Sayed Said of Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "They long ago ceased to be a battle over ideas and ideology in which different political parties would compete to win voters’ trust."

If previous elections are any indication the majority of those who go to the polls will opt to support candidates capable of providing services regardless of their political or party affiliations while those who already command access to adequate services will simply remain at home. It is a scenario dubbed the "death of politics" by many analysts and results, explains Said, in voters consciously voting against politics or, more precisely, against those known to be "politicians".

Although Said believes it is too early to predict voting patterns he thinks it more than likely that the parliamentary elections will once again produce what he describes as service-oriented, rather than politics-oriented, MPs.

"What tends to happen is that MPs do not campaign on a political message, which means in the end that parliament fails in representing the political interests of the nation. In a very real sense elections in Egypt are not about politics."

There are, of course, other determinants for such a persistent voting pattern, including votes being cast according to family or village loyalties. And as campaigns unfolded across constituencies there were few if any indications that those voting patterns are about to change.

Makarem Al-Deery, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate in Nasr City, is not alone in voicing her concern that the legislative role of parliament is at odds with the attitudes of candidates — mostly from the NDP — who appeal to voters only through the services with which they can provide them.

"The real job of an MP is to ensure that the popular will is reflected in the legislation and decisions that come out of the assembly," Al-Deery told the Weekly on the eve of the poll. "It is not their job," she continued, "to provide citizens with services. This is the responsibility of the government as the executive branch".

In Nasr City Al-Deery faces strong competition from two businessmen. The NDP candidate Mustafa El-Salaab, whose election banners have focussed on unemployment, is urging voters support him in order to "secure job opportunities". Fawzy El-Sayed, another businessman, is running as independent.

Al-Deery believes that voters who opt for the Muslim Brotherhood "are simply making a political choice". Though the outlawed group has built a vast network of social services, including health centres and educational services in poor areas, Al-Deery insists her campaign has not emphasised service provision. And Al-Deery’s banners, scattered around Nasr City, appear to confirm this: the majority promise to "reform our world through our religion".