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Mixed messages
Mixed messagesShaden Shehab takes stock of the first round of parliamentary elections  Among the abiding images of the first stage of the parliamentary elections were shocking scenes screened by Al-Jazeera and watched by an estimated 40 million viewers of people throwing benches and chairs at one another while a woman screamed "forgery". The footage was shot in a polli
Friday, November 18,2005 00:00
by Al-Ahram,

Mixed messages
Shaden Shehab takes stock of the first round of parliamentary elections


 
Among the abiding images of the first stage of the parliamentary elections were shocking scenes screened by Al-Jazeera and watched by an estimated 40 million viewers of people throwing benches and chairs at one another while a woman screamed "forgery". The footage was shot in a polling station during Tuesday’s parliamentary election run-offs.

The government, which had repeatedly said elections would be free and fair, promised that the conduct of the poll would show the world that Egypt was moving ahead along the road to reform. Members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) insist that this is still the case.

The first stage of the poll, covering the governorates of Cairo, Giza, El-Menoufiya, El-Minya, Beni Sweif, Assiut, the New Valley and Marsa Matruh, began on 9 November. In the initial vote only 31 seats produced a clear result, leaving 133 seats up for grabs in Tuesday’s run-offs. When the final results were announced the NDP had won 68 seats, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) 34, the United National Front for Change (UNFC) six and the Ghad Party two. The remaining seats were won by independents.

The victory of prominent members of the NDP’s old guard -- including Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Kamal El-Shazli, Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Sorour and Chief of Presidential staff Zakaria Azmi -- seems to have put an end to speculation that they were a waning influence within the party. NDP stalwart Amal Othman, deputy chairman of the People’s Assembly, also won though Egyptian TV earlier announced she had lost her seat to MB Hazem Abu Ismail.

The NDP’s businessmen candidates, accused by the opposition of spending millions to maintain their parliamentary seats, also secured comfortable victories.

Meanwhile Ayman Nour, chairman of the Ghad Party, lost his parliamentary seat. Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour, leader of the Wafd’s outgoing parliamentary bloc, was also unseated.

Along with other losers Nour has filed an appeal with the Administrative Court alleging electoral fraud and asking that the results in their constituencies be annulled. On Sunday the court overturned the results in three constituencies, including Mounir Fakhry Abdel-Nour’s Wayli seat.

The results may have raised more than a few eyebrows but according to Mohamed Kamal, a leading member of the influential NDP Policies Secretariat "we should respect the will of the electorate."

"The people had their own reasons in chosing who to vote for," Kamal told Al-Ahram Weekly, "most probably the services they are offered in their constituencies."

Most commentators agree the Muslim Brotherhood emerge as the real winners of the first round.

"The result confirms the Egyptian people stand behind the Brotherhood and the Brotherhood represents the strongest social and political group in Egypt," said Mohamed Habib, deputy supreme guide of the MB. The group fielded 52 candidates in the first round and plans to contest 110 of the 280 seats to be decided in the coming two stages.

After more than 50 years of arrests and persecution the MB was allowed to contest the elections openly and under its slogan "Islam is the solution" ran the most organised campaign of any opposition group.

The sudden show of official tolerance towards the MB raises many questions, and rumours of a "deal" between the NDP and its main rival have surfaced repeatedly, despite denials from both.

"There is no deal... rather a margin of understanding," says political analyst Fahmy Howeidy. "There was an opportunity for the MB and they grabbed it. The door was ajar and so they entered. The same thing is happening with the press. It is now permissible to criticise the government and get away with it, and independent newspapers took the opportunity."

Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama agrees with Howeidy, elaborating that the government is "sending a message to the US and the West. And the message is that there are no real opposition parties in Egypt. The only significant force is the MB, and if the door of democracy is opened there is a possibility they will take power, something that will not serve US and Western interests and even scares them."

According to Kamal the "MB is an illegal group but we are living in a different political climate. We are dealing with them as independent candidates that have the right to organise and compete." He added that the NDP had filed complaints with the Parliamentary Electoral Committee over the use of religious slogans.

Although the final composition of the new parliament will become clear only after all three rounds of the elections are complete the results of the first stage suggest a parliament dominated by the NDP with the MB forming the only significant opposition.

Even before the polls opened, says Howeidy, the "opposition parties were in intensive care. Now they have an official death certificate."

Early last month the Wafd, Tagammu and Nasserist parties united with eight other political movements to form the UNFC in an attempt to improve their chances against the NDP. The coalition strategy appears to have failed.

Kamal regrets the opposition’s poor showing, arguing that it is not in the interests of the NDP to have such "weak representation of the legal opposition parties".

NGOs monitoring the vote report the poll was marred by irregularities including vote-buying, bribery, thuggery, the bussing of voters to polling stations and the collective registration of voters in constituencies not their own. Human rights groups say monitors were barred from polling stations during the count, that ballot boxes were swapped, stuffed and then submitted to the Parliamentary Electoral Committee hours later than specified, that judges in charge of some polling stations were replaced immediately before the count and initial results changed in some Cairo constituencies. Nor, they say, did the government deliver on its promises of full judicial supervision. They estimate just 15 per cent of all polling centres were fully supervised.

Voters’ lists once again emerged as the focus of numerous complaints with at least 30 per cent of the names included being either duplications or belonging to the deceased or those with no recognised address.

While officials lauded the neutrality displayed by the police during the vote, others are less sanguine.

"How can we call the police performance neutral? A more appropriate term would be passive. NDP candidates and supporters used thugs, knives and threw benches and chairs at people and the police stood still. The security forces saw crimes happen and did not act. That is not being neutral," says Howeidy.

"It is unfortunate that irregularities happened but NDP members and supporters were not the only ones responsible. Islamist and opposition members and supporters also committed numerous infringements," insists Kamal. The NDP, he continued, is not responsible for such behaviour and even complained to the Parliamentary Electoral Committee. "It will take time to eradicate such malpractice from political life because it has become so embedded, but the NDP is serious in its commitment to democratisation."

"Now I understand what the government means by reform. It has changed the ways it rigs the vote," says Alaa El-Attar, a member of the Journalists for Change movement, citing instances of voters being given ballot cards with the NDP candidate already ticked as they enter the station; after depositing the pre-marked card in the ballot box, voters who return with the blank card presented to them by officials inside the polling stations are then paid for their vote.

Attar is not alone in seeing the elections as a bad joke signaling the end of any real hope for meaningful reform.

Salama told the Weekly democratisation remains a "mirage" while Howeidy believes the "great loser is the concept of political reform -- it is dead".

So how will the country change following these much-hyped parliamentary elections?

"It will not. There has to be pressure from the people. That means one of two things -- demonstrations or terrorism -- now the door to peaceful reform is shut," says Howeidy.


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