Autumn of polls

Autumn of polls
Egypt’s recent experience of elections shows that the opposition has much work, and much thinking, still to do, writes Amr Hamzawy*

The 7 September presidential elections in Egypt is testament to the marginal status of the opposition, which failed to mobilise enough support to challenge the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). In addition, the boycott strategy, aimed at forestalling any peaceful transition to Mubarak’s fifth term, yielded no significant results.

The NDP’s continued entrenchment in state institutions and the ongoing partial repression of political activity are major factors contributing to the weakness of the opposition. Nevertheless, internal weaknesses and miscalculations have also contributed to their problematic situation. Major opposition parties lack internal democracy and, in most cases, dynamic leadership. Their ability to reach out and attend to popular bases, in both rural and urban areas, is minimal. More importantly, during the last two years of state-led political reform, opposition parties failed to develop clear answers to Egypt’s pressing problems and thus could not ensure the support of the Egyptian electorate.

The boycotting parties — primarily the Leftist Unionists and Arab-Nasserists — based their position on the fact that the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution, which opened the door for Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential election, set nearly impossible conditions on independents wishing to run and on the ability of opposition parties to get candidates on the presidential ballot from 2011 onwards. Furthermore, the amendment did not provide for full judicial supervision of the presidential elections but rather stipulated the formation of a presidential electoral commission composed of five judges and five public figures appointed by the NDP-controlled parliament. Finally, the unwillingness of the NDP to discuss abrogating the state of emergency prior to the election, or to ease restrictions on forming parties, made the decision to boycott appear consequential in the face of the uncompromising authoritarian conduct of Mubarak’s regime.

Adopting the boycott strategy, however, negatively impacted opposition parties, which missed an opportunity to get their message out and revitalise their internal structures in the context of election campaigning. The question of whether an electoral boycott is a useful or a self-defeating tactic is often hard to answer, and opposition forces faced with an unlevelled electoral playing field often struggle to find the right approach. In many cases, however, opting for a boycott, although tempting, results in the opposition parties failing to build up their platforms and subject ruling elites to increasing popular pressure.

In contrast, parties that ran candidates on 7 September generally demonstrated a higher degree of political maturity because they took advantage of the expanded media attention afforded to them by the elections. In particular, the Wafd and Ghad’s efforts to mobilise their constituencies invigorated them and signalled an important transition from reliance on closed- door discussions to meaningful participation in the political process. The Wafd used its historical legacy as the party of secular Egyptian nationalism to reach out to the urban middle class and Coptic citizens frightened by a state- tolerated Islamisation of vital social spheres. Ayman Nour’s Ghad (Tomorrow) Party capitalised on its leader’s youth — Nour is 41 — to convince Egyptians of the viability of replacing the country’s ageing leadership with a dynamic group of professional politicians. Nour, a gifted speaker, designed an intensive election campaign which took him to every major city in Egypt and that efficiently used modern communication technologies. However, both parties failed to present original electoral programmes or develop alternative visions to Mubarak’s platform. The Wafd leader Noaman Gomaa made vague remarks on how to reform Egypt but offered no difference in substance from the editorials of opposition newspapers; Nour’s empty campaign promises, and his personal attacks on Mubarak, undermined his credibility.

Rather than systematically addressing deteriorating socio-economic conditions that, according to recent public opinion polls, are the first priority of the Egyptian electorate, Gomaa and Nour, along with other opposition candidates, alienated the public by focussing on less immediate political reform issues. It came as no surprise, therefore, that opposition parties were unable to mobilise broad segments of the population to go to the polls on 7 September.

Another fundamental mistake on the part of Egyptian opposition parties was to invest inordinate amounts of time in the lead-up to the presidential election trying to build a grand national alliance against Mubarak’s NDP. Although well-intentioned, these efforts diluted the positions of key actors and confused the electorate. Operating in a semi-authoritarian political system with a dominant ruling party, Egypt’s opposition should have worked to articulate clear electoral profiles and reach out to the public with distinct programmes. To believe that united opposition fronts can better challenge autocratic rulers than autonomous parties ignores the vital need for each party to develop stable constituencies and to find its niche in an opening political space.

Contemporary experiences of democratic transition in semi-authoritarian regimes emphasise the need for opposition forces to formulate a national consensus for change, which sets the direction of political reform and puts forward the peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box and the neutrality of state institutions as the basic rules of the political process. Reaching a national consensus for change, however, does not presuppose the creation of opposition fronts united only by their members’ eagerness to increase pressures on the autocratic ruling elite. Such overarching political constructs run the risk of turning into shallow political bodies where ideological considerations override their members’ fundamentally varied perceptions and programmes.

Opposition parties in Egypt disagree on an array of issues, including state control of the economy, the scope of private enterprise in the public space, the political role of religious movements, as well as foreign policy matters. Bereft of well-defined platforms, Egypt’s opposition is destined to lose credibility and remain unable to mobilise broad constituencies for political reform.

More successful than the aforementioned opposition parties were the Muslim Brotherhood and newly-established protest movements, especially Kifaya. In fact, both the Brotherhood and Kifaya gained considerably from their implemented strategies in the run-up to the presidential election.

Throughout the last two years, the Brotherhood positioned itself at the forefront of opposition forces calling on President Mubarak to open up the political space and reduce repressive regime measures. Several reform announcements documented the Brotherhood’s pro-democracy stance. Although the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution ruled out the possibility of the Brotherhood running a candidate against Mubarak, its efforts to encourage Egyptians to vote in the presidential elections testified to the growing willingness within the movement to play by the rules, including those that exclude it from the sphere of legal political action. The Brotherhood’s calculated move underlined its pragmatism and acceptance of the principle of gradual reform.

Kifaya and other protest movements, on the other hand, triggered an unprecedented dynamism in the Egyptian political scene throughout the last two years. Their very emergence demonstrated the ability of organised networks of activists to transcend state-imposed participation limits and engage in the political process. These movements capitalised on popular discontent with the ruling NDP, as well as with weak opposition parties, to lead a growing opposition to Mubarak’s fifth term from the street. Significant numbers of Egyptians, who in the last decades hardly protested domestic politics in public, were attracted by Kifaya’s slogans and activities and took to the streets of major cities.

The fact that these movements did not put forward well-defined sets of ideological inclinations and focused primarily on lobbying for democratic reform measures empowered them to transcend major divides of the Egyptian political context. Their membership extended to liberals, leftists, Nasserists, Islamists, and well-known independent intellectuals. This profile generated public recognition and acceptance for the new movements and forced established opposition parties to reach out to them. In contrast to other boycotting parties, Kifaya’s decision to call on Egyptian voters not to participate in the presidential elections suited its objective of casting public doubts on Mubarak’s fifth term and further radicalised the political discourse in Egypt’s opposition scene.

Despite their relative success in reinventing the street as an arena for political action, nascent protest movements remained largely ineffective in terms of constituency building due to their limited appeal outside urban centres. Kifaya and its heirs clearly could not mobilise significant segments of the Egyptian middle class, which remained hostage to its own culture of fear and belief in the primacy of stability and security over political change, perceived as a synonym for social disorder.

The dynamism in the Egyptian opposition continues to play itself out in the lead-up to the parliamentary elections, scheduled to begin on 9 November 2005 and to last for almost three weeks. Recent statements from leading politicians suggest that opposition parties and movements regard the upcoming elections as the first real opportunity to contest the NDP’s control over the People’s Assembly and increase their representation from its current historic low of less than 10 per cent.

The strategies used by the opposition can be grouped into two main categories: creating a united opposition front and pursuing independent constituency building. Parties such as the Wafd, the Leftist Unionist, and the Arab- Nasserist, along with Kifaya, are focused on running joint candidates to better challenge the NDP in all 222 electoral districts. In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood and Ghad favour competing independently in a limited number of districts by fielding their own cadres. Nour wants to capitalise on his relative gains from the presidential elections from which he emerged as the strongest opposition figure. The Muslim Brotherhood, on the other hand, is not willing to compromise its strength in the Egyptian street by entering election alliances with junior partners and does not want to provoke Mubarak’s regime through front-building tactics with other opposition forces.

Regardless of the performance of different parties and movements, the parliamentary elections will most probably yield better overall representation for the opposition. Taking all current circumstances into consideration, an election result leading to 15-20 per cent opposition seats in the new People’s Assembly is plausible. The scope and frequency of election irregularities, despite the government’s refusal of international monitoring, are likely to diminish compared to previous parliamentary elections, given heavy domestic and international attention to the process. Egyptian judges released a memorandum on 7 October stipulating new rules and regulations for monitoring the upcoming elections and stressing the need to conduct it over three stages in order to ensure judicial monitoring of all polls.

During his election campaign, Hosni Mubarak pledged to introduce substantial constitutional and political reforms that touched on most of the major demands in opposition platforms. He committed himself to replacing the quarter- century-old state of emergency with a more specific anti-terrorism law, amending the constitution to limit the powers of the presidency, putting more oversight capacity in the hands of the judiciary and legislature, delegating more authority to his cabinet, and initiating a new round of national dialogue on reform. Should President Mubarak instruct his government and the NDP to negotiate these steps with opposition forces in the new People’s Assembly and to articulate specific timelines for their implementation, the parliamentary elections might be the opening act on a new stage of political change in Egypt.

* The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment who previously taught at Cairo University and the Free University of Berlin

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