Constituency combats

The first round of parliamentary elections will witness some hard fought battles, predicts Gamal Essam El-Din
Voters head to the polls next Wednesday to select 164 representatives out of 1,760 candidates standing for the People”s Assembly. The ballot, the first of the three-stage parliamentary elections, will cover eight governorates — Cairo, Giza, Al-Menoufiya, Beni Sweif, Assiut, Al-Minya, Marsa Matrouh and the New Valley. Any run-off elections will be held on 15 November. In the second and third stages, starting on 20 November and ending on 7 December voters in the remaining 18 governorates will elect 280 representatives.

Following last Saturday”s disqualification of 500 candidates by electoral committees and the withdrawal of others for personal reasons, a total of 5,310 candidates will be contesting 444 seats over the course of the elections though the number of candidates could drop further as the second and third stages approach. The vast majority of disqualified candidates were members of opposition parties or running as independents. No official candidate from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) was disqualified.

With more candidates than ever contesting seats observers expect the elections to be hard fought, though not necessarily across all constituencies.

In the first round the NDP is fielding 164 candidates and the United National Front for Change (UNFC) — which includes the three major opposition parties, the Wafd, Tagammu and Nasserists — 87. The remaining 1,419 candidates comprise mostly Muslim Brotherhood candidates and independents — the majority NDP members who decided to run on their own ticket after failing to secure an NDP nomination.

Cairo, Giza and Al-Menoufiya are expected to see the fiercest battles of the entire campaign. The results in Cairo”s 25 constituencies are all unpredictable, with 529 candidates battling it out.

The NDP campaign quickly moved into top gear, with senior officials scheduled to appear at 26 public rallies in support of candidates. The president”s son, Gamal Mubarak, and the party”s secretary-general, Safwat El-Sherif, have already attended rallies for NDP candidates in Cairo, Beni Sweif, Al-Minya and Giza. In this first and most crucial stage, the NDP is fielding four cabinet ministers, three in Cairo and one in Al-Menoufiya.

In Cairo, Youssef Boutros-Ghali, minister of finance, is running in Shubra, Ibrahim Suleiman, minister of housing, in Al-Gammaliya and Sayed Mashaal, minister of military production, in Helwan. In Al-Menoufiya”s Al-Bagour constituency, Kamal El-Shazli, NDP parliamentary whip and minister of parliamentary affairs, faces a strong challenge from multi-millionaire Wafd candidate Mohamed Kamel. Kamel has said defeating El-Shazli is a prerequisite for any meaningful political reform while El-Shazli has accused Kamel of being an outsider in the constituency who is buying support with money.

The fates of eight NDP chairmen of parliamentary committees will also be decided in the first stage of voting. Three of them — the businessmen Ahmed Ezz, Mohamed Abul-Enein and Hossam Badrawi — are members of the NDP Policy Committee and close to Gamal Mubarak.

In Al-Menoufiya”s Menouf constituency Ezz faces a tough challenge from Ibrahim Kamel, an independent multi-millionaire. Other senior NDP figures running in the first stage include parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour in Al-Sayeda Zeinab, deputy speaker Amal Othman in Doqqi and chief of presidential staff Zakariya Azmi in Al-Zeitoun.

In addition to drumming up support for NDP candidates, the party”s senior officials have launched a scathing attack on the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood”s decision to campaign under the slogan “Islam is the solution” sparked immediate condemnation, not only from the NDP but from a host of prominent opposition figures. Rifaat El-Said, leader of the leftist Tagammu Party, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the Brotherhood slogan is overtly sectarian and could open gates to hell.”

“It was the Brotherhood”s adoption of this slogan in the 1980s, and their constant advocacy in parliament of Islamic Sharia law that fuelled the extremism and terrorism of the 1990s,” he said.

In 2000, following a massive security clampdown, the Muslim Brotherhood fielded just 90 candidates. This year between 150 and 170 members of the organisation are standing, with 50 of them vying against NDP candidates in the first stage.

Mohamed Ali Bishr, former secretary of the National Union of Engineers, is running against Amin Mubarak, cousin of President Hosni Mubarak and chairman of the People”s Assembly Industry Committee, in the Al-Menoufiya constituency of Shebin Al-Kom. The Brotherhood is also fielding strong candidates in several Cairo seats. Gamal Abdel-Salam is running against Hossam Badrawi in Qasr Al-Nil, Abdel-Hamid El-Ghazali is hoping to wrest Al-Manial from Mamdouh Thabet Mekki and Mohamed Mansour is standing against Mohamed Morshidi in Maadi.

In Doqqi the Brotherhood”s Hazem Abu Ismail is taking on deputy parliamentary speaker Amal Othman while the Brotherhood”s sole female candidate Makarem El-Deiri, a professor of Arabic literature, faces an uphill battle against the construction magnates and NDP candidates Mustafa El-Sallab and Fawzi El-Sayed in Cairo”s Nasr City constituency.

The Brotherhood, says political analyst Diaa Rashwan, are well prepared for the campaign. “They view these elections as a golden opportunity to strengthen their influence after the hiatus that followed the harsh security measures against them in recent years.”

Rashwan believes the visit of Al-Ghad Party Chairman Ayman Nour to the Brotherhood”s offices to promote himself as a presidential candidate, and claims that he came second to President Mubarak thanks to the Brotherhood”s endorsement, encouraged the group not to coordinate with the UNFC but instead use the elections as a show of strength.

Rashwan does not, however, expect the Brotherhood to win more than 10 seats in the first round “because they are running against leading NDP figures”. The UNFC”s 87 candidates includes 54 Wafdists, 17 from the Tagammu and six Nasserists. Their prospects, believes Rashwan, are not bright. “It is not entirely their fault: the problem is that many are new faces, and most lack adequate funding, a great drawback when competing against business tycoons.”

The best known of the new faces is Montasser El-Zayat, a lawyer who has regularly represented Islamists and is a fervent advocate of Islamic Sharia, running in the Giza constituency of Bulaq Al-Dakrour. Others include Mustafa Bakri, editor of the independent weekly Al-Osbou, running in Helwan, Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of the frozen Islamist Labour Party, standing in Al-Manyal and Gamal Al-Ashqar, a member of Al-Karama, who faces the NDP”s Mohamed Abul- Enein in Giza.

Among non-UNFC candidates the most closely watched will be Al-Ghad leader Nour”s uphill battle in Cairo”s Bab Al-She”riya constituency and Medhat Abdel-Hadi, running in Shubra against Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali.

On Tuesday the Higher Commission for Parliamentary Elections (HCPE) finally agreed that representatives of civil society, human rights organisations and the media should be allowed free access to polling stations. The HCPE also approved the use of transparent ballot boxes for the first time in Egypt”s parliamentary history.