EGYPT: Opposition Squeezed in Local Elections

EGYPT: Opposition Squeezed in Local Elections

Last week, the time period for registering candidates in Egypt”s upcoming local council elections officially came to an end. But while spokesmen for the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) have lauded the electoral process as a paragon of political plurality, opposition groups are crying foul.

“The ruling party used to allow opposition candidates to run and then simply rig the elections,” Hamdi Hassan, prominent MP for the Muslim Brotherhood opposition told IPS. “Now, it has adopted a new strategy to ensure its continued domination: preventing the opposition from fielding any candidates at all.”

On Thursday (Mar. 13), government authorities closed the registration period for would-be candidates in countrywide municipal elections, scheduled to be held early next month. The move came despite earlier requests by opposition MPs — rejected by the NDP-dominated parliament — for a four-day extension of the deadline.

The races will be for some 52,000 municipal council seats in some 4,500 towns and cities throughout Egypt.

In the Saturday (Mar. 15) edition of state daily al-Gomhouriya, NDP Secretary-General Safwat Sherif praised the local electoral process. He called the high level of participation in the run-up to the elections “a positive step” that would “serve to realise the political plurality and democratisation called for by President (Hosni) Mubarak.”

Opposition figures and rights activists, however, tell a different story. They say that candidates not affiliated with the ruling party were kept from registering for the elections by a host of government-orchestrated bureaucratic hurdles and intimidation tactics.

For example, according to numerous sources, the interior ministry refused in many cases to issue opposition candidates with documents verifying they had no criminal record, a prerequisite for candidature.

“Opposition candidates weren”t able to obtain the necessary documents from police stations,” said Hassan. “And the committees responsible for receiving documents — which consisted entirely of government employees — refused to accept them.”

State-employed strongmen were also reportedly deployed in and around registration offices in an effort to discourage would-be contenders.

“Candidates that managed to successfully turn in their documents faced government thugs outside the offices,” said Hassan.

Even semi-official sources conceded the existence of serious procedural irregularities.

“Thugs were posted outside registration stations,” Amr Hashem Rabie, expert in parliamentary affairs at the semi-official al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies confirmed to IPS. “Meanwhile, official registration fees were increased enormously in many cases to further deter eligible candidates.”

Candidates from all of Egypt”s major secular opposition parties — the Wafd Party, the Nasserist Party and the leftist Tagammu Party — have reportedly complained of varying degrees of administrative hostility.

It was Muslim Brotherhood, however, that bore the brunt of the state”s intimidation campaign.

Within the last month, security forces have arrested more than 800 of the group”s members, according to Brotherhood spokesmen. On Mar. 6, police arrested 19 of the group”s leading members in and around the capital.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood is officially banned by the state, its members — who run in elections as nominal independents — have held roughly one-fifth of the seats in parliament since legislative elections in 2005. Those races, too, were marked by widespread electoral fraud and voter intimidation.

At a press conference on Saturday (Mar. 15), the Brotherhood”s second-in-command Mohamed Habib announced that only 500 of the group”s nominees had been able to register for local elections out of a total of roughly 5,750 prospective candidates.

While some commentators have criticised the Islamist group”s decision to participate in the races at all — saying the move only serves to legitimise a corrupt political system — Hassan explained the Brotherhood”s rationale.

“The Brotherhood isn”t fielding candidates to compete against the NDP head-on — that”s impossible — but to force its hand into rigging the elections in front of the world,” said Hassan. “The exercise will also provide our cadres with a degree of experience in the political arena and in public service.”

He added: “By participating, we will also sidestep the political stasis that tends to overcome parties that boycott elections.”

Local councils are known to be relatively powerless in terms of affecting state policy or legislation. Nevertheless, observers point to their potential significance in regards to upcoming presidential elections, scheduled for 2011.

“The only real political importance attached to the municipal councils is that potential contenders in upcoming presidential elections will need 140 councilmen to endorse their nominations,” explained Rabie. “To prevent the nomination of an undesirable presidential candidate, therefore, NDP control over the councils must be total.”

“And in light of the latest developments,” he added, “it looks like the local elections will feature NDP candidates only.”

Rabie went on to describe the state”s recent electoral machinations as a major step backward in terms of Egypt”s stated goal of political liberalisation.

“Preventing opposition candidates from running will wipe out any hope for meaningful political reform and lead to political breakdown,” he warned.

But according to Hassan, the state”s heavy-handed tactics are specifically intended to drive would-be political opponents to despair.

“The government wants to crush the hopes of any movement that aspires to peaceful change through the ballot box,” he said. “The state is trying to incite such groups to resort to violence — out of sheer frustration — in order to justify a final and decisive move against them.”