Egyptian Local Poll: Mubarak’s Games

Egyptian Local Poll: Mubarak’s Games

Boycotted by the main opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and against a backdrop of violent popular unrest, centered on the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kobra, local elections took place in Egypt on April 08 and calls for a boycott by the opposition. Some 52,000 local councilors are being selected – but the ruling President Hosni Mubarak”s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is standing unopposed in the great majority of seats – at least in 90% of them, party sources said. Only 30 percent of seats were being contested, as the NDP has already won 70 percent unopposed. Results will be announced on April 09 and over the next five days.

In previous times, municipal elections were rarely marked by controversy, but this year”s poll is the first since a constitutional amendment in 2005 which required presidential candidates to secure the backing of local councilors. The MB says the government is eager to avoid another electoral setback after pro-Islamist independents won 20% of seats in the last parliament. The group is officially banned in Egypt, although its activities have been broadly tolerated. Candidates for elections stand as independents. On the eve of the vote the Muslim Brotherhood called for a boycott as only 20 candidates affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood were being allowed to stand after thousands were rejected.

Apart from independent candidates affiliated to the banned Muslim Brotherhood, significant numbers of candidates from the liberal Wafd party and left-leaning Tagammu party has also been rejected. Press reports have said only 700 out of 1,700 members of the opposition liberal Wafd party were able to register, as well as some 400 members of the left-leaning Tagammu party, amid complaints of obstacles ranging from bureaucratic hurdles to physical assaults at registration stations.

Parties with presidential ambitions, including the banned opposition Muslim Brotherhood whose members sit in parliament as independents, now need the support of at least 10 local councilors in at least 14 provinces to stand. The next presidential election is set for 2011, with many expecting the veteran 79-year-old Mubarak to stand down in favor of his son and senior NDP member Gamal.


A wide-ranging crackdown by authorities ahead of the vote left many candidates behind bars or unable to register in Egypt, a staunch ally of the US. A 15-year-old Egyptian boy died in Mahalla el-Kobra, home to Egypt”s largest textile mill and some of its more militant workers, after being shot by police during clashes on April 07. Campaigners for political reform in Egypt have become more vocal in recent times and have taken to the streets in defiance of an emergency law, in force since 1981. Activists say the law restricts political expression.

More than 800 members of the Brotherhood group have been arrested in recent weeks. Dozens of arrests have also been reported even on poll day. Protests continued in the industrial city of Mahalla al-Kubra. However, turnout was very low anyway, so it will be hard to gauge if the Brotherhood”s call is being heeded. There were clashes between police and hundreds of protesters after some protesters tore down a billboard of President Hosni Mubarak.

Deputy leader Mohammed Habib said the move was in response to the government”s “disregard for justice” and the authorities had used “illegal and immoral means” to exclude Brotherhood candidates, including “the arrest of 1,000 members, administrative obstacles to candidates registering and using prisoners as hostages”.

International groups have condemned the crackdown against the opposition. Other opposition groups complained of obstruction by the government, ranging from bureaucratic hurdles to assaults at registration stations. In Washington, however, the state department would not condemn the crackdown when repeatedly asked to comment on it by reporters. Spokesman Sean McCormack said the administration was supporting political and economic reform in Egypt, but added that “fundamentally, they are going to have to arrive at their own decisions about the pace and the direction of this reform”.

For nearly two years, Egypt has been inching towards constitutional changes that could allow it to end one of the longest “emergencies” in history. Although Egypt has changed its constitution to allow the opposition to contest presidential polls, potential candidates must meet strict criteria for participation. A ban remains on religious political parties.


Egyptian premier has introduced several amendments to the Constitution, possibly, to foster his continued rule. Emergency powers were implemented in 1981, after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, and have been in force ever since. But critics of Sadat”s enduring successor, Hosni Mubarak, say the amendments will enable a replacement of emergency laws with something just as authoritarian – but permanent. The 34 new articles were approved by a vote in parliament – dominated by members of the ruling National Democratic Party on 19 March. A week later they were put to a popular vote. Government officials said they were approved by more than three-quarters of voters, although the turnout was low – 27%.

Article Five, for example, gives a nod towards a “political regime based on the multi-party system”. But it also bans “any political activity or political party based on any religious background or foundation”. Article 88, which previously stipulated supervision of elections by members of the judiciary, has also been rewritten to remove that control. This seems connected to a high-profile struggle last year when two senior judges unsuccessfully pressed for an inquiry into alleged electoral fraud during the general election in 2005.

Article 7 requires presidential candidates to be nominated by parties with at least 3% of elected members of parliament – another insurmountable obstacle for the Brotherhood. But the Muslim Brotherhood may be facing an even greater crackdown under Article Five, given that its entire program can be summed up with the maxim “Islam is the solution”.

Article 179 seems particularly draconian, stating that Articles 41, 44 and 45 (paragraph two) of the constitution must not “hamper” investigations into terrorist crimes. These articles prevent detention without judicial authorities” permission, police searches without a warrant and eavesdropping on personal communications. It is unclear how fully the government will use the new powers enshrined in the amendments.


While best known for its pyramids and ancient civilizations, Egypt has played a central role in Middle East politics in modern times. Its three wars with Israel in 1948, 1967 and 1973, then its eventual peace with its adversary in 1979, have seen Egypt move from being a warring nation to become a key representative in the peace process But the historic step taken by President Anwar Sadat in the Camp David agreement with Israel saw the expulsion of Egypt from the Arab League until 1989, and in 1981 Sadat was assassinated by Islamic extremists angry at his moves to clamp down on their activities. Since then, President Hosni Mubarak has taken a more moderate line.

Egypt”s teeming cities – and almost all agricultural activity – are concentrated along the banks of the Nile, and on the river”s delta. Deserts occupy most of the country. Egypt”s ancient past and the fact that it was one of the first Middle Eastern countries to open up to the West following Napoleon”s invasion means that it is seen by many as the intellectual and cultural leader in the region. The head of Cairo”s Al-Azhar Mosque is one of the highest authorities in Sunni Islam.


Soaring food prices and low wages have strengthened popular discontent with the government. But the Egyptian government has promised to increase salaries and has extended its food subsidy program to include an additional 15 million people. More than a third of Egyptians live below or just above the poverty line of $2 (£1) a day.

The municipal polls were postponed for two years in 2006 in what observers said was a way of preventing another success for the Brotherhood. The vote was a shoo-in for the ruling National Democratic Party following a sweeping clampdown on the opposition, but the regime is under mounting pressure after two days of unrest centered on the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el-Kobra.

All amendments and actions by the Egyptian authorities have been focused on strengthening quasi-one-party-rule in the country and on side-lining the opposition parties Ruling party. It seems hardly a coincidence that the strongest challenge to the NDP comes from the MB, which is already banned but tolerated by the authorities. Now it is actually unconstitutional that Muslim Brotherhood has survived thanks only to the Mubarak”s attempt pt to project Egypt as a democracy with opposition party.

Since local polls are constitutionally linked to legitimacy part of ruling NDP, the poll strategy of restricting the opposition parties is considered an essential segment of Mubarak”s politics to stay in power. Since Egypt has been the top-most supporter of US in the region, Washington has not criticized the anomalies in the poll and repression in the country. Of course, poll outcome is a foregone conclusion even of those who did not cast their votes. Democracy dances in each country according to the tunes of the ruling dispensation!

Abdul Ruff is an Indian analyst, researcher & commentator.