Why should we pay attention to the 28 November legislative elections in Egypt? Once more, many might say, an Arab country holds a rigged poll, producing yet another rubber-stamp Parliament with no meaningful impact on policy-making. But this weekend’s parliamentary elections will be significant for at least three other reasons. The polls will shed some light on how much clout there really is behind the fresh wave of mobilisation following Mohamed ElBaradei’s return to Egypt’s political arena.
The elections are expected to see most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s deputies bid farewell to Parliament. And they will represent an important step towards the presidential elections in the autumn of 2011 that are expected to bring three decades of Hosni Mubarak to an end. Questions with regard to the opposition’s real capacity to unite behind the common cause of change have partly been answered ahead of the polls. The ‘National Association for Change’ (NAC) opposition coalition, led by ElBaradei, focused its efforts on denouncing the precarious state of the electoral framework, and eventually sought to unite all opposition parties behind the idea of discrediting the elections via boycott. However, the NAC’s plans were effectively ruined by the Muslim Brotherhood’s, the Wafd’s and a few other parties’ decision to run.
Even if the boycott had worked, its potential impact is unclear. The aim of denouncing electoral fraud to the world suggests the existence of a caring environment that, once informed, will take action. But the fact that elections in most Arab countries are a farce has long been known to anyone who wants to listen. Beyond occasional moralist statements, the accumulated evidence of Egyptian electoral fraud has not been enough to push Egypt’s international allies to even batting an eyelid; so why would a boycott? Ultimately, both options appear to be just different ways of dealing with the outrageous impotence of contesting an election void of choice.
With opposition results widely judged to have long been settled, the Brotherhood is expected to witness a significant reduction of its presence in Parliament. The Brothers’ 2005 landslide victory was interpreted by many as a concession by the regime to the then US administration’s democratisation pressures.
As the desired ‘scarecrow effect’ has sunk in with its international allies, the regime has sought to reverse this opening. Observers expect the Brothers to retain no more than 15-20 of their previously held 88 (of 454) seats. In spite of a ban of religious slogans, the group maintained its traditional slogan ‘Islam is the solution’, thus providing the regime with a legal justification massively to disqualify its candidates. Increasingly split over the participation issue, the Brotherhood’s contestation will however allow the group to maintain local visibility and build a solid power base in the long term. As the only opposition group that has been reaching out to the people in a systematic and sustained manner, the Islamists are likely to be well-positioned to attract broad support for the moment the ailing National Democratic Party (NDP) will fall.
Perhaps most importantly, the 28 November elections are more than just a dress rehearsal for the 2011 presidential elections. The distribution of seats will be decisive in qualifying potential presidential candidates. The Egyptian Constitution stipulates that candidates for the Presidency must, among other requirements, have occupied for one year a leadership position in a political party that has won 3 per cent of seats in the parliamentary elections. The recently introduced requirements for presidential candidates now effectively bar anyone except for Hosni Mubarak, his son Gamal and a handful of other leading NDP figures, from running.
In order to smoothly engineer next year’s presidential succession, the NDP will also need a united front in the Egyptian Parliament. Over the past weeks, the deep rift within the ranks of the NDP backing different favourites has come increasingly to the fore. Contradictory statements by senior party members, the repeated postponing of the NDP’s announcement of its official presidential candidate, and the party’s filing competing candidates for single seats, provide evidence of an increasingly fierce battle. A year ahead of the presidential succession, it is becoming increasingly clear that none of the possible contenders will get Egypt’s presidency on a silver platter.
Kristina Kausch is researcher at FRIDE