Participation revived

Participation revived


In the 30 years since the revival of political party politics in the mid-1970s, each round of parliamentary elections invariably produced a new dynamic out of the interplay between political forces that pitted themselves against the regime and its ruling party. Even in the context of an electoral game whose rules are largely controlled by the ruling elite, this interplay confirmed the possibility of different forms of interaction to offset the advantages of the ruling party, and it was these that gave the parliaments that were formed their primary traits. So, for example, the 1984 parliament was ushered in by an alliance between the Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, which obtained 58 seats, marking an unprecedented gain for opposition forces. The 1987 elections brought a similar, if not as dramatic, development through the alliance between the Labour Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, which won 35 seats. The relatively sizeable opposition blocs lent a certain amount of zest to the 1984 and 1987 parliamentary sessions. The parliamentary elections of 2000 were characterised by another new phenomenon: the unprecedented emergence of independents contesting the seats of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the opposition parties. The phenomenon reoccurred in the 2005 elections, in which independents, for the first time, won a majority of the seats, after which they rushed to join — or rejoin — the NDP. Imagine if the independents had stuck to their principles and remained independent. They would have formed the dominant bloc in parliament.

Such phenomena that arise with every parliamentary round are not so much eliminated by the emergence of each new phenomenon as they are overshadowed as the new seems to inaugurate another convention or tradition in Egyptian parliamentary life. For example, alliances between political forces are not a recent innovation in Egyptian politics. They were a common phenomenon in the liberal period the preceded the 1952 revolution. What is new, however, is the reproduction of this phenomenon under different circumstances than those that existed in the liberal age, when political party plurality was not subject to nearly the same degree of legal, security and institutional restrictions as it is today. It follows, therefore, that the more contemporary alliance between opposition parties and forces was both an adventure and expediency. For all the parties of the alliance it was worth the risk to compromise in order to acquire some gains out of participating in the political process rather than nothing at all. In like manner, the phenomenon of independent candidates existed in the earlier period. However, it was never as extensive as it would become in Egypt’s second era of political party plurality, especially in the 2000 and 2005 elections. At the same time, with the exception of a handful that acted like real independents and adhered to the principles and platforms that got them elected, the latter-day independents betrayed a cynicism that would probably have been alien to their predecessors of the liberal era, making it easy for the NDP to recruit them back into its ranks.

Today, only weeks away from the 2010 People’s Assembly elections, one wonders what the forthcoming round will bring. Will we see more of the dynamics that characterised previous rounds, such as a repetition of the alliance between the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood, which currently has 88 MPs? If so, the alliance would prove advantageous to both parties and a boon to political life in Egypt. Or will the forthcoming elections see a continuation of the experience of independent candidates as well as another majority victory for them, as occurred in the last elections?

All the signs, so far, suggest that the November elections will feature both these phenomena. However, it simultaneously appears that another new phenomenon is in the process of taking shape, in the form of an unprecedented number of female candidates vying for the parliamentary seats reserved for women. As the result of parliament’s approval, last year, of a quota for women, there are now parliamentary seats that can be contested by female candidates only. At the same time, women still have the right to field themselves against men for other parliamentary seats. The new provision has triggered fierce competition over the seats reserved for women. In fact, not only are the female candidates almost as numerous as male candidates in some areas, they collectively have a more prominent profile since, unlike men, their seats and hence campaigns are not restricted by the boundaries of a single electoral zone. As a result, women candidates have become such a powerful element in this year’s campaigns that one might imagine two parallel elections were in progress. In spite of the fact that the women’s quota accounts for less than a quarter of the seats in parliament, the number of female candidates outstrips the number of those seats many times over.

This fact alone has numerous ramifications. It means that Egyptian society is still politically vibrant and that, in spite of the dominance of the ruling party, it still has the ability to breathe politics in its own way. In the past, it was the independents that made an impact on everyone, including the NDP that had initially ignored them and then had to turn to them out of need. Today, it appears that it is women’s turn to make their mark in more ways than one.

Women, who are ordinarily divested of their rights due to various social and cultural conditions, are storming an arena that has long been almost exclusively dominated by men. The positive repercussions far exceed the mere numerical value of the quota. New and powerful energies have been unleashed among Egyptian women, in Upper Egypt where conservative traditions hold sway, and among the Bedouin and rural areas where political party politics seemed as remote as Cairo. Whereas until recently it looked like politics was in its death throes against the backdrop of a succession scenario that defied the constitution and the spirit of laws which had to be bent in order to serve its purpose, the massive participation of women in the electoral campaigns has breathed new life into the notion of participatory politics, regardless of the gender of the voters and candidates. People will be feeling this in a concrete way, for with the introduction of the women’s quota voters have two causes to celebrate. Not only will they be entertaining a greater variety of opinions, they will have the chance to cast their votes for three seats instead of two. In addition to the workers and farmers categories, there is now a third: women.

Still, one cannot help but wonder whether this new phenomenon is meant to distract attention from the restrictions imposed by the regime so as to orchestrate the electoral process in favour of the ruling party. On the other hand, do not the realities that are unfolding before our eyes undermine and belie the justifications that various quarters of the ruling elite have cited in defence of a project that has been 10 years in the making and that seeks to prepare the legal and institutional ground for the transfer of power to a certain individual in the ostensible absence of a viable alternative? After all, it is abundantly clear that Egyptian society is still brimming with political and intellectual wealth and vitality, in spite of those who have set the rules of the electoral game.