As tough as it gets
Thursday, December 1,2005 00:00
By (Al-Ahram)

As tough as it gets
With the judges entering the fray, the final stage of parliamentary elections scheduled for today and Wednesday will be more contentious than ever, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

The third and final stage of parliamentary elections begins today amid heightened tensions after the second stage ended on Saturday in a stand-off between the judges in charge of monitoring the vote and the regime, represented by the minister of justice, who also heads the Higher Parliamentary Elections Commission (HPEC). The executive board of the Judges’ Club has threatened to boycott the third stage unless measures are taken to contain the violence which, it says, has hampered judges from carrying out their duties.

In a statement the club said "113 judges have submitted reports confirming that the election process in their polling stations was unfair." In one of case "the senior judge in charge of polling stations in Sinoris [in Fayoum] cancelled the vote because police were preventing people from voting." Despite this, the statement continued, "the HPEC announced that the two NDP candidates had won the seats."

The Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR), meanwhile, reports that it has recorded 76 attacks -- either by the police or hired thugs -- against judges.

Fearing the confrontation could tarnish the regime’s image abroad the justice minister, Mahmoud Abul- Leil, launched a damage limitation exercise. He met with Zakaria Abdel-Aziz, the chairman of the Judges’ Club on Monday, following which he promised the government would do everything in its power to support full judicial supervision of the third stage.

Hisham Bastawisi, a member of the Judges’ Club executive board and deputy chairman of the Court of Cassation, told Al-Ahram Weekly that the threat to boycott today’s elections "was a matter of principle".

"No judge can accept being a rubber stamp for elections conducted outside his control," he said.

Bastawisi denied allegations that in denouncing the intimidation of voters the judges were dabbling in politics, alluding to a statement issued by the government-controlled Supreme Council of Judges (SCJ) on Sunday which attacked the "handful of judges" who appear on satellite channels to discuss political issues.

"That the SCJ should issue such a statement because judges want the elections to be fair is deplorable," said Bastawisi.

The success of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in winning 76 seats out of the 111 seats they contested in the first two stages is also expected to contribute to further deterioration in the conduct of the poll.

Aware of the MB’s strong volunteer base security forces have already begun a crackdown on the group’s supporters. In the past week the MB estimates 576 of its supporters have been rounded up in the nine governorates in which today’s vote takes place.

But according to Helmi El-Gazzar, a leading member of the MB, such heavy-handed tactics invariably backfire. "People sympathise with the group when it faces harsh security measures and that sympathy converts into more votes," El-Gazzar told the Weekly.

El-Gazzar is optimistic that at least 25 of the group’s 49 candidates standing today will win. Given their 70 per cent success rate in the first two stages it is a far from unrealistic prediction.

While El-Gazzar insists the MB’s "victory should be lauded by everyone since it breaks the grip of the NDP on Egypt’s parliamentary and political life and boosts the voice of the opposition in the coming parliament," others are less sanguine, with many analysts believing the most likely scenario is that the next parliament will be dissolved well before it completes its five-year term (see p.5).

Although it is a foregone conclusion that the NDP will win the two-thirds majority in the forthcoming assembly, the ruling party’s credibility has been severely undermined by its loss of 127 seats in the first two stages. The party subsequently swelled its number of seats from 155 to 195 by readmitting 40 so-called NDP independents to the party’s ranks.

In the wake of the NDP’s poor performance two prominent members of the party’s old-guard, Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif and Assistant Secretary-General Kamal El-Shazli, have taken full charge of the party’s campaign, effectively marginalising the reformist trend led by Gamal Mubarak.

Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a senior political analyst, expects today’s round will replicate the previous two. "If anything I anticipate even more violence as the NDP tries to make up the losses it has already sustained while the Brotherhood, buoyed by its success, will try to swell its ranks to more than 100 seats," he said.

Abdel-Meguid expects that by the end of the count the NDP will have won just over 300 seats -- securing the talismanic two-thirds majority, but far less than the 388 seats it occupied in the outgoing parliament.

The biggest loser, though, is the recently-formed United National Front for Change (UNFC), a coalition of opposition parties and groups. Since elections began on 9 November it has won just 10 seats. Al-Ghad, not a member of the coalition, has won just one.

The miserable showing at the polls of long- established parties such as Al-Wafd and the leftist Tagammu has shocked many. Their disappointment was perhaps best encapsulated by the failure of Tagammu’s veteran leader Khaled Mohieddin to hold onto his Kafr Shukr seat.

In the final stage of the elections 136 seats are at stake in 68 constituencies in nine governorates -- Daqahliya, Sharqiya, Damietta, Kafr El-Sheikh, Sohag, Aswan, South Sinai, North Sinai and the Red Sea. A total of 1,737 candidates are standing, including 136 from the NDP and 49 from the MB.