• Reports
  • November 18, 2005
  • 9 minutes read

Reality hits hard

Reality hits hard
Promises of a reformed People’s Assembly look further from reality than ever, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

If the results of the first round of parliamentary elections are anything to go by, the incoming assembly looks set to fall short of expectations that Egypt’s legislative branch might finally be more representative.

The clearest indication came in the easy victories enjoyed by members of the ruling National Democratic Party’s (NDP) old guard. People’s Assembly Affairs Minister Kamal El-Shazli, Parliamentary Speaker Fathi Sorour and Chief of Presidential Staff Zakaria Azmi all won in their respective constituencies. Another old guard member, People’s Assembly Deputy Chairman Amal Othman, also emerged victorious, but only after fighting a hard battle against Muslim Brotherhood candidate Hazem Abu Ismail in the Giza constituency of Doqqi. At least 3,000 Brotherhood supporters staged a demonstration on Friday, protesting against what they called the “rigging” of the parliamentary vote. It was the third time Othman ended up defeating a Brotherhood candidate.

Many of the NDP’s business tycoons also secured key victories, much to the opposition’s dismay. At least two of the winning magnates are leading members of the party’s influential Policies Committee led by President Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal: Ahmed Ezz and Mohamed Abul-Enein, chairmen of the outgoing parliament’s budget and housing committees, respectively. Both will probably retain these leading positions in the incoming assembly.

Overall, however, the NDP did not fare that well, despite widespread NGO reporting that some of its leading candidates — including Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali and Housing Minister Ibrahim Suleiman — resorted to rigging. In downtown Cairo’s Gammaliya constituency, throngs of underprivileged female voters were bussed in to vote for Suleiman, who had set up booths outside polling stations where supporters handed out envelopes containing between LE20 and LE50 for each vote in full view of satellite channel cameras. Suleiman’s supporters were also busy helping these voters register their names on the official electoral lists. In north Cairo’s Al-Maahad Al-Fanni constituency, rumours were rampant that Boutros-Ghali had added the names of a massive number of his Finance Ministry’s employees to the voter lists. Although a court ruled against the inclusion of these names, the ruling was not implemented.

In another downtown constituency — Bab Al-Sheireya — prominent opposition leader Ayman Nour faced the same kind of NDP rigging. A week before the elections, an administrative court said the names of more than 1,500 people were illegally added to the constituency’s voter lists, and ordered them removed. Nour said police authorities at the constituency’s polling stations refrained from implementing the court’s ruling. Nour ended up with 3,383 votes against NDP candidate Yehia Wahdan’s 5,556. According to Nour, more than 1,500 pro-Wahdan names were illegally added to the lists.

Nour and other losing candidates filed appeals with the Administrative Court, asking that the results in their constituencies be annulled. On Sunday, the court ordered that results in three constituencies — two in Giza and one in Cairo — be cancelled.

In Tuesday’s run-off, 97 NDP candidates competed against 120 independent rivals, most of whom are former members of the NDP. Overall, the NDP won a mere 68 seats (or around 42 per cent), while more than 96 of its candidates lost.

Amongst the NDP’s losers was Hossam Badrawi, one of the party’s most liberal and reformist-minded figures, and chairman of the outgoing assembly’s Education Committee, who lost his seat in downtown Cairo’s Qasr Al-Nil constituency to Hisham Mustafa Khalil. Other prominent NDP losers included businessmen Talaat El-Qawwas, Mamdouh Thabet Mekki, and Ahmed Shiha, and party veterans like Fayeda Kamal, chairman of the outgoing assembly’s Culture Committee, and Thoraya Labana, a longtime Nasr City NDP.

After its initial poor showing on 9 November, the NDP attempted to strengthen its position by annexing 20 of those who succeeded as independents to contest the run-offs as members of the NDP. Al-Ahram political analyst Diaa Rashwan called the party’s convincing some of the independent candidates to re-join in time for the run-off an act of deception. “It is a new indicator that this party is quite ready to use all possible and impossible means to retain its parliamentary monopoly.”

In any case, the ruling party’s overall performance, in light of “the exaggerated predictions made by leading NDP officials prior to the elections, signifies failure,” Rashwan said.

The clear winners in the first round, were the Muslim Brotherhood, who took home 34 seats. Considering that the Brotherhood was only fielding 50 candidates in total, the 65 per cent margin of victory was impressive. The Brotherhood only had 17 deputies in the outgoing parliament, and they are still running another 100 candidates in the next two stages, meaning their pre-election predictions of gaining upwards of 60 seats may not be as over-optimistic as originally conceived.

Rashwan said the Brotherhood had done plenty of preparing for the vote.

“This was obvious in the strong candidates they selected, the intense campaigning they did, the carefully chosen “Islam is the solution” slogan, and the massive grassroots mobilisation of supporters that took place.” The Brotherhood also allocated major amounts of funding for their candidates’ campaigns.

Rashwan said there was clearly some kind of “unwritten coordination” between the Brotherhood and the NDP. The biggest evidence of this was that several Brotherhood candidates withdrew from races featuring prominent NDP figures like Kamal El-Shazli in Al-Menoufiya’s Al-Bagour. In Ayman Nour’s Bab Al-Sheireya constituency, Brotherhood candidate Ahmed Gomaa withdrew and was forced by security forces to ask his supporters to vote for Nour’s rival Wahdan.

In Rashwan view, parliamentary politics will be ill served by the existence of a large number of Brotherhood deputies. “It would be far better for the ruling party to face secular rather than religious opposition fond of constantly raising issues related to Islamic Sharia (law) and fanning sectarian strife,” he said.

The alleged coordination between the NDP and the Brotherhood hindered the chances of the recently formed opposition coalition — the United National Front for Change (UNFC). Out of 86 contenders, only six UNFC candidates managed to secure seats. This includes two from the Wafd, two from the Tagammu, one from the National Coalition, and one from the Karama movement. The National Coalition candidate is Mustafa Bakri, the editor of the weekly newspaper Al-Osbou.

The most prominent UNFC loser was the Wafd Party’s former MP Munir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, who lost to the NDP’s Sherine Abdel-Aziz in Al-Wayli constituency.

The fact that the UNFC is a brand new entity, Rashwan said, combined with a lack of financial support (in comparison with the Brotherhood and the NDP), and poorly planned promotional campaigns, worked against the coalition winning a decent number of seats.

Outside the coalition, only MP Ragab Hilal Hemeida from the Ghad Party splinter group, and Talaat El-Sadat and Mohamed El-Sadat, the cousins of late president Anwar El-Sadat, won seats. Talaat is one of many competitors for the chairmanship of the Ahrar Party while his brother, Mohamed, is an independent.

According to Mona Makram Ebeid, who was an independent candidate running in North Cairo’s Shubra constituency, the first stage was very disappointing because “our hopes were raised that this election will be quite different. But, unfortunately, the performance was worse than any other election we have seen in terms of vote-buying, thuggery and indifference from those who should have supervised and imposed the respect of law.” Ebeid said vote buying “reached unimaginable amounts — sometimes up to LE200 a vote — thus exploiting the misery and poverty of people still living in slums in Shubra.”

Ebeid, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, lost to the NDP’s Mohamed Guweili. “I think the new parliament will be characterised by no women, no Copts, no opposition,” Ebeid said, even though “I personally think that it would have been to the benefit of the regime to have genuine multi-party representation. Otherwise, this situation will not provide any credibility to the promises of reform that were made, and which would have needed popular support to be implemented.”

If the first stage results are anything to go by, Rashwan said, the incoming parliament will mostly be made up of two forces: NDP cronyism and authoritarianism; and Muslim Brotherhood backwardness. “This is shocking, especially after all the repeated promises made by NDP leaders throughout the year about political reform.”

Rashwan was also concerned about the low turnout. According to Justice Minister Mahmoud Abul-Leil, the turnout last Wednesday was almost 24.9 per cent. In 2000, Rashwan said, it was 27 per cent. “This clearly demonstrates that most people still have good reasons to abstain from voting — in spite of all the promotional campaigns in the lead up to the vote.” According to Rashwan, a lot of people think it’s useless to participate in elections when the results appear to be a foregone conclusion. “Even those who did turn out to vote mainly did so to make some money,” he said.

The next stage of the elections will be held next Sunday, with a run-off on 29 November. It will include 1,840 candidates competing for 144 seats in 72 constituencies in nine governorates: Alexandria; Al-Beheira; Al-Gharbiya; Port Said; Ismailia; Suez; Al-Qalioubiya; Fayoum; and Qena.