The business of taking over politics

Magnates versus tycoons, and businessmen versus politicians: Gamal Essam El-Din looks at the key money-based races in the forthcoming parliamentary elections

In the upcoming parliamentary elections, multi-millionaire candidates will be running for seats in at least 12 of Cairo”s 25 districts. Almost all of these upper-class candidates were either officially nominated by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), or are NDP members who decided to run independently after the party refused to nominate them. One exception is Munir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, a senior member of the opposition Wafd Party, who is running in east Cairo”s Al-Wayli district.

In some districts the millionaires are competing against each other. One of the hottest such contests will be in east Cairo”s Nasr City district, where the NDP”s Mustafa El-Sallab, a ceramics magnate, is up against Fawzi El-Sayed, a construction tycoon. Although El-Sayed won the elections in 2000, his parliamentary membership was dropped after he was found guilty of faking documents. He was later acquitted of the charges, and is now battling El-Sallab in a grudge match to recover his seat. Because the other two candidates — the Muslim Brotherhood”s Makarem El-Deiri and the Ghad Party”s Basel El-Hayawan — are also from strong political entities, the race is guaranteed to be hot.

The race in the southern Cairo district of Maadi is also looking to be a thriller. NDP construction magnate Mohamed El-Morshidi is up against oil tycoon Akmal Qortam. Having spent a lot of money on President Hosni Mubarak”s presidential elections campaign, El-Morshidi sees himself as a real insider, and has been holding rallies in the district to that effect. Qortam, meanwhile, has been busy accusing El-Morshidi of exploiting his parliamentary membership to promote his business activities at the expense of the underprivileged residents of Maadi”s outlying slum areas.

In downtown”s Qasr Al-Nil district, another tough contest looms between Hossam Badrawi, a medical services tycoon and close associate of Gamal Mubarak, and Hisham Mustafa Khalil, a businessman with a strong record in the stock market. Khalil, the son of former prime minister Mustafa Khalil, who was also a deputy chairman of the NDP, feels the party betrayed him even though he helped fund the president”s elections campaign. The district itself features two types of voters: the majority, living in Garden City and Zamalek, are upper class; a smaller number reside in limited-income areas like Al-Munira, Khayrat and Maarouf. Badrawi”s campaign will target the former, while Khalil aims to gather its support from the latter. There are approximately 70,000 registered voters there in total.

In the downtown Cairo district of Al-Darb Al-Ahmar, meanwhile, businessman Ahmed Shiha, a former NDP MP, is trying to get his seat back from businessman Ahmed Salem.

Tycoons are also entering the fray in Al-Menoufiya. In Menouf, senior NDP official Ahmed Ezz, a steel magnate who controls nearly 60 per cent of the nation”s steel production, will be running against Ibrahim Kamel, another multi-millionaire who was the NDP MP for Menouf between 1990-1995. Ezz, who was appointed chairman of the outgoing assembly”s budget and planning committee, largely depends on the votes of around 11,000 workers currently employed by his steel production factories in Sadat City (which is officially in Menouf). Kamel”s core constituency is his hometown of Sirs Al-Layan, with its at least 80,000 registered voters. Meanwhile, there have been reports that over the past few days, Ezz has been giving out huge packets of fertilisers to farmers living in Menouf”s rural areas.

The hottest races, however, won”t all be businessmen versus businessmen. The tycoons and magnates will also be fighting veteran politicians in at least 10 constituencies in Cairo, Giza and Al-Menoufiya. The fiercest battle is set to take place in the Al-Menoufiya district of Al-Bagour, where NDP Assistant Secretary- General and People”s Assembly Affairs Minister Kamal El-Shazli faces millionaire Wafdist businessman Mohamed Kamel. With El-Shazli counting on his political acumen and Kamel on his money, the two are being described as formidable rivals determined to politically destroy each other — at whatever cost.

In several Cairo districts, candidates from families with an extensive parliamentary pedigree are vying against businessmen. A glaring example of this is in the downtown Cairo district of Al-Ezbekiya, where Magdi Ibrahim, the son of a veteran NDP MP who died last year, is trying his best to maintain his father”s 30-year-old seat. Ibrahim”s strongest competitor is Hani Sorour, the official NDP candidate and a businessman with major medical investments in 10th of Ramadan city. Ibrahim”s father was chairman of the People”s Assembly”s Youth Committee; the son hopes to garner the same kind of young voters who kept the father in office. Sorour is counting on the votes of merchants and businessmen with interests in this thriving commercial district.

A similar dynamic looks set to take place in the east Cairo district of Al-Wayli. The Wafd”s Munir Fakhri Abdel-Nour, a Coptic businessman with a major presence in the food industry, is up against the NDP”s Sherine Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, the son of a veteran NDP MP who was chairman of parliament”s Education Committee. Abdel-Aziz told Al-Ahram Weekly that he is determined to regain his family”s seat in the assembly.

Businessmen will also be doing battle against prominent opposition leaders in some Cairo and Giza districts. In west Cairo”s Al-Manial district, businessman Mamdouh Thabet Mekki, the NDP candidate, faces Magdi Hussein, a famous journalist and the secretary-general of the frozen Islamist Labour Party. Abdel-Hamid El-Ghazali, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is also contesting the same seat.

In Giza, the NDP”s Mohamed Abul- Enein, a prominent ceramics magnate, faces Mohamed El-Ashqar of the opposition Karama movement. Abul- Enein is chairman of the outgoing assembly”s Housing Committee and a member of Gamal Mubarak”s influential NDP Policies Committee.

Amr Hashem Rabie, a political analyst with the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, expects the contests to end with even more prominent businessmen in the assembly. “There has been a steady rise in the number of prominent multi- millionaire businessmen in parliament,” Rabie said. In the 1995-2000 parliament, there were around 37, holding some 8.1 per cent of the total seats. In the 2000-2005 parliament, the number rose to 77, or 17 per cent of the seats. Rabie thinks this time there will be 100 or more businessmen with seats. “In a country that is rapidly moving towards a fully- fledged market economy, businessmen have become increasingly aware of the importance of having political influence via parliaments,” Rabie said. The problem, in his view, is that most only want to join parliament to help push through liberal economic reform policies, rather than laws that provide for more political freedoms and democracy.