The regime can fix the elections – but it can’t fix the Egyptian people
As Egypt moves towards its parliamentary elections in November, each day brings fresh evidence of the profound problems now endemic in our political life. Adorning Egyptian newsstands morning was the photograph of the MP Mohamed Abdel Alim Daoud holding his right shoe up to the cameras with the caption: "My shoe is more honourable than any accusation (sic) the National Democratic party or any government official can aim at me". Daoud is accused (with 15 others) of the misuse of 1.5bn Egyptian pounds and illegal trading in state-funded medical treatment. He claims he’s being scapegoated for tabling a question in parliament last year that implicated the health minister, Hatem al-Gabali (owner of some of the biggest hospitals and health centres in Egypt), in the scandal.
Stories like this have ensured that few people still respect the house. Even though a small number of brave MPs try against huge odds to take their work seriously, in the main a seat in the house has become a conduit for corruption. The words now most commonly paired with "MPs" describe the areas from which their gains have been ill-got. We, the Egyptian people, are represented by "Loans MPs", "Real Estate MPs", "Drugs MPs" and more.
And we need change: in our parliament, in our government, in our constitution, in our politics and in our economy. But no change will be possible while the current regime, and the NDP which is its instrument, is in power; this is a regime that maintains a stranglehold on the country while it sucks it dry. It has no intention of letting go because to let go would be to die. And so, while the upcoming elections could be the peaceable way to effect change, word is that the elections are already fixed.
In 2005, in the last round of parliamentary elections, the most serious opposition was the Muslim Brotherhood: running as independents, they won 88 of the 150 seats they contested (from a total of 444 elected seats). The NDP learned its lesson: it has used the last five years to develop techniques of taking control of the top posts in the institutions of civil society: from changing the regulation of universities and city councils, to deal-making with small opposition parties against bigger ones, offering immediate services in return for votes, and arbitrarily disallowing candidates for certain boards. It has filled the important posts of the country with acquiescents.
Now it is poised to do the same to parliament. One friend tells me he was warned by a big wheel in the NDP that no candidate would even get to stand without its say-so. The incoming parliament will have 514 seats. The NDP can afford to play with 170 of these, fill them with loyalist non-NDP deputies, preserve a ‘"democratic" facade and still have a stranglehold on even the proposal of any new legislation.
But the overall political scene has changed since 2005. Opposition parties and movements (Kifaya, the Campaign for Change, etc) have been experimenting with forming coalitions. None has quite worked, but it’s a positive trend.
Mohamed ElBaradei appeared on the scene with demands for constitutional reforms that would allow serious contenders to run in the presidential elections next year and, even though he’s not the charismatic saviour some hoped he would be, this bespectacled, man-of-the-law, Nobel-winning figure has provided many with a rallying point. His demands have so far collected around 800,000 supporting signatures.
But possibly the most significant development is the split within the regime as it seeks to perpetuate itself. The younger faction of businessmen/politicians surrounding the president’s son see their best hope of continuity in shoehorning him into the presidency; the old guard, who’ve been controlling the country for 30 years and understand the distaste Egyptians feel for the idea of a "hereditary" system, think it safer to put forward a president from among themselves.
These developments have forced the NDP to show its hand. Too pressed for time now to stick with traditional methods of political wheeling and dealing, it is resorting to outright intimidation. On Tuesday, Shadi al-Ghazali, a liver transplant specialist and lecturer at Cairo University, was detained at passport control in Cairo airport on his way to London to sit his Royal College of Surgeons exam. He has not been heard from since.
Ghazali is active in the campaign against Gamal Mubarak for president and is a supporter of ElBaradei. Ghazali’s uncle, a powerful figure in Egyptian politics, has assurances from state security that they do not have him. And yet Ghazali was taken from within the controlled area at the airport. Two of his fellow workers, taken earlier and since released, have told of unmarked cars with tinted windows, of blindfolded interrogations and being released on a highway in the Nile delta. If not state security, who is kidnapping these young democracy activists?
Against this backdrop of fraud and thuggery, some actors on the political scene – including ElBaradei last week – have called for a boycott of the elections. The argument for a boycott is that it exposes the regime and deprives it of legitimacy. But in whose eyes? The regime has no legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian people anyway.
So the boycott spectacle is aimed at the international community. But any hope of international pressure – if it is ever a good idea for the people of a sovereign state to court outside interference – must have been dashed by the supine performance of the west with regard to the elections in Sudan and Afghanistan. For Egypt there’s also the Israel factor; the many ways in which the Egyptian regime is now serving Israel’s interests were well summed up by veteran journalist David Ottaway’s comment, on Voice of America, that President Obama will probably see that pushing for democracy in Egypt would have an adverse effect on the "peace" talks.
Most of the opposition is reluctant to boycott. The few genuine independents who have actually won seats and formed constituencies do not want those thrown away – why hand the country to the NDP on a plate?
We Egyptians need to act, by ourselves and for ourselves. The regime can only fix the results; it can’t fix the process – though it can make it cost. And the process counts: candidates putting themselves forward and talking to the people, voters voting, the opposition placing its cadres in the stations, insisting on the right of everyone to vote in seclusion, publishing contact numbers to report fraud or intimidation.
In 2005 we saw people climbing through windows to access polling stations blocked by state security. We saw polling officers dragged into open-mawed police vans clinging to their ballot boxes. We saw an active insistence on the right of the people to true representation. Since then we’ve had five years of street protests and civil unrest; the opposition’s task is to channel that unrest into the democratic process.
If the NDP gets its fixed parliament it should come at a price. And part of that price should be the mobilisation of the people: that the country, after the elections, should not be despondent. It should be angry – in time for the 2011 presidential elections.