To what extent have Egypt’s parliamentary elections lived up to expectations

Elections 2005
To what extent have Egypt’s parliamentary elections lived up to expectations, asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

The parliamentary elections have been marred, as usual, by allegations of gross irregularities, dashing hopes that this time around the Egyptian people would be given a chance to express their free will in a truly democratic process. Despite this, however, the results of the first and second rounds of polling signaled a shift in the political power structure, with the banned Muslim Brotherhood capturing 45 seats in the People’s Assembly (not counting the gains it is expected to make in the third round of voting on 1 December), confirming its status as the biggest single opposition group to the ruling NDP.

In the run-up to the elections, the Egyptian electorate was exposed to hard-hitting campaigns by the contending parties. The war of words, which attained unprecedented heights, was fought on the pages of the state-controlled and opposition press, as well as on national and satellite TV channels. However, because more energy was expended by the protagonists in attacking their opponents than in defining their own position on the issues, it was not always clear what the electorate was being asked to vote for. Moreover, the government allowed only three weeks for the electoral campaign, leaving candidates with very little time to address the issues as thoroughly as they should have or to develop their arguments as cogently as they might otherwise have done.

At the end of the day, however, it was not the message itself that resonated with audiences but how loudly and aggressively it was imparted. In other words, the protagonists who occupied centre stage were those who made the most noise, as well as those who came forward with some sort of political programme, or at least with an ideological framework for a political programme.

These included candidates representing the liberal, leftist and Nasserite lines respectively, all of whom belonged to legal parties recognised by the NDP and which participated in the so-called ’national dialogue’ it initiated. Conducted between the top party leaderships with no participation at the grassroots level, these talks were more symbolic than substantive and to qualify them as a national dialogue is to grossly exaggerate their significance.

When the actual election process begun, the parties that had held the forefront of the debates during the electoral campaign faded into the background to be eclipsed by players who encapsulated their programmes into short, pithy slogans. The Muslim Brotherhood came up with the crowd-pleasing slogan “Islam is the solution”, while the NDP countered with a catchy slogan of its own, touting what it called its “new thinking”. In neither case was a definition of these key words put forward. The Muslim Brotherhood did not specify how its version of Islam differed from other versions, while the NDP did not specify how its new thinking differed from its old.

During the campaign, the candidates addressed a political constituency whose identity was defined more in terms of quality than of quantity, but the opposite was closer to the truth during the electoral process. Officially, no candidate was authorised to spend more than 70 000 pounds on his or her campaign but in several constituencies many multiples of this sum were spent on bribing voters at polling stations. In a poor country like Egypt, money talks louder than any political agenda and candidates determined not to buy votes but to succeed on the strength of their political views alone were completely marginalised.

According to the daily Al-Masri Al-Youm, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohamed Mahdi Akef, attributed the successful showing of his organisation’s candidates to the sympathy generated by the virulent campaign launched against them by the government. He thanked the government and its media for “helping the Brotherhood” score such impressive results in the parliamentary campaign, which had become the organisation’s driving concern ever since elections were announced. Akef said he could not discount two possible reactions by the NDP: either to find a way of dissolving Parliament or to include the Muslim Brotherhood in a coalition government, for, he added ironically, “In Egypt, anything is possible!”

Egypt’s electoral map thus revealed the emergence of two colliding blocs whose battle for votes was fought more with the weapon of money than through political persuasion. Around these two major blocs emerged a number of satellite poles representing a variety of ideologies, with or without corresponding political parties. But the government has always preferred keeping the available variety of political trends, as well as minorities like women and Copts, under-represented, and these elections were no exception. Out of the 444 candidates fielded by the NDP, there were only six women and two Copts, while the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the two major political blocs, could only field candidates running as independents because it is not entitled to form a party of its own.

Despite this, however, the fortunes of the Brotherhood since the 2000 elections are on the rise, which is not the case of the NDP. If the government party in the first round got 68 per cent of the seats, it is only thanks to the fact that many of the independents who won are former party members who ran alone because they failed to win the party’s nomination but who then rejoined the NDP after the results were announced.

Is the Brotherhood adopting a strategy similar to the one that catapulted Erdogan to power in Turkey? For sure, the NDP will do all it can to prevent such an outcome. Already it has acted in defiance of court judgements ruling the results of certain constituencies null and void. Instead of drawing lessons from past or external experiences, violations on occasions have gone even further than before.

Of course, the experience of Turkey’s Erdogan is qualitatively different from that of the Muslim Brotherhood, but they do share similar challenges. There is first the question of violence and the accusation addressed to both parties that they are not democratic. There is the issue of terrorism, which, in the eyes of the opponents of both parties, remains an open question with no solution in sight. There is also the total lack of trust between secular and religious parties in general and in the Arab world in particular. Is normalisation of relations between the two possible?

In any case, what is new is the admission that a policy of avoiding violence presupposes the search for peaceful — that is, political — solutions of issues of contention. This entails always keeping channels of communication open and abandoning the politics of exclusion, which has the added advantage of defeating the advocates of violence and supporters of terrorism. That is the logic of Erdogan in Turkey and also of the Wassat (Centre) Party, a breakaway faction from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Can this be the key to a policy of reform and change that has become indispensable if we are to overcome the present impasse?