Electoral manipulation in Egypt: revisiting 2005

There's a little bit of pointlessness in commenting on Egypt's upcoming parliamentary elections — not much suspense there — but as a veteran of three major electoral cycles in Egypt it's worth pointing a couple of things out.

There's a rhythm to the People's Assembly elections in Egypt — the only ones where the opposition has a narrow window of operation — that traditionally starts by throwing a bunch of Muslim Brothers in jail the month beforehand. Usually this never involves their candidates, but rather the candidates' campaign organizers and supporters. The idea is to cripple their ability to run a proper electoral machine.

I am reminded of going to see a senior Brotherhood figure on the eve of the 2005 elections, who told me: "For the first time in my life, there is not a single Brother in jail before an election."

That was, of course, before the first round of voting had taken place. In the second and third round of voting (elections were staggered then) there were plenty of arrests and other forms of security interference. And this month there have been by now nearly 400 arrests — you can keep track on the Brothers' website.

I hope this makes clear once and for all the reason the MB performed well in 2005, grabbing 20% of seats for the first time: because it was allowed to. I don't think there can be any argument anymore that the Mubarak regime deliberately allowed, if not encouraged, the Brothers to do well in order to drive home the point to the Bush administration (and domestic audiences) that it's either them or the Islamists. 

There's no need to do that anymore, since there isn't any substantial pressure from Washington. Time to put the Brothers back in their box for the regime.

However, there is a second point worth making. This election is not taking place over three rounds, with time to gauge the Brothers performance. It's taking place in a day, which must be an administrative problem for the Ministry of Interior. Even as the NDP insists that it will be a clean election, the regime has a choice to make: heavy interference before the elections against the MB (no one in the West will particularly care anyway), which is already taking place, but also heavy interference on election day itself. The extent to which things get heated on election day itself may very well determine the way the election is seen domestically and abroad. There is a lot of potential for things to get ugly, or even worse for this regime, out of control.

We'll see how it works out.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.