Egypt's Shura Council elections, and its future

No one really cared about them in the middle of the worldwide hubbub over the flotilla murders, but I feel one should note that Egypt just held one of its very flawed elections. I wrote an article about them for Middle East International last week, which I am fully reproducing below.

Basically things happened as expected:

  • There were multiple indications of fraud, including police preventing people from voting in certain areas, pre-filled ballots, faked voting cards and vote-buying.
  • There were violent clashes, a sign of the competition these elections engender.
  • The Muslim Brothers were not allowed to campaign freely.
  • NGOs and monitors have already compiled a long list of grievances.
  • The new Higher Electoral Commission appears to be, for now, completely ineffective (or perhaps that's its purpose.)

Do read Sarah Carr's account of voting day.

The outcome for the Muslim Brotherhood, who were prevented from campaigning in some places and won no seats, as in 2007, is  

CAIRO (Reuters) – The Muslim Brotherhood said on Wednesday it would back a drive by former U.N. atomic watchdog head Mohammed ElBaradei to reform Egyptian politics after the group secured no seats in a vote to parliament's upper house.

Egypt's biggest opposition group, which controls a fifth of the lower house seats but none in the Shura Council upper house, said it would help ElBaradei collect signatures for change, a move bound to boost his efforts to gather a million names.

Tuesday's Shura Council vote for a third of the seats was marred by abuses reported by rights groups and independent monitors, a common feature of Egyptian elections. Officials said the vote went smoothly and complaints were investigated.

"None of the Brotherhood's candidates have won any seats in 2010 Shura Council elections, a blatant proof that vote rigging took place. Many candidates ran in constituencies which they won in the 2005 lower houseparliamentary election," said Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, who heads the Brotherhood's lower house bloc.

Of course I wouldn't fall necessarily for that logic — just because the MB didn't win doesn't prove the elections were completely rigged — but the use of force by authorities in certain districts against MB supporters does lend some credence to Katatni's claim. I would also take their backing of ElBaradei with a pinch of salt (they may just back his goals) until they mobilize for him properly. Still, this may help with the National Coalition for Change's petition drive, as the Brothers' flock is being increasingly clear guidance.

Shadi Hamid has a piece in FP talking about the disunity of the Egyptian opposition and touches upon MB-ElBaradei relations:

ElBaradei has made some tentative efforts to reach out to the Brotherhood, suggesting the potential for what would undoubtedly be a powerful alliance. But, if ElBaradei is flirting with Islamists, Islamists feel he is not flirting enough. One Brotherhood leader I spoke to complained that Saad al-Katatni, who represents the Brotherhood in ElBaradei's National Association for Change, has not been included in top-level discussions. "The founders [of NAC] informed [us] about the coalition only after the fact," complained Morsi. "Then they asked us to join without asking for our substantive input."

The Brotherhood, of course, is not blameless. Despite its post-9/11 political maturation, the organization continues to find new ways to make liberals nervous. In April, Ali Abdel Fattah, the Brotherhood's liaison to Egypt's moribund political parties, launched a broadside against the country's liberals, writing: "Liberalism is about absolute freedom for the individual without boundaries and without either a religious or moral reference." He accused liberals of being in bed with the United States - a charge, perhaps not coincidentally, that some liberals have also leveled against the Brotherhood.

The rest of the article is well worth a read in considering the chronic dysfunction of the Egyptian opposition. It's over for them, there's no need to take them into account. The Brothers, ultimately, will negotiate with the emerging regime. The question of Egypt's post-Mubarak future is now almost entirely a question of inner regime politics, and the question of a little bit more democracy will depend on that regime's desire and/or need to reform. It may take a while before it gets there, but there are signs that social pressures are mounting to extent that they will have to. The difficult but important story to tell about Egypt in the last decade are not the travails of Ayman Nour and opposition groups, but the renewal of the labor movement, a call for greater social justice in the midst of neoliberal economic reforms by an autocratic government, and the increasing vibrancy of Egypt's civil society — its increasingly professional NGOs, its once-again-combative professional syndicates, and clever lawyers taking the regime to task on its legal subterfuges.

Unfortunately, unless he changes course, ElBaradei does not seem ready to put in the work to create the platform he needs. The man has talent and ideas, but he has no grassroots or vanguard organization to work with. He should be focusing on building this for now — recruiting proper political cadres to do the hard lifting of his campaign, which intellectuals like Hassan Nafaa or Alaa al-Aswani simply can't do. This is not an attack on the activists who launched this movement, far from it — it's a recognition that politics is for professionals, not dilettantes, whereas prominent intellectuals serve best to drive certain messages. Somehow else needs to run campaigns.

I had flagged this as a problem in my piece in The National before ElBaradei returned last February, when I wrote:

ElBaradei fever is now in full swing. The Facebook group backing him is growing by 13 new members per minute, reaching over 100,000 this week. There is talk of virtually nothing else in the op-ed pages of the independent press, on satellite television and the internet. But there is also growing doubt about how serious ElBaradei is about running for president, and how much he is willing to work for it.

There is little doubt that ElBaradei’s courageous decision to speak his mind on the state of the country will have a positive impact in spreading awareness of potential alternatives to the present sorry state of affairs. He has perhaps made the realistic assessment that competing directly against Hosni Mubarak is a losing battle, and that what must be prepared now is the transition to a more democratic system that might occur in a post-Mubarak Egypt. His return has advanced the cause of those who hope for a more just country, but their hearts may be broken by his reticence to enter the rough arena of political conflict.

Even those who admire his stance are critical of his refusal to run unless the constitution is changed, a quixotic demand to which Mubarak has little incentive to acquiesce. Some would have preferred that he hadn’t ruled out joining an existing party and running as its candidate; others point out that he does not seem inclined to campaign – whether for the presidency or constitutional change – beyond his current 10-day visit to Egypt, and that has no serious or experienced staff, just enthusiastic fans. When this week’s fever dies down, as it inevitably will, can the campaign behind ElBaradei maintain any momentum?

His admirers fret about this. ElBaradei has been ambiguous about his presidential ambition, as if he reluctantly accepted the public’s call for his candidacy and is hesitating to let go of his retirement plans in Southern France. Upon his arrival at Cairo’s airport, where his supporters waited for hours on a hot day, his only interaction with the crowd was a quick drive-by. Many were expecting a speech and left disappointed. He does not appear be willing to go on the campaign trail, bringing his message across the country. Nor does he have the politician’s instinct for showmanship, as if the populist antics of someone like Ayman Nour – the young opposition leader who was Mubarak’s main challenger in the 2005 presidential election – were somehow beneath him. Having boosted the public enthusiasm for politics in a deliberately depoliticised system, he remains an unpolitician – almost as if he regards himself as a spiritual leader rather than potentially a political one.

There is little doubt that ElBaradei’s courageous decision to speak his mind on the state of the country will have a positive impact in spreading awareness of potential alternatives to the present sorry state of affairs. He has perhaps made the realistic assessment that competing directly against Hosni Mubarak is a losing battle, and that what must be prepared now is the transition to a more democratic system that might occur in a post-Mubarak Egypt. His return has advanced the cause of those who hope for a more just country, but their hearts may be broken by his reticence to enter the rough arena of political conflict.

Time is running out for a change of tactic, Dr. ElBaradei.

Update: Do read this account of NDP disgruntlement and you'll understand better what I am writing below:

Candidates from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) who lost Shura Council elections to opposition candidates yesterday say they might take legal actions to uncover vote rigging.

The disgruntled NDP candidates accused their party of "treason and corruption," claiming that their seats were given to the opposition to maintain a facade of democracy.

Abdel Ilah Abdel Hamid, a former NDP Shura member from Azbakiya, alleged that his loss in yesterday's election was premeditated by NDP officials. "That will not pass easily," Abdel Hamid said.

Another NDP member, Ahmed Salem, a former People's Assembly representative, said that his opposition rival obtained only 45 votes and had lost three previous local elections. "After this scandal, i will burn my NDP membership card in public," Salem said. "The state, the government, and the party are all corrupt."

Below is the full article from Middle East International previewing the Shura Council elections. 


 Dress rehearsal

From Issandr el Amrani in Cairo

Elections for the Shura Council, Egypt’s upper house of parliament, are rarely an exciting affair. Its candidates have mostly low visibility, and compared to the lower house, the People’s Assembly, the chamber is generally seen as a notables’ talking shop rather than a political arena. A third of its 264 members, after all, are appointed by President Hosni Mubarak, and most of the rest come from his National Democratic Party (NDP). So it is with some degree of indifference that Egypt approaches elections on 1 June, when 88 seats are up for grabs.

The elections may, however, be telling of dynamics for the year ahead, particularly in the more important poll for People’s Assembly that will take place in autumn.

First of all, they are a litmus test of discipline within the NDP, which has actually never officially passed the 50% mark in major elections in the last decade. This is because about a third of its MPs were elected as independents running against the party’s official candidates. Every election, there are promises that the party will not tolerate disloyalty. Ahmad Ezz, one of the NDP’s strongmen and its chief whip, tried to keep the selection of official candidates for the Shura Council secret until the last day of registration to reduce the number of ‘NDP independents’.

He has failed: 452 candidates are competing for the 88 seats, the vast majority of them affiliated with the NDP. The party itself implicitly acknowledges that it cannot prevent internal competition in some cases, such as the Marsa Matruh district near the Libyan border, where two official candidates will be running against each other. The area is dominated by tribal politics (of the Awlad Ali Bedouin confederation) and NDP bigwigs cannot afford to meddle in the tribe’s affairs. The sheer number of candidates highlights how contested these elections in fact are, and as in previous polls, incidents of vote-buying, fraud and even violence are expected.

For the prospective upper house members, the position is not about prestige alone: being elected is seen as a lucrative investment (despite costly campaign outlays), with prospects of financial return from the access gained to the state apparatus. Having failed to enforce its leadership’s resolve to quell the ‘NDP independent’ phenomenon, the ruling party is now widely expected to welcome back into its fold the successful candidates it did not select.

Brothers in the running 
A second notable trend has to do with the NDP’s biggest rivals, the Muslim Brothers. In 2006, after the electoral success that enabled them to win 20% of seats in the People’s Assembly, the Brothers announced they would henceforth contest every possible election – since their entry into electoral politics in the 1980s, they had limited themselves to the lower house of parliament only. This policy was one of the changes introduced by the former general guide, Mahdi Akef, and signalled the ascendancy of a generation of politically savvy Brothers committed to contesting elections for professional unions and public office. In the last Shura Council polls in 2007, the Brothers fielded 18 candidates. But none was successful, as they faced a string of arrests as part of the regime’s ongoing campaign to put the Brothers back in their place. 

The election of Muhammad Badie as general guide in January led many to wonder whether the Brothers would maintain their ‘confrontational’ electoral policy. They had taken a battering since 2006, and some publicly questioned the wisdom (and cost) of political participation. Yet the group’s approach to this election suggests that, with political strategists such as Essam al-Erian in its Guidance Bureau, it is still committed to fighting elections. Its innovative solution to avoid some of the hassles faced in 2007 is to field candidates (and, possibly, secretly support more) who are members of the People’s Assembly, and thus benefit from their parliamentary immunity. This should enable them to campaign with fewer restrictions. If they are successful, they can abandon their seats to gain a presence in the Shura Council. If they lose, as is widely expected, they can still run again for the lower house later this year, and they will have made the point that the Muslim Brothers are legitimately entitled to take part in all elections. 

What amounts to putting down a symbolic marker today may prove important tomorrow, especially as the 2005 constitutional amendments require any independent presidential candidates to have support from within the three elected public bodies — the two houses of parliament and municipal councils.

A final point of importance will be the performance of the Higher Electoral Commission (HEC), a new body that will be tested for the first time since it was established — via the 2007 constitutional amendments — to assume the role previously played by judges in election monitoring. It has already come under attack, after the Interior Ministry redrew electoral districts for the People’s Assembly without its involvement, although it is supposed to be in charge of electoral matters. Most opposition forces view the abandonment of judicial supervision as a disaster, particularly as it allows the regime to select members of the HEC indirectly. Its current head, Intissar Nessim, owes his position to being named head of the Cairo Appeals Court in July 2009 — an appointment made by the president.

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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.