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9 -15 November 2000
Issue No.507
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Tribal labour

By Fatemah Farag

Who said politics had to be so cut and dry? Behind the banners draped throughout the Greater Cairo working-class district of Helwan, everything from family influence to football comes into play in the very serious, and possibly violent, battle for four parliamentary seats.

In electoral district no. 24, history is in the making as an upstart ex-police general challenges the long reign of power wielded by the military production factories in the area. The constituency extends from Al-Maassara to east Helwan and includes the areas of Atlas, Al-Ezbah Al-Bahariya and Al-Ezbah Al-Qibliya -- the latter two being some of the oldest communities in Helwan and better described as shanty towns. The minister of military production has occupied the constituency's professionals' seat since 1983 -- with the exception of a short parliamentary cycle in 1987 when the seat was lost to Youssef El-Badri, an Islamist.

This year, however, Safir Nigm is giving Minister Sayed Mash'al a run for his money. A member of the board of the Ahli Sporting Club, one of Egypt's most prominent football clubs, Nigm comes from an influential family in Helwan. A quick walk around the market area shows store owners posting Nigm's picture up in full view. One such owner commented proudly: "Helwan is known to be full of Ahli fans. Of course, we will give our votes to an Ahli man."

Abdu Farghali, a government clerk, said that for years he had never bothered to vote. "Everyone in Helwan knows that the workers of the military production companies will be bussed in to cast their votes for the minister. It is as if Helwan does not have a seat to vote for," he said as he waited for the metro. "But this year is different. This year I will vote for Nigm because I think it is about time we had our seat in parliament back."

This is what Nigm is counting on in his battle against Mash'al. "The military production employees account for approximately 15,000 votes, but the total number of registered voters in constituency no. 24 amounts to 73,000," Nigm told Al-Ahram Weekly on the eve of the elections. "People never bothered to vote before, but this time the people of Helwan are going to the polling stations and will have their way."

In fact, some labour activists are even sceptical about whether Mash'al will have the backing of all his employees. "After Mash'al took over, there was a massive explosion at one of the factories," explained Kamal Abbas, head of the Trade Union Services Centre in Helwan. "Five workers died and compensation was inadequate. When workers complained, [Mash'al] had dozens of them sent to jail."

Mash'al also faces a court motion brought against him by lawyer Mohamed Qasim, a minor candidate for the same seat. Qasim contested Mash'al's right to run in Helwan on the grounds that Mash'al's voting card was registered outside Helwan. The Administrative Court accepted Qasim's motion, but Mash'al filed an appeal. The hearing of the appeal is now scheduled for 9 December -- after the elections are over. "This is very irregular," suggested Abbas, "Although Mash'al can run in the elections now, people in Helwan do not view this incident favourably." But in Maadi, big signs supporting Mash'al are clearly visible and despite Abbas's arguments, it is well-known that military production workers in Helwan are greatly encouraged to vote for their minister with promises of benefits.

If the battle in constituency no. 24 sounds rough, you haven't seen constituency no. 25, where 21 candidates are running for two seats and three "tribes" are on the war path. Starting from 15 May City, this area extends down past the Steel and Iron Factory, and includes Maraziq, Tibbin, Helwan Al-Balad, Kafr Al-Elw, Al-Masaken Al-Iqtisadiya (literally, the Economic Housing area) and the four rural and very poor areas of Arab Ghoneim, Al-Walda, Arab Al-Walda and Arab Rashid. Here, some 62,000 registered voters represent three main clans. The Halawna (literally, Helwan residents) dominate the areas of Helwan Al-Balad, Kafr Al-Elw and Al-Tibbin. The other two tribal groupings, Al-Baharwa (those from the north) and Al-Sa'ayda (Upper Egyptians), immigrated to Helwan from the north and south of the country in the early 1960s, when the area was being developed into an industrial zone.

There are three candidates contesting the professionals' seat: former Minister of Religious Endowments Mohamed El-Mahgoub, who is supported by the Halawna; Mustafa Bakri, editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Al-Osbu, who is supported by the Sa'ayda; and a newcomer to the fray, Magdi Tantawi, who is expected to get most of the Kafr's votes.

A heated election battle between El-Mahgoub and Bakri in 1995 saw violence between their supporters, with Bakri ultimately withdrawing from the run-offs. In addition to Al-Halawna support, El-Mahgoub is known for the many services he provided during his tenure as minister, such as the building of mosques in the area. For his part, Bakri has the local newspaper Voice of Helwan trumpeting his cause. Along with support from Al-Sa'ayda, Bakri has won popularity with his heated Islamist-nationalist rhetoric -- not to mention the donation money he is said to have spread lavishly all over district.

Tantawi, a journalist with the newspaper Al-Gamhouriya and a native of Kafr Al-Elw, is hoping to capitalise on the rooster's fight between El-Mahgoub and Bakri. "People are tired of this fight and I have not attacked either of them," he said. "Instead, I have focused on the issues I consider important, like unemployment and the problems faced by young people."

As for the workers' seat, the main contestants include incumbent Ali Fath El-Bab, a member of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood; the ruling National Democratic Party's Ali Heikal; and Mohamed Mustafa, who won in the 1990 elections. Kamal Abbas, of the Trade Union Services Centre in Helwan, remarked, "Fath El-Bab is very popular because he is so obviously clean. After winning in 1995, he continued to live a simple life in Arab Ghoneim. He rides the microbus with everyone else and is supported by the Fayoum families of the Sa'ayda, as well as many workers from his company, the Iron and Steel Company."

Of Mustafa, Abbas speculated that his chances would be enhanced because the NDP did not follow what he called the Golden Triangle Rule. "According to this rule, the Shura Council seat should be a Sa'aydi, the professionals' seat a Halawni and the workers' seat a Bahrawi," Abbas explained. Instead, the NDP nominated Heikal, who is from outside Helwan. The implication is that the Baharwa will support Mustafa to get back at the ruling party.

However the cards fall, this round of elections in Helwan will be one to remember. As Hamdi Rasslan, a worker at the Qawmiya Cement Company, noted, "This year everyone is encouraged by the way the first two rounds turned out -- that elections are being taken seriously. That means a heated battle should be expected."


Related stories:
Helwan fumes 9 - 15 November 1995
See Elections 2000

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