Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 October - 2 November 2005
Issue No. 766
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The politics of selection

Alieddin Hilal tells Omayma Abdel-Latif that it is not business as usual in the National Democratic Party

Alieddin Hilal
Alieddin Hilal

The National Democratic Party's (NDP) list of candidates disappointed a great many of the party's rank and file, with some even speaking of feeling betrayed by the party they had served for many years.

Then, when some members announced their intention to contest next month's parliamentary elections as independents, the picture grew ever more confused.

"Chaos, anger and dissent" had beset Egypt's ruling party, thundered one commentator. "The revolt of the excluded threatens NDP unity," added another.

Then reports began to surface that NDP members and the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood were coordinating campaigns in some constituencies. Strenuous denials by the brotherhood's Supreme Guide and by senior NDP officials have not quite allayed the suspicions that linger in the minds of many.

Al-Ahram Weekly speaks with Alieddin Hilal, the former minister of youth, who has analysed Egypt's election experiences in the 1980s and 1990s in several publications, and is among the key players shaping the NDP's agenda for the forthcoming elections

To what extent was there a consensus among party rank and file over the selection of candidates?

The final selection process was conducted by a committee of eight who worked continuously over several weeks. They had all the necessary data concerning candidates to hand, and decided on their suitability according to fixed criteria. Of course differences sometimes emerged, but the final decision was made by consensus. The final selection was, then, the result of consensus within the committee. I understand the angry response of some NDP members excluded from the list. When some people are selected and others are not some among the latter will be unhappy. But in some constituencies there were ten or more people seeking to stand. Only two could be chosen, which was always going to leave some people feeling left out in the cold.

Many critics argue that the NDP not only nominated figures that lack grassroots support but also approved names -- including Minister of Housing and Reconstruction Mohamed Ibrahim Suleiman, and former agriculture minister Youssef Wali -- that attract public antagonism.

In the end this will be up to the people to decide. We will know after the election who enjoys popular support and who does not. Democracy is the exercise of the will of the people. The selection committee did its best and chose those candidates it thinks are in a position to win seats. Now we must wait and see what the people decide.

Elections mean winning seats. They are not a time to experiment with new faces. We are entering a tough competition, with each of the parties struggling to secure as many seats as possible. Inside the party we are more concerned with people who can win on the day rather than novelty for novelty's sake. But that said, I would point out that 36 per cent of our candidates are standing for the first time.

What were the party's selection criteria for candidates?

Many factors were taken into account. There were the decisions made by the electoral colleges within the party. The NDP also twice polled extensively within constituencies, among both party members and those who have no connection with the party. We wanted to see where we stood in each constituency. Then there were the recommendations by constituency party secretaries, an important source of information.

Every election contains an element of ambiguity. Winning is not just about selecting a popular figure. At times it is far more important to gauge the mood of the nation. I think we have been as thorough, in the selection, as possible, and we tried to opt for those candidates best placed to win seats.

And do you think the current mood will result in an NDP victory?

I hope so.

But given the NDP has monopolised power for decades, and in light of its recently expressed public commitment to reform, wouldn't a large NDP majority be an obstacle to pressing ahead with political change?

The NDP of today is not the NDP of yesterday. Those who fail to recognise how much the party has changed since 2002 should look at the initiatives taken, and the legislation proposed, since then. In 2002 we adopted a new ideological and organisational framework, and when a party reshuffles all its organisational structures and its ideological and intellectual framework it becomes a new party. Of course it is not totally divorced from the past but we try to innovate and change.

Now has that change been implemented as quickly as expected? There are different answers to the question, just as there would be within any party.

Do you think the issue has created a crisis within the party?

It is a crisis that exists in the minds of those who talk about it. When you are a broad-based party there are many views. Some gain precedent over others, and that leaves some people feeling angry.

NDP officials like Secretary-General Safwat El-Sherif and Zakariya Azmi have taken a tough line against party members who have said they will stand as independents, saying they will not be allowed to return to the fold.

That seems a recipe for suicide and I doubt either Azmi or El-Sherif made such statements.

They did, and were widely reported. Could you clarify the party line on this issue?

Every candidate applying to stand signed an agreement that they would abide by the decision of the selection committee. If they choose not to do so then they have effectively written their resignation statements. What I find surprising, though, is that former members are actually running under the banner of Al-Watani Al-Mustaqil (the independent-NDP). Such candidates do not denounce their connection with the NDP. On the contrary, they consider it a point of strength, otherwise why run under such a slogan. It is telling of something -- and what it seems to suggest is that there are many people who want their candidates to be connected to the NDP.

The final decision to which I was party on this issue was that the issue of excluded candidates running as independents would be referred to the party's ethics committee which would then decide on appropriate measures.

So the party will take a final decision after the elections?

Yes. In politics one has to think about all possibilities.

Opposition parties that once rejected international monitoring of Egyptian elections are now pushing for international observers. What is the NDP's position?

These very same parties signed a statement last January saying that foreign international monitoring was a violation of national sovereignty. What has happened to make them change their position overnight? The only motives I can think of are to do with political expediency.

I have never thought the international monitoring of elections a violation of the sovereignty of any country. But such monitoring requires preparation, and several questions have to be answered. What is the jurisdiction of the monitors? What is their relationship to civil society? Who, indeed, are you going to invite? Governments, the African Union, NGOs? These are issues that have to be debated and discussed and cannot be raised overnight.

As a party we are keen the elections, which will be watched by the whole world, are seen to be above reproach. They will be monitored by civil society organisations, and I hope their participation will be more organised, more institutionalised this time, and accredited by the state.

What of opposition arguments that violations are already taking place?

We condemn any practice that favours the NDP or creates inequality between the political parties. This is our position.

Including violations carried out by the security and other state apparatuses?

The presidential elections were a case study, and the security apparatus took a neutral position. We do not condone any intervention. It was the NDP that came up with a charter which insisted ministers should not mix their political and executive functions and that public money and public places cannot be used for electioneering. If there are violations they should be submitted to the Elections Committee.

The Muslim Brotherhood website contains allegations of security intervention to change voting lists in Alexandria.

The lists have been closed since the presidential elections and you cannot add or delete names. Besides, the existing lists are in the possession of the opposition parties. It is impossible for any changes to be made now.

Despite an intense campaign only seven million out of 32 million voters turned out for the presidential elections. What do you expect the turnout to be in the parliamentary election?

Popular participation is central to any reform process -- it gives legitimacy to those who govern, making them more representative of the people. We are faced with a legacy of apathy, fear, cynicism, scepticism and, at the very best, indifference. I would say that seven million was an improvement on the 2000 parliamentary elections, when no more than 5.2 million voters turned out. And I expect the figure to be higher in the upcoming election, somewhere around the ten million mark.

The presidential election set a precedent that should assuage the concerns of many sceptics. Election violations occur in many countries. The danger comes when those who are running the elections make it a policy to systematically falsify the vote. In Egypt the policy is generally one of neutrality and respect for the rights of the citizens though in some places, and for a variety of reasons, isolated violations do take place. If you ask me whether there will be violations this time I would have to say yes, in some areas there might be violence, in others vote-buying will occur. But these remain isolated incidents and do not constitute a policy. The most crucial factor in getting people out to vote is to convince them that their vote will make a difference.

Has the NDP had contacts with the Muslim Brotherhood over elections?

No. The NDP's core strategy is to defeat Muslim Brotherhood candidates. Why, then, should there be any coordination between us?

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