A family affair
tries to decipher the confusing calculations of families and politics in the upcoming elections
Maher, Mahmoud and Amin Abaza are three members of the same big-name family from the Lower Egypt governorate of Sharqiya.
Maher Abaza, one of Egypt's longest serving ministers, was minister of electricity and by association a member of the ruling National Democratic Party headed by President Hosni Mubarak.
Mahmoud Abaza, a cousin, is the former Wafd Party chairman.
Both Maher and Mahmoud have run for parliamentary elections in the Sharqiya district of Al-Tilien, one after the other. And they were both elected -- not on the agenda of the ruling NDP or that of the Wafd with its long political heritage in Sharqiya. They were elected in their Abaza capacity.
Amin Abaza, another cousin, is currently the minister of agriculture and of course a member of the ruling NDP. Today, he is planning to run for the same district that Mahmoud had represented as head of the Wafd in the 2005-2010 parliament. And this Abaza is sure to be elected, not because the constituency of Al-Tilien is looking for a closer association with the government but because this is a constituency that votes for any Abaza.
Al-Tilien is far from being a unique case. All across Egypt there are districts whose vote is decided upon family rather the party association.
Kafr Shokr is strongly affiliated with the family of Mohieddin, a well-known clan from the Lower Egypt governorate Daqahliya, with considerable association with the leftist Tagammu Party. In the 2000-2005 parliament Kafr Shokr was represented by one of the most prominent faces of Egypt's left: Khaled Mohieddin. In the subsequent 2005-2010 parliament Kafr Shokr shifted right and voted for the ultra-liberal former minister of investment Mahmoud Mohieddin who is not just a member of the NDP but was one of the main architects of the intensive privatisation process.
Mahmoud Mohieddin was supposed to be the golden candidate of the NDP for the same district for the 2010-2015 elections until he decided to accept an offer with the World Bank and left for Washington DC.
What goes for Al-Tilien and Kafr Shokr goes for many other electoral districts, in fact more so in Upper Egypt where the influence of families and tribes is sure to overcome any other influence especially that of parties.
Samir Farag, governor of Luxor, agrees that while the name of the ruling NDP would make a big impact due to its association with the government, "in Upper Egypt, ultimately what counts is the name of the family." He adds that in Upper Egypt most families have for long chosen to be associated with the NDP. "There are members of certain families who subscribe to other parties; that's true. But at the end of the day they carry the names of their families, not their parties," Farag said.
For Gabr, a resident of Esna, a large district of Luxor, "nobody could beat the NDP here, as in other Upper Egypt districts, except maybe with the name of the family." He added that, "in any case most families prefer to join the NDP. Only a few choose other parties."
According to NDP Media Affairs Secretary Alieddin Hilal, the influence of the family is an issue that is always taken into consideration when the ruling party decides on the list of nominees for elections. "We do take the family aspect into consideration," he acknowledged.
"I always vote for the family of Megahed," said Abdallah, a middle-aged resident of Esna. "I don't know much about parties; I don't care; I just vote for the representative of the family who I know would be able to support me. I know the family, not the party." A civil servant in one of the municipal services of the city, Abdallah is full of stories on how the members of this family "help" the Esna people.
Abdallah is convinced that unlike non- family related MPs, those with family associations have a permanent presence in their villages and cities of origin which they run for as parliament candidates. Those with no family association, he insists, "are only seen ahead of the electoral season. Beyond this they go to live in Cairo and they forget about their constituencies."
Khaled Megahed, the representative of Esna in the upper house of parliament (Shura Council) is a good example of what Abdallah has in mind. An army officer with Esna origins, Megahed has for long lived in Cairo with his wife, also a member of the large Megahed family. But he never lost contact with Esna. He ultimately has to go visit his immediate family and that of his wife based in Esna. He also has to go inspect properties, mostly agricultural land.
When Megahed lost his father a few years ago -- the father was a member of the lower house of parliament (People's Assembly) -- he immediately resigned from military service to be able to run for elections. For him there was no comparison to make between his post as an army officer, which he liked very much, and the name of the Megahed family in parliament.
Indeed, Megahed remembers that immediately after the burial of his father, family members were already pressing upon him to "make the move": resign and run.
In only a few days Megahed resigned, joined the NDP and thus became an illegible NDP candidate for any future elections. And he did run for the Shura Council elections -- and was elected.
"For the family that was an important moment. We kept the name of Megahed in parliament. This is not a small achievement," he said.
The family of Megahed is in a rivalry- rotation relationship with two other leading families who also seek parliamentary presence and wish to maintain their family heritage: the Hozeins and the Sheikhs.
Most of the time the three families decide in semi-collective manner who would run for the upper house, the lower house and who would run for the municipal elections. At times of course there are disagreements and direct competition but generally speaking the three families try to avoid political feuding and apply an unwritten system of rotation.
Abbas Hozein, the NDP nominee for next Sunday's legislative elections, likes to acknowledge "political co-existence".
The Megaheds, Hozeins and the Sheikhs take pride in having been party to political life in Egypt for the past 200 years. They all talk about great grandfathers who joined the early legislative councils in Egypt. They all have photos to show of those relatives participating in parliamentary sessions. They all have photos to show of leading figures of the Wafd Party, the dominating political party in the pre- 1952 Revolution, visiting their relatives. And some refer to the membership of their family members to the Socialist Union, established by former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the early 1960s as a consultative form that was replaced in the 1970s by the NDP under the leadership of ex-president Anwar Sadat.
"For the big families it is crucial to be associated with the dominating political power," said Hozein. During the years of the monarchy, he said, it was the Wafd that dominated and now it is the NDP.
Hozein acknowledges that what counts for the most part for his constituency is the family name but he adds "the times are starting to change. The young people want more than the financial or moral support that the family could provide; they want services, job opportunities and other things that a good association with the government could help deliver."
Moreover, Abbas who is running in place of Taher Hozein, a member of the Wafd who is declining to run for this election due to inter-partisan assessments, is also acknowledging that it will not be long before the "family consensus on who would represent the family in which election would be challenged".
In 2005 Mahmoud Mohieddin declined to announce his candidacy for the Kafr Shokr district on behalf of the NDP before he concluded an agreement with his uncle Khaled Mohieddin that the elder politician of the family would not be running. The early candidature of Mahmoud Mohieddin for this election was also approved by the family, because for the Mohieddins it is out of the question that an uncle would run against a nephew or the other way round.
But what goes for some families does not go for others. Abbas Hozein says that it was "somehow an issue" within the family of Hozein to decide who would run -- himself or one of two other cousins who are also members of the NDP.
Ultimately, two Hozeins presented their papers to the NDP. Abbas was selected in the internal process. When the choice was made public on 7 November by the NDP's organising committee, part of the big Hozein family was celebrating; the other was not.
But at least this Hozein is confident, as he says, that none of the other Hozeins would "work against" him in the elections.
Not so for Fathi Fakhri who was selected by the NDP to run for the Naga Hammadi district in the Upper Egypt governorate of Qena. Fathi and his brother Nasser were both keen to be selected by the NDP for this next election. Eventually, it was Fathi and another NDP member, Abdel-Rehim El-Ghoul, who were elected to compete amongst themselves and against other candidates for the Naga Hammadi seat in parliament. According to Othman, one of the supporters of Fathi Fakhri, "Nasser [Fakhri] is working against his brother and is trying to lobby support for El-Ghoul."
Othman is talking of "big cash" that Nasser is distributing to get potential voters on El-Ghoul's side. He is also suggesting that thugs hired by Nasser Fakhri are spreading "threats of violence" against "those who want to vote for Fathi [Fakhri]".
For Othman, the middle-aged resident of Qena, it is "such a pity that brother fights brother" over a seat in parliament. Indeed, he adds, it is a pity that Fathi Fakhri had to run his electoral posters as Fathi Qandil -- his middle name -- rather than Fathi Fakhri to avoid some of the references about the brothers' feud over the Naga Hammadi seat. "Times are changing -- for the worse," he said.
The worst, according to some of the supporters of Noureddin Abu Steit who had wanted to run on behalf of the NDP for the district of Al-Bellina, in the Upper Egypt governorate of Sohag, is exactly the exclusion of both the Abu Steits from the list of nominees.
Noureddin Abu Steit blames it on the inter-family feud and insists that it would have been better if an agreement was reached. The 7 November news was particularly shocking for him, not just because of the exclusion of his family but also because of his own peculiar situation.
Having resigned from the police services Noureddin Abu Steit is left with career and family challenges.
The shrug of the NDP prompted some members of the leading families both in Lower and Upper Egypt to defect to other parties. Some went to the Wafd, others joined the Tagammu. However, it is quite unusual for the members of these families, especially in Upper Egypt, to join the Muslim Brotherhood. "Of course here and there you find some but generally speaking the Muslim Brotherhood does not enjoy much sympathy except in certain districts in Upper Egypt."
Another thing that most of the leading families tend to refrain from, also especially in Upper Egypt, is to nominate women. "If I nominate my sister, what does this mean? It means that I will not run. Would you believe this is possible in Egypt, especially in Upper Egypt?" said Khaled Megahed.
However, according to Yasmin Megahed, the niece of Khaled Megahed, women of the leading political families do have a role "despite everything. Of course here in Upper Egypt when women have issues they prefer to take them up with other women and this is where the role of the families' women comes in," Yasmin said.
According to Yasmin, women from Esna have often come to the older women of the Megahed family to ask them to convey requests or demands to the elected MPs. "They come to ask for help with a loan or for a job for a son; so they come for the women," she said.
Women, Yasmin Megahed added, also have a role in suggesting projects to the MPs in the family. "For example, if we know that in a certain village there is a need for a woman doctor in the medical unit, we bring that up, or for more women teachers at girls' schools. It might look small and irrelevant but if we talk about rural Upper Egypt it makes a difference."
According to Khaled Megahed, "If we nominate a woman it means we are not really keen on keeping the name of Megahed in parliament. It's hard for people to vote for a woman -- maybe for the women's quota -- but that's a different story and I don't think that the bigger families of Egypt, especially in Upper Egypt, are ready for this kind of change."