Written on the wall
The Shura Council elections expose the limits of the ability of Islamist forces to mobilise the public, writes Ammar Ali Hassan*
In stark contrast to the People's Assembly elections and the referendum on the constitutional amendments when long queues of voters formed before the entrances to polling stations, turnout for the Shura Council elections was low. That only 15.6 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast their ballot surprised many. The low turnout, however, must be viewed in context, which necessitates taking into account several factors.
Since its inception, turnout for Shura Council elections has been low. The Mubarak regime customarily inflated turnout figures and stuffed the ballot boxes with millions of ballots in favour of the now dissolved NDP. One purpose was to perpetuate the fiction of the legitimacy of the Council.
But vote rigging alone does not account for the perennially low turn out in Shura Council elections. A meagre legislative role and powers of oversight contributed to the general impression that the upper house is little more than a club for the political elite, open primarily to those whom the regime wished to reward in the form of position and its attendant benefits. That the president has the right to appoint one-third of Shura Council members serves only to confirm this impression.
With respect to the elections themselves, the large size of the electoral districts makes it difficult for competitors to mobilise supporters and bring them to the polls in sufficient numbers. Shura Council candidates have also tended to be less well-known and less experienced than People's Assembly candidates. Because of this, and the negligible powers of the Shura Council, they have often been regarded as "second class" politicians, less able to deliver the material needs and tackle the immediate concerns of their constituencies. This was of no small consideration in a culture that turned parliamentarians into facilitators and service providers, making MPs responsible for functions that municipal councils should perform.
Another reason why the Shura Council had such a poor reputation, both among political elites and the wider public, is that it was for long the home of the Political Party Affairs Committee. For decades the Committee thwarted the creation of political parties capable of challenging the ruling NDP, fostering "paper parties" that were created as window dressing for a corrupt dictatorial regime. The Shura Council also oversees the Egyptian press via the Supreme Press Council. It was responsible for appointing the editors-in-chief and chairmen of the boards of Egypt's "national" newspapers, men who, as a consequence, were primarily concerned with ingratiating themselves with the authorities to the detriment of any professional standards and the financial health of their organisations.
This year's Shura Council elections were held when demands the body be abolished have been voiced ever more loudly. Disbanding the Shura Council was an explicit demand of the revolution, listed alongside other demands posted on a large billboard mounted on a building facing Tahrir Square. There are two main reasons for the demand. The first is that the institution has lost any vestige of credibility. The second is expense. Money spent on the Shura Council could be much better used in education, healthcare, scientific research or, perhaps, to fund small enterprises that can contribute to alleviating unemployment.
The demand continued to be voiced in the face of the Constitutional Declaration manufactured by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) after the March 2011 referendum on amendments to nine articles of the 1971 Constitution which retained the Shura Council and allowed its 180 elected members to take part, alongside their People's Assembly counterparts, in the selection of the members of the assembly charged with drafting a new constitution. SCAF ignored all calls to abolish the costly and inefficient parliamentary body.
The sociopolitical circumstances that surrounded the Shura Council elections were markedly different to those of the People's Assembly elections. The latter took place against the backdrop of clashes around Mohamed Mahmoud Street which the state media span into an attempt to destabilise society, vandalise government buildings, sow chaos and halt the wheels of production of an already deteriorating economy. To the majority of the people elections seemed the only peaceful way to avoid the looming chaos that the state-owned media was raving about, the only route to resolving the contest of legitimacy between "Tahrir Square" and the army. As the Muslim Brothers and Salafis had not played an active part in this confrontation they appeared to a broad sector of the public as a source of stability, a trustworthy bloc capable of cooperating with SCAF over the management of the interim period. In this regard they seemed the opposite of the revolutionaries who favoured radical solutions beyond the comprehension of the general public at the time of the People's Assembly poll. The public itself was fed a diet of systematic distortion as the state-owned media launched a campaign of vilification against the revolutionaries. That the public swallowed the lies and innuendo was reflected in the poor election performance of the Revolution Continues bloc.
Shura Council polls were held in a much calmer climate, though the political fallout from the appalling massacre in the Port Said stadium did intensify during the course of the poll.
Public apathy towards the elections defied the expectations of those analysts who had anticipated Shura Assembly polls would be more animated than under Mubarak. They had some valid reasons for thinking that the polls would be animated, not least that elected Shura Council members would be participating in the selection of the Constitutional Assembly. It really did seem to many analysts that people would attach more value than usual to the Shura Council elections yet polling stations remained eerily empty of voters. Election officials and staff yawned, chatted and otherwise passed the long hours in activities that had nothing whatsoever to do with the polling processes.
It is not enough to observe or even explain this phenomenon. We must also ask what it signifies and what it can teach us.
We can draw at least four lessons:
- The Shura Council elections tell us, once again, that the Egyptian people continue to demand their opinions be taken into account. The age when government did what it wanted regardless of the people, on the grounds that the public are ignorant and impotent, is over. The people voiced disapproval of the Shura Council on numerous occasions, the clearest being the writing on the wall in Tahrir Square. When the powers-that-be persisted in ignoring this view and pressed ahead with their plans, just as the old regime would have done, the people voiced their discontent by boycotting the elections.
- The Shura Council elections also show that there is no single political force that commands the support of the people. No political party or movement can claim the power to speak for the people, mobilise them at will and propel them in the direction it wants. Following the People's Assembly elections Freedom and Justice and Nour Party officials boasted endlessly that they represented the mass of the Egyptian people and could steer them in whatever direction they wanted. SCAF and the US based their policies according, the first by trying to contain the Muslim Brothers and to reach an understanding with them, the second by agreeing to cooperate with the "moderate Islamist trend" on the grounds that Washington's interests are best served by working with the party that "controls the street" and can safeguard a "stable Egypt". The true strength of the Muslim Brothers and Salafis, who desperately wanted to win the Shura Council elections, was exposed these elections. They did win, and by an even greater percentage than they did the People's Assembly elections, but they did so on a paltry turnout, failing to mobilize the populace despite employing every tool at their disposal. They exerted enormous efforts, particularly in the run-offs, most of them between Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist candidates. That the run-off turnout, at 6.5 per cent, was even lower than in the main vote illustrates the real strength of the Islamists support. The vast majority of those who cast their votes for Islamist candidates in the People's Assembly elections are clearly not members of the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist organisations and are certainly not at these organisations' beck and call.
- Following the People's Assembly elections SCAF concluded that any successful presidential candidate would have to be approved by Islamist forces which it believed had the power to rally the street behind -- or against -- candidates. Following the Shura Council polls it appears that all options are open. As long as the elections are free and fair the people will determine the next president. If the people act in accordance with the appeals and interests of the Islamists, then this will be because the people feel this is in their interests on the basis of their own reasoning and calculations, not because they have no will or minds of their own. They will not be led to vote for whatever candidate the Muslim Brothers and SCAF nominate.
The foregoing does not imply that SCAF will change its tactics. What is likely is that the generals will realise the Shura Council elections has strengthened their negotiating hand with respect to the Islamists who, following the People's Assembly elections, trumpeted their power to control the Egyptian street.
- The low turnout for the Shura Council elections should alert the Constitutional Assembly of the need to reform it. Either the members of that assembly should expand the powers of the Shura Council in order to justify its continued existence or they should seize upon the low voter turnout as grounds to abolish it.
* The writer is an expert on Islamist movements.