Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 December 2010
Issue No. 1026
Opinion
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Shark hunting

Abdel-Moneim Said analyses the NDP's use of state-of-the-art election techniques

A general regional and local trend confirms the decline of a movement that challenged the modern Arab civil state. There is also an elite in the National Democratic Party (NDP) that knew how to learn the lessons from the past. I do not know whether this is coincidence or whether it was part of the wisdom that societies acquire over the course of time.

When a shark attacked a snorkeller at Sharm El-Sheikh last week, a whole generation of moviegoers flashed back to Jaws, the film about a mammoth shark that attacked a peaceful tourist resort. The monster was eventually caught with great skill and daring after a series of nerve-wracking and death- defying adventures, and the resort returned to safety and tranquillity. The beast that preyed off Egypt's guests on the coasts of Sharm El-Sheikh was also caught and, again, one cannot help but wonder at the coincidence that this news was announced just as the returns from the first round of the parliamentary elections came in and reported that not a single candidate from the Muslim Brotherhood won a seat, leading this outlawed organisation to withdraw from the elections entirely.

Curiously, the Muslim Brotherhood supreme guide explained that the withdrawal occurred after his organisation had accomplished all their all aims. This would make it the first time in the history of parliamentary elections that this political movement made it its goal to embarrass an existing regime. The Muslim Brotherhood has participated in numerous parliamentary elections. In 1984 it won eight seats in alliance with the Wafd Party and in 1987 it won 40 together with the Labour party. In the 2000 elections it won 17 seats on its own and in 2005 it won 88 seats. This year, however, it went away empty handed. This was not a coincidence. It was the product of the administrational and intellectual capacities that enabled the NDP to surpass the Muslim Brothers in spending, organisation and ideas that appealed to the public.

There is no single explanation for why the Muslim Brotherhood candidates performed so poorly in the polls this year. In like manner, there are numerous explanations for that movement's political decline. Some are connected with the general state of Islamist regimes and movements in the region, others with the Muslim Brotherhood's affairs in Egypt.

The consequences of Islamist regimes in the Middle East have been no less than catastrophic, for example, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They have become bywords for abject poverty, economic decline, corruption in the distribution of wealth, suppression of public freedoms and even secessionist drives. No country in which an Islamist orientation has prevailed has been spared periodic crises, apart from Turkey and Malaysia and, to a lesser extent, Morocco and Indonesia. In all of these, Islamist political parties acted similarly to the Christian democratic parties in the West; they made religion their moral frame of reference as they worked to strengthen, rather than to undermine, the modern state. Conversely, Islamist fundamentalism is demonstrating its disastrous effects with every passing day in Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq, putting these and other countries into increasing peril. This is why the Sunni Islamists' presence in the region is receding.

In Kuwait, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan, Palestine and elsewhere public opinion is reacting against the successive waves of attack by Islamist groups on freedom of opinion and expression, and against their endless campaigns to ban books, to stifle arts and culture, and to impose their own codes of religious censorship on thought and creativity. In the parliamentary elections in Kuwait in May 2009, the Islamists received a hefty slap in the face from the electorate and their seats in the legislature plummeted from 21 to 11. The Islamic Salafi Alliance came away with two seats, whereas they had four in the previous parliament, and the Islamic Constitutional Movement emerged with only one, in contrast to the three it had had in the previous parliament. Meanwhile, the candidates from the tribes won 25 seats while the civil trend made considerable inroads in the form of the electoral successes of independents, liberals and women.

In the Bahraini parliamentary elections in October this year, the Sunni Islamists suffered a similar reversal. The Shia Islamists, represented by the Wefaq (Accord) Association, won 18 seats and the independents, who are close to the ruling house, came in second. On the other hand, Al-Asala and Al-Menbar, both Sunni fundamentalist parties, came away with only seven seats, after having occupied 15 in the 2006-2010 parliament.

The fortunes of the Justice and Development Party in Morocco also plummeted in the municipal elections in 2009. Whereas the Authenticity and Modernity Party (a centrist opposition party) won 4,854 seats, the Independent Party (a partner in the ruling coalition) 4,246 seats, the National Rally of Independents (also in the government) 3,318 seats, the Socialist Union of People's Forces (another government coalition partner) 2,534 seats and the People's Movement (an opposition party) 1,767 seats, the Justice and Development Party trailed in at sixth place with only 1,135 seats.

In November this year, the Islamic Action Front -- the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood's Jordanian chapter -- decided to boycott the parliamentary elections that were held in Jordan that month, rather than risk ignominious defeat. In Palestine, the Hamas experience in government following its electoral victory in 25 January 2006 was a failure in more than one respect. Once this Islamist movement won 76 seats, or 57.6 per cent, of the Palestinian legislative assembly, it not only decided not to enter elections again but also to sever Gaza from the rest of Palestine.

One of the explanations for gradual departure of Islamist trends from Arab parliaments holds that they have been unable to translate their campaign promises into practical programmes and policies. They thus failed the test of "accomplishment-based legitimacy". Clearly, these movements' religious label has not rendered them immune to public accountability.

In the Egyptian case, the Muslim Brotherhood never had a clear agenda and it failed to influence the legislative and monitoring tasks of the People's Assembly over the course of its five-year presence beneath the dome of parliament. Their contribution can actually be measured concretely in terms of such indicators as interrogations, demands for briefings, proposals, urgent statements and the like. According to such indicators, while Muslim Brotherhood MPs held 88 seats, which is to say that they controlled 20 per cent of the parliament, their parliamentary performance was poor and had little tangible effect on the major issues connected with economic and social development.

Up to and during the campaigns, the Muslim Brotherhood platform was confused and ambiguous. The organisation is unable to resolve its dilemma with regard to the separation between religion and the state and unable to sort proselytising from politicking. Many have also come to suspect it of advancing its own interests as a political faction over the higher interests of the nation. On top of this, it has been riddled with clashes between the conservative and reformist trends within it. Although the hardliners prevailed, on the surface, it has shown itself just as vulnerable to internal rifts and schisms as most political parties in Egypt.

The Muslim Brothers' chief adversary in the electoral competition was a National Democratic Party that was no longer like it used to be. It is generally taken for granted in the press that the most active and influential section of the NDP is its political bureau. In fact, another bureau is no less effective. The bureau for organisational affairs oversees all organisational aspects of the NDP. It supervises the party units, committees and other bodies at the division, district and governorate levels; monitors their performance and their commitment to party discipline; and was responsible for creating a database of organisational leaders and drawing up plans for the advancement of these leaders. It also oversees the daily performance of the NDP governorate secretariats and the work of the parliamentary committee; coordinates between the party's general secretariat and its parliamentary committee; and supervises the candidate selection methods for People's Assembly elections and the methods for electing the members of committees and NDP offices up to the governorate level. One remarkable trait of the organisational bureau is youthful vigour and dynamism. It is filled with young and energetic staff members equipped with the higher educational qualifications and technological know-how to enable them to muster and mobilise support, and to plan, organise and coordinate all the diverse practical activities needed to run an efficient, smooth-running campaign machine. It also has at its disposal financial resources generally volunteered by party members enabling it to vie with the Muslim Brotherhood candidates' not inconsiderable sources of funding.

Long before polling day, the bureau for organisational affairs, together with the policy, media and economic development bureaus, performed intensive studies of the constituencies in which NDP candidates lost in the 2005 elections. These studies were instrumental in the selection of new types of candidates of the sort that enjoyed considerable popularity and credibility in their constituencies. Selections were then put to the NDP's electoral college in order to yield the best possible contenders, and in the event that this screening mechanism produced more than one viable candidate the party decided to let the electorate make the final choice. Ultimately, the net that the party used to capture the Muslim Brotherhood sharks consisted of an exhaustive study of each constituency. Therefore the stratagem of fielding more than one candidate in some constituencies was consciously intended to absorb support in areas that were against the NDP. It was not accidental and it did not risk splitting the NDP vote, contrary to the impression that had been disseminated over various satellite news stations.

There were general regional and local indicators that point to the decline of a political trend that challenges the modern civil Arab state. But there was also an NDP elite that had grasped the lessons from the past and, more importantly, that knew how to use modern, state-of-the-art methods and instruments to win an electoral battle.

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