Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Polls’ hopes and fears

Parliamentary elections begin on Saturday, and most commentators are predicting a low turnout, reports Gamal Essam El-Din

HEC
HEC
Al-Ahram Weekly

After repeated delays due to legal gridlocks and security concerns, Egyptians begin voting for a new parliament on Saturday. The first stage of the vote, which covers 14 governorates, opens on Saturday for overseas voters and on Sunday for residents.

The Higher Elections Committee (HEC) says 27,402,353 voters are eligible to cast a ballot in the first stage. Many analysts, however, expect a low turnout. While 62 per cent of registered voters went to the polls in the last parliamentary elections, this time around the figure could fall to less than 25 per cent, say commentators.

It is not only the public that appears to be suffering from election fatigue. According to Wahid Abdel-Meguid, editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram’s Al-Siyassa Al-Dawliya magazine, potential candidates are also staying away.

“Not so long ago we expected a record number of candidates to come forward. There are, after all, 142 more seats than ten years ago and under the new constitution parliament plays a much stronger supervisory and legislative role. But this did not happen,” says Abdel-Meguid.

On 16 September the HEC announced that 5,955 candidates had applied to stand as independents. A day later it was announced that 535 applications had been rejected, reducing the number of independent candidates to 5,420.

“Add the 500 or so candidates standing on party lists and the total is still less than 6,000, far lower than had been anticipated,” says Abdel-Meguid. The 2011 parliamentary elections attracted 10,251 candidates, even though there were 88 fewer parliamentary seats up for grabs.

Ahram political analyst Amr Hashem Rabie says the drop in the number of candidates is the result not only of waning public interest in politics but of the absence of the two forces — the Mubarak-era National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood — that have dominated the political arena since the 1980s.

“Some NDP diehards are standing this year but far fewer than used to stand when the NDP enjoyed wide-scale government support,” says Rabie.

He estimates that at least 40 per cent of candidates in the 2011 parliamentary elections hailed from the Muslim Brotherhood or its Islamist allies.

“Given the way the Islamist trend has been marginalised it was only to be expected that candidate numbers would fall,” argues Rabie. He also believes that the costly and cumbersome registration process this year might have dissuaded some from standing for office.

“Candidates were required to pay LE2,850 for medical tests and an additional sum of LE10,000 in insurance, costs that needed to be covered before campaign spending could begin. I think standing was probably beyond the pocket of many people, younger activists in particular, who might otherwise have presented themselves as candidates.”

Says Abdel-Meguid, “The elimination of the Muslim Brotherhood from political life has negatively impacted the number of candidates, but the downward trend has been compounded by fears that the next parliament could meet the same fate as its predecessor and be dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court.

“This left many politicians in a quandary. Should they spend their limited resources on attempting to join a parliament which has no guaranteed term?”

Between March 2011 and May 2014 Egyptians have gone to the polls six times. And each time, says Abdel-Meguid, they were told the vote was an important milestone on the road to democracy. “I think this time around public attention has shifted from these putative milestones. What most people want to see today is an improved economy.”

Rabie agrees, arguing that low interest in the poll could be due to a perception that the next parliament might actually hinder progress on both the economic and political fronts.

Many people believe that President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi did a very good job in his first year in office in economic and political terms, and “the last thing Egypt needs now is an unruly parliament.”

Says Rabie, “You hear it all the time, on television channels and in the street, that the next parliament will be filled with opportunist businessmen, Mubarak-era cronies, liberal novices and Islamists with long beards and short-sighted interests.”

Most commentators expect the real battle to be between two election coalitions — For the Love of Egypt and the Independence Current and Egyptian Front Alliance — and the salafist Nour Party.

The two secular coalitions are competing for independent and party-based seats in all 14 first-stage governorates. The Nour Party is fielding a party list in the 15-seat Nile West Delta constituency, in addition to 200 independent candidates.

There is widespread speculation that For the Love of Egypt enjoys the backing of the president. The Independence Current and Egyptian Front Alliance contains dozens of faces from the Mubarak-era NDP, and the Nour Party is regularly demonised by its rivals as being a cover organisation for the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

These three, together with the Free Egyptians Party, founded by business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, are the only political forces that appear awash with cash.

On 10 October the HEC announced that the election coverage of ten satellite TV channels had violated campaign regulations. At least six of the channels named are owned by businessmen who chair political parties. They include ON TV, owned by Sawiris, Al-Hayat TV, owned by Wafd Party Chairman Al-Sayed Al-Badawi, and Pharaohs TV, owned by Tawfik Okasha.

The HEC has announced that 87 NGOs have been licenced to monitor the polls and that 57 media organisations and 768 foreign correspondents will cover them. International interest in the elections is high.

Western capitals are viewing the poll as a litmus test of the current regime’s commitment to fostering a more inclusive democracy of the type celebrated by the award of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Tunisian partners who helped “lay the basis for an inclusive and pluralist democracy.”

But, as lawyer and political analyst Shawki Al-Sayed warns, “It is too early to consider Tunisia a pluralist democracy, given Islamists who mix politics with religion continue to pose a serious threat.”

He continues, “The Western media used to say the same things about Turkey, though Islamists there have turned out to be a failure.” Al-Sayed believes “the coming parliament will only promote democracy in Egypt if it exercises its powers wisely and in cooperation with the president.

“It would help if a forceful and experienced figure such as Amr Moussa or Adli Mansour was elected as speaker,” he says. “MPs should also realise that their first priority must be to cooperate with the president and help secure tangible improvements in the lives of ordinary Egyptians. It is not their business to pay lip service to the West’s liberal agenda which, in the end, is responsible for the chaos in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

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