Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Elections signal tectonic political shifts

The three parliamentary elections held between 2010 and 2015 reflect a political landscape undergoing major transformations, writes Amira Howeidy

Elections signal tectonic political shifts
Elections signal tectonic political shifts
Al-Ahram Weekly

With a sizeable bloc of candidates from ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s former ruling party contesting the two-stage parliamentary elections that began last week comparisons with the last vote under Mubarak in 2010, when the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) engineered victory in 86 per cent of seats, were inevitable.

Though final results in the current election must await the completion of the second stage of the vote in November the mainly pro-regime army of candidates promises few surprises ahead.

Predictability, low voter turnout and automatic victory for regime supporters in the absence of any viable opposition: it may be a familiar story but observers insist the current vote is far from being a re-run of the 2010 elections. The three general elections held under three regimes that separate them demonstrate significantly different contexts, they claim.

In marked contrast to the blatant rigging, regime violence and long entrenched voter apathy that characterised the 2010 poll Egypt’s first free post-Mubarak election, held between November 2011 and January 2012, witnessed a high turnout as 60 per cent of registered voters headed for the polls. The keenness of a politically engaged if polarised public to cast their ballots has not been repeated. This time round official turnout figures stand at 26 per cent as voters shy away from an uneventful election characterised by a dearth of both politics and ideology.

The For the Love of Egypt (Fi Hob Masr) Alliance stands out among the slew of similarly named coalitions as the vote getter of this election. Two years after the military removed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi backed by massive protests, when political discourse is still mired in hyper nationalism, it is unsurprising that out of the seven coalitions approved by the High Election Committee the names of four of them centre on Egypt or the Republic.

Led by businessman and former military and intelligence officer Sameh Seif Al-Yazal, For the Love of Egypt, which supports President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, won all 60 list seats being contested in the first stage of elections.  

Following constitutional amendments in 2014 Egypt’s next parliament will comprise 596 MPs, 448 elected as independents, 120 as party-based deputies, and 28 appointed by the president. It will be the first legislature since the 2011-2012 parliament was dissolved, on constitutional grounds, six months after it convened.

Following parliament’s dissolution former interim president Adli Mansour and incumbent Al-Sisi have between them issued 300 laws. Under the 2014 constitutional amendments, which allocated greater powers to parliament, the new legislature has to approve all laws passed by presidential decree. But for how long is anyone’s guess. Seif Al-Yazal has already been quoted as saying that his coalition will seek to curb the additional powers granted parliament vis-à-vis the presidency by the 2014 constitution.

Seif Al-Yazal, 70 and a candidate himself, may be the face of the For the Love of Egypt coalition but its lynchpins are business tycoon Naguib Sawiris of the Free Egyptians Party and Sayed Badawi of the Wafd Party. For now they are united in a list which also includes Mustaqbal Watan (Nation’s Future), formed less than a year ago by the then unknown 24-year-old Mohamed Badran, a supporter of Al-Sisi. Several businessmen, including 40-year-old Ahmed Abu Hashima, generously finance his party.

The coalition managed to stand out in an election race in which 44 of Egypt’s 83 political parties fielded candidates in the first stage of the vote. It could have been even more confusing. According to Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) the number of legally licensed political parties fell from more than100 in 2012 to 83 in 2015.

The scene is swarming with homologous competitors spouting generic slogans: “We come together for the love of Egypt” (For the Love of Egypt); “we will defeat poverty (Free Egyptians);“clarity and ambition” (the Salafist Nour Party).

It is a milieu dominated by political parties formed after 2011 and in which established forces such as the 96-year-old Wafd Party and — even more so — the 48-year-old left-wing Tagammu, are struggling to keep their heads above water.

“The Wafd Party is surviving, if only just, while the Tagammu will have to form a coalition with left wing MPs to have any presence in parliament,” says ACPSS head Diaa Rashwan.

The government’s designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group in December 2013 means Egypt’s oldest Islamist organisation is absent from the election scene for the first time in decades. With Brotherhood leaders and supporters either in jail, keeping a low profile or in exile, the Salafist Nour Party is left as the only representative of political Islam contesting the vote and it is lagging behind.

Also absent from the race parties that opted to boycott the poll. They include the Strong Egypt, Wasat and Building and Development Parties and the Revolutionary Socialists.

The current election is a far cry from the 2011-2012 poll which was dominated by identity politics and ushered in a period of Islamist-secular polarisation.

Secularist parties entered the election as part of the umbrella grouping the Egyptian Bloc, which promoted a civil state, and were pitted against the Democratic Alliance coalition led by the Brotherhood’s newly formed political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP).

The Democratic Alliance clinched 47 per cent of vote, the liberals 29 per cent and the Nour Party 24 per cent. After forming an alliance with the Nour Party the FJP found itself in control of 65 per cent of parliamentary seats.

The Revolution Continues’ coalition, supported by young faces at the forefront of the revolution who were mostly left leaning, won only nine seats in the 454-member parliament.

The vote may not have been a victory for the young revolutionary figures who had led the uprising against Mubarak, but it was a deafening defeat for the “remnants” of the Mubarak-era NDP. None of them made it to parliament.

A year earlier, in the 2010 vote, the last to be held under Mubarak, it was the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood that scored zero. They weren’t alone. Between them Egypt’s opposition parties won only a handful of seats in the first round and, crying foul, collectively boycotted the second stage of elections.

In an act of symbolic escalation they announced the formation of a 101-member shadow parliament which included the Brotherhood, Wafd, Al-Karama and the anti-Mubarak Kifaya movement.

Mubarak famously dismissed the initiative with the quip “Let them entertain themselves”— a phrase that would return to haunt him and serve as the sarcastic meme for his fall a few months later.

Other memes are making the rounds during the current elections. Social media is awash with images of the voters who queued for hours to cast their ballots in the first post-Mubarak election, often alongside shots of last week’s all but empty polling stations. “Between 2011 and 2015 a dream was killed,” noted one poster.

But is it that simple?

“Something was reconstructed or reshaped in 2011 and we have yet to grasp the magnitude of what happened. We are in a stage of major transformation,” says Amal Kamel Hamouda, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

In 2011 millions of people relished their first taste of voting whereas this time “many of them chose not to vote”.

“It’s not a simple case of apathy or even boycott,” argues Hamouda. “Rather, it’s a conscious decision by people who have exercised their voting rights multiple times since 2011 but are now choosing not to. The differences between this and previous post 2011 votes are significant and complex.”

“Egyptians may have realised — among other things — that politics are not, after all, as narrow as the ballot box, despite its importance.”

Expect changes, says Rashwan.

“Today the For the Love of Egypt coalition is a big name but once parliament convenes and MPs take their seats their loyalties will revert to the parties to which they belong and the political, economic and other interests they represent, not to any list.”

How those interests will be managed, co-opted or contained, and whether an opposition voice does emerge within parliament, remains to be seen. But for Rashwan, a supporter of Al-Sisi, “this is far from the death of politics”.

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