Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)
Wednesday,22 August, 2018
Issue 1268, (29 October - 4 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Opposition voices concern

Dina Ezzat asks Mohamed Abul-Ghar and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, one a centre-left politician, the other an Islamist, for their reading of the parliamentary elections and how the results will impact the political landscape

Al-Ahram Weekly

Following the January Revolution, Mohamed Abul-Ghar, a centre-leftist, and Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, an Islamist who defected from the Muslim Brotherhood to join the 2012presidential race, established political parties.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP), led by Abul-Ghar, established itself as a centre-left party while Aboul-Fotouh’s Strong Egypt Party (SEP) promoted a more inclusive version of Islamism than that offered by the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The two parties found common ground in opposing the rule of Mohamed Morsi but subsequently parted ways. The ESDP joined the National Salvation Front (NSF) and supported the 3 July ouster of Morsi while the SE criticized Morsi’s removal as undemocratic.

Unlike the ESDP, which supported the 2014 constitutional amendment and the nomination of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi for president, the SE opposed both measures.

Earlier this month the SE called for a boycott of parliamentary elections, the last step of the roadmap announced on 3 July 2013 by the then-minister of defence Al-Sisi. The ESDP contested the poll.


Abul-Ghar: ‘How else can we fix the political process?’

During the weeks leading up to parliamentary elections, Abul-Ghar repeatedly criticised what he termed “catastrophic state meddling in the preparations for the poll.”

 The leader of the ESDP openly accused the Ministry of Interior and other security bodies of subverting the election process by supporting particular candidates and coalitions and seeking to foment splits in opposing coalitions and dissuade other candidates from standing.

But, he told Al-Ahram Weekly on the eve of the run-offs to the first round of elections, “when it came to the voting process there was no evidence of the kind of flagrant vote rigging that prevailed during elections” held under Mubarak.

Despite its reservations the ESDP, says Abul-Ghar, never seriously considered boycotting the poll since to do so would “only help those in authority who want to eliminate any opposition and take things back to where they were before the 25 January Revolution.”

The ESDP is fielding 60 candidates in the two-round election. Five of the initial batch made it through to run-offs.

Though the ESDP has limited resources, Abul-Ghar believes taking part in the elections against “a challenging political backdrop was certainly the right thing to do.”

“It offered an opportunity to initiate a public debate and challenge the narrative offered by the authorities on a whole range of issues, including the so-called mega-projects and Egypt’s alarming economic situation.”

By fielding candidates, argues Abul-Ghar, the ESDP is seeking not only to establish a young and new political base but to have the voice of its constituency heard in the next parliament.

“When the opposition has been systematically marginalised and demonised, and at a time when the media has turned its back on all opposition figures parliament remains one venue where opposition voices might still be heard,” he says.

“No matter how few its representatives the opposition may still be in a position to raise awareness even if it is limited to a handful of issues.”

He continued, “No one should have been surprised by the low turnout in the first round. It was only to be expected. The public now feels its views are not taken account of in the decision-making process.”

Though “the overriding impression gleaned from the run-up to parliamentary elections is that the objective was simply to engineer a parliament fully supportive of the president” this is not, says Abul-Ghar, an inevitable extension of the 3 July 2013 ouster of Morsi.

Morsi had to go, insists Abul-Ghar, since “otherwise there would have been a possibility of civil war.”

Abul-Ghar traces the beginning of the decline in interest in the voting process to 23 July 2013,when Al-Sisi, as minister of defence, called on the nation — “above the head of the president and the prime minister” — to give the army and the police a free hand to fight terror.

“This was a very disturbing moment for the democratic process. I said it then and I still say it now.”

Apathy towards voting was then compounded by “convoluted election laws” issued despite the objections of almost all political parties and groups. “The law,” says Abul-Ghar, “was tailored to guarantee an inbuilt parliamentary majority that fully supports the president.”

The ESDP leader also points to the “deep anger and frustration of the younger generation, who account for 60 per cent of the population.” He continued, “They were demonised, qualified as a fifth column and traitors, and effectively eliminated from the political scene. Their right to participate in political debate has been undermined by repressive legal measures, not least the demonstration law.”

There are some, warns Abul-Ghar, who believe it is perfectly okay to continue this process of marginalization and ignore the growing reluctance of young people to go to the polls.

“But this would be a disaster. Young people would simply conclude that it pointless to try and promote change or reform through the political process. Sadly, we are going to end with a parliament dominated by a political bloc that openly says its only programme is to support the president.

“It will have a speaker selected by the president even if, for the sake of appearances, he is elected by MPs. And all the legislation passed by the president in the absence of parliament will be rubber-stamped. None of this is going to send a positive message to the younger generation.”

According to Abul-Ghar, any objective reading of the current political scene reveals a popular vote of no confidence in Egypt’s political leadership. Though he compares the “growing authoritarianism” of the authorities to the Mubarak-era, Abul-Ghar is not willing to give up hope.

“While some in the regime are seeking to fully re-introduce the Mubarak state the people are inevitably contesting this,” he says. As evidence, he cites the defeat of National Democratic Party (NDP) heavyweights in electoral districts where they were once unassailable.

It is also a positive sign, argues Abul-Ghar, that five ESDP candidates made it through to the first stage run-offs. “Yes, there is a setback that we cannot deny or overlook, but there is also a firm, I would argue irreversible, change in the public’s mindset,” says Abul-Ghar.

“And this is what distinguishes the first round of parliamentary elections from similar polls under Mubarak. In the past there was a deeply rooted apathy. This time round the refusal to vote should be read as a protest against the return of authoritarianism.”

Abul-Ghar sounds a note of caution. Such a “passive” protest, he says, “could change dramatically, with or without a parliament, should the regime’s economic policies continue unchanged.

“We need new economic policies to avoid a very unfortunate scenario, which is why the party opted to take part in the parliamentary elections. Hopefully we will be able to press for more socially sensitive economic policies within parliament.”

Abul-Fotouh: ‘There is no political process with which to engage’

The leader of the SEP, a presidential runner in the summer of 2012, was always critical of the performance of Mohamed Morsi. “He should not have run for elections in the first place,” says Abul-Fotouh. And even when he did, and won, he remained oblivious to the “attempts by remnants of the Mubarak regime to trap him.”

Abul-Fotouh is just as sceptical of the political process that started on 3 July 2013 “away from the ballot box.” He called for early presidential elections following nationwide anti-Morsi demonstrations on 30 June in which the SEP took part, though the party kept its distance from the NSF because it was “unwilling to rub shoulders with Mubarak regime figures.”

Abul-Fotouh argues that had Morsi been removed from the presidential palace by the ballot box we would not have seen the near empty polling stations that have characterised the parliamentary elections so far.

The manner of Morsi’s removal, says Abul-Fotouh, marked the beginning of the marginalisation of the voting process that has climaxed in the first stage of parliamentary elections.

“What happened on 3 July is that the ballot box was sidelined. Instead of pressing for early presidential elections we had a statement read out by the minister of defence announcing an end to the Morsi presidency and the suspension of the entire political process initiated with the 25 January revolution.”

Abul-Fotouh contends that the 3 July roadmap was “lopsided” right from the beginning. “I take exception to the way Morsi was removed rather than to his removal. We should have insisted he agree to early presidential elections, no matter how long this would have taken.

“I don’t give any credence to arguments suggesting the intervention had to happen immediately to avoid widespread civil strife. What was needed was to hold early presidential elections and then we could have had a vote on every subsequent step.”

Instead, says Abul-Fotouh, Morsi’s ouster was followed by “a rush to have the constitution rewritten by a nonelected committee.” The constitution was then ratified in a referendum, only for calls to be made barely a year later for the constitution to be amended.

“What kind of message does this send to the public about the value of their votes?” asks Abul-Fotouh. The SEP leader argues that people now feel alienated from the decision-making process.

Though far from happy with the roadmap as it was originally announced, Abul-Fotouh is even more critical of the way it was subsequently changed. Legislative elections, it was announced, would be held before presidential elections. Not only was that order reversed, but parliamentary elections have been delayed until now “even when the constitution stipulated no longer than a six-month interval between the two elections.”

He is also critical of the atmosphere in which the poll was called. “The opposition — and I am not just talking about the injustice to which the Muslim Brotherhood is subject — has been systematically intimidated.

“Liberal figures like Amr Hamzawi, who was at the forefront of the opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and who was later critical of what he qualifies as the authoritarianism that followed the 3 July 2013 announcement, have also been vilified.”

 Abdul-Fotouh says “the authorities” have managed to both sideline the masses and stifle the opposition. He refutes any suggestion that the SEP’s decision to boycott the elections was because the party is seen by the public as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, a connection that would prevent its members from winning any seats.

The contention, says Abul-Fotouh, is a media fabrication and — “despite the extensive defamation campaign through the pro-regime media” — the public is aware of the many differences between the SEP and the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We would have considered running in parliamentary elections despite our opposition to the 3 July roadmap had there been a semblance of a serious political process in which to participate. There is not, and we were not prepared to take part in a fictitious process.”

Days before the polls opened the SEP issued a statement calling on people to refrain from casting a vote “to protest the determination of the authorities, as represented in the presidency, to stifle political life and halt the creation of the foundations of a modern democratic state.”

 Like many other political figures, Abul-Fotouh objected to the manner in which the road to parliamentary elections was being paved. He shared the concerns of other political leaders over the framing of election laws which appeared designed to allow the state to “select a made-to-measure parliament rather than to allow the people to elect a representative one.”

He has also criticised “the ongoing media campaign to tarnish the image of the opposition and of the January Revolution and its leaders.”

But, Abul-Fotouh tells the Weekly, his own position is qualitatively different from that of other opposition figures who think the best way to “fix the situation” is to work within the “boundaries that have been set.” They are boundaries, says Abul-Fotouh, that far well short of true democracy.

“During the referendum on the amended constitution SEP members were arrested as they attempted to canvas for a no vote. The results of the presidential elections were a foregone conclusion. Then parliamentary elections were delayed and delayed. Now they are being held under the shadow of intimidation, defamation and intervention.”

Abul-Fotouh warns that in the long run an “unrepresentative parliament” is unlikely to consolidate the “current authoritarian rule” which “has no faith in democracy.”

He expects the next parliament to be as disastrous as the 2010 People’s Assembly, the last to be elected under Mubarak, arguing that the backdrop against which the polls are being held, the profile of most candidates, the election laws and a low voter turnout, are indicative of “the deepening political crisis facing the nation.”

He continues, “The demands of the January Revolution were for democracy, social justice and freedom. The fact that the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood failed all these demands does not mean such hopes can be stifled indefinitely.”

The former presidential contender was a partner to the first-ever candidates’ debate, with Amr Moussa, the former leader of the committee that reworked the constitution following the ouster of Morsi, in the spring of 2012.

The leader of the SEP does not underestimate the support President Al-Sisi commands, nor does he question the patriotism of the military in general. What he does contest is their ability to meet the goals of the January Revolution.

He argues that the outpouring of apathy that has greeted parliamentary elections is an inevitable result of the way politics and politicians have been demonised.

“What elections and what parliament are we talking about when the opposition has been expelled from the political scene and 40,000 political activists in jail?”

When asked, on the eve of first round run-offs, for his take on the elections so far, Abul-Fotouh questioned the turnout figures reported by the Higher Election Committee.

“The real point is that we are faced with a regime that does not want a political process and is pretending to pursue one only to shore up its international legitimacy. This is not about people, which is why the people do not care about the process from beginning to end.”

add comment

  • follow us on