Saturday,21 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Saturday,21 October, 2017
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

‘Prices over the ballot box’

At this moment of political transition in Egypt what counts for both the public and the regime is socio-economic success not elections, political economist Hanaa Ebeid tells Dina Ezzat

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Al-Ahram Weekly

There is very little in the parliamentary elections that is coming as a surprise to Hanaa Ebeid, a political economist and editor of Democracy, a periodical issued by Al-Ahram.

There is also very little, Ebeid told Al-Ahram Weekly on the eve of the campaigning for the second round of the parliamentary elections, that she expects to be significantly different when voters start going to the ballot boxes in the remainder of the country on 22 November.

“I don’t think that what we saw in the first round was unexpected, and I think the next round will be more or the less the same — not just in terms of the turnout but also for the most part in the profile of the elected candidates,” Ebeid said.

Unlike many commentators who have been voicing their concerns about the volume and profile of the turnout in the elections and the composition of the next parliament, Ebeid is offering a more poised reaction.

“I don’t think that traditionally we are a society where parliament is considered by the public or the regime as the most crucial or decisive factor in shaping political developments or the lack thereof,” Ebeid argued.

Ebeid is also convinced that on the particular path of the Egyptian political transition that started on 11 February 2011 when former president Hosni Mubarak bowed to the will of the masses in 18 days of demonstrations and stepped down from power, what is most decisive is not who makes it to parliament but rather how much socio-economic stability the head of state is able to provide for as wide a segment of society as possible.

“I know that people have mocked the loosely offered thesis that some people declined to vote because they were betting for socio-economic stability and consolidated security on the head of the executive almost exclusively, but I do think there is an element of that. This is not just about the image that the president has provided right from the beginning of his political career, but also about a political culture that has not changed much despite the 25 January and 30 June Revolutions,” she said.

According to Ebeid, the tendency now, even among those who were active in the socio-economic protests that led to the 25 January Revolution and beyond, is not to go out onto the streets or take part in political activism or, for that matter, elections.

“It might well be called ‘demonstration fatigue’ or ‘activism fatigue’, but at the end of the day we have independent and credible studies that testify to a declining taste for political activism in Egypt,” she explained.

Even the re-surfacing of limited signs of protests that have been noticed during the past few months are not really about the collective demands that relate to the wider causes championed during the 25 January Revolution of social justice and democracy, she said.

“What we see are what could safely be qualified as basic demands that relate to specific groups” – workers protesting against the decline of their annual income, school students protesting against the grading system, or post-graduate students demanding better employment chances, she said.

“I know that some may argue that these things are inevitably about rights, but I would argue back that they are about the basic rights of particular groups,” she suggested. As a result, Ebeid is not surprised by the lack of interest in the parliamentary elections, which do not necessarily produce an immediate impact on short-term socio-economic interests, “currently the top priority for many people”.

Some have argued that this could be a function of a lack of faith in the affiliation of the next parliament, which some commentators and politicians have gone so far as to qualify as a ‘rubber stamp’ for the decisions of the head of the state. Ebeid says that this may be a factor, but that it is not the only one.

“I know it sounds plain to say so, but the fact of the matter is that we are in a situation in which those who support the regime are placing all their bets on the president personally and those who oppose the regime are simply disillusioned about the political process that started in the summer of 2013 upon the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood from power,” Ebeid said.

The parliamentary elections make up the third, and much-delayed, phase of the road map for transition that was announced on 3 July 2013 by then minister of defence Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi.

It was supposed to be the second phase following the referendum on the amended constitution, but it was delayed during the term of transitional president Adli Mansour, who is now back at his post as head of the Supreme Constitutional Court, in order to allow for the presidential elections that brought Al-Sisi to power.

The long delay of the parliamentary elections was never really contested because it fitted with the growing mood of declining interest in politics in favour of a growing interest in socio-economic developments, Ebeid stated.

This was by definition not productive of the kind of vibrant political momentum that could be reflected in an engaging electoral process. “It did not start today either, as we saw during previous elections. The mood of disengagement might have increased, but this is a function of the prevailing mood. All bets now are on socio-economic achievement,” she argued.

This was the case over a wide spectrum of voters. “It is about the middle and upper-middle classes, but it is also about the more-challenged echelons of society, even if not those who are convinced that they don’t count for anything and that the damage is beyond repair.”

The same thing goes for the well-off, whose main concern is keeping a status quo in which they are unchallenged and remain privileged, and for the business community and other vested-interest groups whose eyes are on the economic choices of the regime and their impact on their fortunes.

This is perhaps why some key businessmen chose to support several candidates and several lists in the parliamentary elections, Ebeid argued. Their support was not a case of black-and-white support for the president, as some have argued, but rather about supporting particular economic choices that they wish to have the president embrace, either through an act of parliament or through parliamentary support, she said.

She agreed that the low turnout following the presidential appeal to people to join the electoral process was an indicator that the ability of the president to rally the masses was not high. This could prompt the head of the executive to put more efforts into improving his socio-economic performance, on which many had high – “maybe too high” — expectations, she said.

Ebeid is reluctantly willing to accept that the “somewhat confused” electoral system and the frail political presence of the political parties added to the factors that produced what most commentators have seen as an unimpressive turnout in the first parliamentary elections following the 3 July Revolution.

She also agrees that the voting was largely an exercise in public relations and one in which candidates who had the support of public figures were more likely to gain votes in areas where family and tribal influence was not strongly present.

In electoral constituencies that family notables were bound to contest and win, it was family power balances that had decided the fate of the electoral process “as usual,” she said. It is almost strictly in this context that Ebeid seems to understand the reasons behind the return of faces from the pre-25 January Revolution ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

“But let us be realistic — we don’t have the pre-requisites of a real electoral process, what the transitionalists would call a family feud, because we do not have a society possessing opposing political groups, especially as a result of the absence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has traditionally been seen as the most influential opposition factor,” Ebeid said.

“So there is no clear body politic and no high demand for democracy. It is a moment when prices have taken over from the ballot box and when legitimacy is secured through economic success and not through contesting parliamentary seats,” she argued.

This is reflected in the electoral process and the elected MPs, and it will also be reflected in the performance and priorities of the next parliament, Ebeid said.

This may focus on expanding presidential prerogatives through constitutional amendments, as has been suggested in several political quarters recently, or it may be biased towards an egalitarian socio-economic agenda, “which would be highly questionable in view of the upcoming negotiations for a loan from the IMF,” she commented.

Ebeid disagrees with those commentators who have argued that a parliament that is not particularly representative of the diverse segments of society might prompt a fast return of public protests. The return of public protests, in the collective sense of the word, would be bound up with the socio-economic performance over the coming months, she said.

“If there is a turn towards improving services and lowering prices overall, then I am not really expecting an immediate resurfacing of the public protests, not even if there are questionable developments in the field of freedoms,” Ebeid said.

She is not willing , however, to disagree that this is a setback to democratisation in Egypt.

“A transition goes through phases. In one phase, there may be an overwhelming state of uncertainty, and I guess this is where we are today. It is therefore very hard to predict the next move, either for the regime or for the masses,” Ebeid concluded.

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