Damanhour by Hook and by Crook

by Joshua Stacher
published in MER238

On a November day in the sleepy Egyptian Delta town of Damanhour, around 1,000 townsfolk gathered in the central square to listen to Mustafa al-Fiqqi of the ruling National Democratic Party explain why they should vote for him as their parliamentary representative in two days’ time. Al-Fiqqi is a former ambassador to Austria and serves on the National Council for Human Rights. Prior to the 2005 elections, he was one of ten MPs appointed to their seats by President Husni Mubarak. But many locals were unimpressed with the national prominence of this native son, who had not come home very often since leaving for Cairo some 40 years before. Some in the square grumbled that he had only shown up to campaign two months prior to the polls.

The rally was desultory. Young loyalists wearing flashy name badges adorned with al-Fiqqi’s picture shepherded the unorganized crowd to their places. State television trucks beamed the candidate’s visage throughout Egypt. The lights went out around his campaign tent just over an hour later.

Across the square, my contact in the Muslim Brotherhood guided me by the hand to the front of the rally for al-Fiqqi’s main opponent, Gamal Hishmat. “Brothers, if you please,” murmured the suited organizers, and a sea of boosters parted on command, many smiling their welcome. Hishmat had lost the seat for Damanhour in January 2003, during a rerun of the 2000 elections that was plagued by fraud.

The Hishmat rally lasted for three hours, as at least 6,000 sex-segregated supporters piled into an alleyway forking off from the square. ‘Ali Fath al-Bab, a Brotherhood-affiliated MP from Helwan south of Cairo, captured the mood: “I always ask my constituents, ‘Why do you vote for the government?’ They look at me and respond, ‘Because of the services.’ It always makes me counter, ‘What services?’ There are many outstanding problems such as housing, unemployment and unstable prices.” Following the rally, a raucous march through Damanhour’s streets lasted for nearly an additional hour. “Gamal Hishmat, go and see,” marchers chanted. “This time there’ll be no forgery!”

“I am popular here because of family ties, my work as a university professor and medical doctor, my syndicate activities, and as a Muslim Brother,” the soft-spoken Hishmat said in an interview, eschewing the Islamist rhetoric of some Muslim Brotherhood politicians. “I think people respect the social work, but they appreciate that I am accessible.” A sign outside his offices advertises that he is available to meet with residents of Damanhour two hours a day, five days a week -- and signs of his genuine popularity are hard to miss. On the morning of the election, supporters encircled Hishmat as he visited a polling station across the street from his modest apartment block. Men shook his hand, while veiled women ululated as if celebrating a wedding or a child’s birth. Hishmat’s campaign symbol was a tank, ironically enough, and on this day he seemed unstoppable.

Little did anyone know then that the contest in Damanhour would be the race that symbolized the 2005 parliamentary elections. Stinging from the Muslim Brothers’ successes in the elections’ first round, by the time Damanhour’s second round came up, the Egyptian regime was resorting to violence and intimidation to maintain a majority for the ruling party.

On election day, I accompanied Hishmat and ten others on a tour of polling centers in rural areas outside of Damanhour. Mid-morning, the Brothers received a phone call telling of clashes near the Salim al-Bishri school, a polling station in town. Two plainclothes state security officers followed on motorbikes as Hishmat’s entourage drove hurriedly to the scene. When we pulled up, we found truckloads of members of the Central Security Forces -- the black-clad riot police deployed like clockwork at every sign of public assemblies frowned upon by the state -- but they were sitting idle.

Broken glass, however, was everywhere -- evidence of the violence that had preceded our arrival. Pointing to the shattered shop windows, townspeople yelled, “This is Mubarak! Understand his democracy? This is why we are voting for Hishmat!” Others told of how prisoners at the local police stations had been released and told to intimidate voters physically. As proof, they produced cans of beans and cheese, stamped “Reserved for the Interior Ministry,” that they had taken off the thugs. Why had the attackers left? At the polling center’s entrance, Brotherhood sympathizers surrounded me and explained. “No one was here [to observe] in 2003. Damanhour was under military occupation while the government cheated Hishmat. We are not going to let that happen again.”

Shortly thereafter, a bus arrived bearing Alexandria license plates and several al-Fiqqi supporters. Bussing in people from outside an electoral district, often workers in state-owned factories who are paid token sums for their illegal votes, is a staple tactic of the ruling party for swaying elections in its favor. In this instance, the unsuspecting ringers did not stand a chance. Rocks immediately flew in from all directions, and the bus sped away.

Thuggery and bussing having failed, by mid-afternoon, the Central Security Forces disembarked from their trucks to close off the streets leading to the ballot boxes. One man who broke through the cordon was held up by a senior officer, who demanded, “Where are you going?” The man, almost flippant, responded, “I am with you.” The officer nodded, and the man was released to vote.

As the sun set on Damanhour, state security was pitted against society in intense street battles. In the district of Abu Rish, the whiff of tear gas in the air, would-be voters looked down the street at squads of riot police blocking access to another polling center. They became emboldened at the sight of Hishmat arriving to survey the scene.

The security forces lobbed tear gas canisters to disperse the reenergized crowd. As the noxious white fumes hissed out, women using their headscarves to cover their noses and mouths emerged on their balconies to toss onions (which reduce the effects of the gas) down to the coughing citizens seeking shelter in shops and ground-level offices. It seemed that the residents of Abu Rish had done this before. As soon as the gas dissipated, they returned to the streets even angrier. Many donned black-and-white kaffiyyas and shouted, “We are under occupation! Treat them like Israelis!” Kids collected stones to return fire, and another round of gas ensued. A man brought me a spent canister; it was labeled “Made in USA” in capital letters.

Another man on a bike peddled in front of my car to guide me to the polling station the riot police were protecting from the voters. It looked more like a military barracks, with 14 troop trucks and a tank-like vehicle parked outside. Since I am obviously a foreigner, I entered easily. A Justice Ministry employee inside claimed that residents were voting unmolested. He said he had no knowledge of what was happening in the streets. Egyptian polling stations are supposed to be monitored by judges, but electoral laws allow the state to employ other Justice Ministry employees, including state prosecutors, for the purpose of supervising balloting. Generally, these employees of the executive branch are more susceptible to regime pressure than Egypt’s independent-minded bench judges. Often, as in Damanhour, races the regime expects to be close are assigned to non-judges for monitoring, while the bench judges end up watching races that are locks for the ruling party.

The bicyclist stayed close to the car window as I drove away. He said there was no such thing as democracy, and he refused to vote because he knew it was more trouble than it was worth. As I entered the main square, we exchanged niceties. With complete sincerity, he bid me farewell: “Welcome to Damanhour. Come again.”

That night, Hishmat supporters and Brothers gathered outside the ballot counting station, while Hishmat’s representatives inside watched the simultaneous, individual counts. With 28 ballot boxes remaining, I was told by phone after midnight, Hishmat was ahead, 25,000 to 7,000.

The following morning, however, the news spread that al-Fiqqi had defeated Hishmat. Residents of Damanhour showed up at Hishmat’s apartment to argue that the result should not be left to stand. Hishmat proscribed violent responses, and assured his supporters that the Muslim Brothers would live to compete another day.

Days later, Nuha al-Zayni, a Justice Ministry election monitor (and not a judge) wrote a front-page article in the independent daily al-Masri al-Yawm that supported the Brothers’ claim that the Damanhour result was fictional. Al-Zayni’s testimony was supported by 137 of her peers, but those who call the shots in certifying elections failed to react. Instead, the Higher Elections Commission issued a directive saying that judges who talked to the media about the elections were violating the law. Hishmat appealed to the Commission, but he was rejected.

Hishmat argued that Damanhour remained without the parliamentary representation it had lost in 2003 when the NDP-dominated parliament stripped him of his seat and called a special rerun of the Damanhour race. In a Cairo press conference, he challenged al-Fiqqi to “go walk the streets and meet your constituents. Can you look them in the eye?” Al-Fiqqi replied that he would not dignify the allegations of ill-gotten electoral gains with a response.

In his campaign speeches, al-Fiqqi assured the people of Damanhour that he would resign should his victory in the election be tainted by fraud. As the “president’s candidate,” he explained, he could not compromise the reputation of the highest office in the land. Nonetheless, on December 17, 2005, al-Fiqqi walked into the rotunda that houses the Egyptian People’s Assembly and took his seat as Damanhour’s representative.

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