Controlled Reform in Egypt

Neither Reformist nor Controlled

by Issandr El Amrani | published December 15, 2005

Noha al-Zeiny’s article is available online.

For background on the presidential election, see Mariz Tadros,
Egypt’s Election All About Image, Almost,
Middle East Report Online, September 6, 2005.

See also Mona El-Ghobashy,
Egypt Looks Ahead to Portentous Year,
Middle East Report Online, February 2, 2005.

Drawn out over five weeks in November and December 2005, Egypt’s parliamentary elections gripped a country normally jaded about formal politics—and produced some surprising results. While the ruling National Democratic Party retained a large majority of seats in the legislature when the votes were counted, more than half of its candidates went down to defeat. The secular opposition parties, already weak, were crushed, losing most of their seats. Candidates associated with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, surged to an unexpectedly strong showing. These developments, along with rampant vote buying and violence that claimed the lives of 11 people and wounded hundreds more, kept Egyptians accustomed to yawning at the country’s electoral exercises glued to the television screen.

The parliamentary elections were to have been the ultimate test of the government’s commitment, after a year of disappointing false starts, to its promises of a “democratic flowering” in Egypt. If the government’s conduct during the polling justified skepticism about the prospects of top-down political reform, so did the government’s inability to engineer the outcome as completely as in the past. If the regime’s path to reform is advertised as controlled political liberalization, the elections have shown the path to be neither controlled nor truly reformist. For a small, but increasingly influential group of Egyptian liberals worried by the prospects of authoritarian regression and/or a strengthened Islamist movement over the coming decade, the elections point to the regime’s failure at managing the reform agenda. They may now look for a solution elsewhere.

Pseudo-Reforms

Starting in the early months of 2005, the Egyptian regime stepped up an effort to soften its authoritarian image. The “reform” agenda has been set by President Husni Mubarak himself, beginning with his startling announcement on February 26 that he would ask Parliament to amend Article 76 of the constitution to allow for the first multi-candidate presidential election in the country’s history. Even hardened opposition figures had to cheer, despite what most, even then, regarded as the foregone conclusion that in September Mubarak would win a fifth term in office.

By the time the People’s Assembly had agreed upon wording for the amendment, however, much of the initial enthusiasm had evaporated. The amendment, which passed a national referendum on May 25, placed stringent restrictions on who could run for the presidency, practically barring the door to independent candidates, and, beyond the 2005 election, rendering it exceedingly difficult for candidates from the small “legal” opposition parties to get the necessary number of endorsements from elected officials. Leading opposition figures and even some liberal members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) expressed their dismay.

Moreover, the conduct of the referendum was flawed in two important respects. Though the regime had intended to broadcast the image of a democratizing Egypt, the lasting visuals captured by local and international media depicted the violence with which pro-NDP thugs attacked anti-Mubarak protesters, including women, outside polling stations. Second, the official turnout figure of 54 percent was called into question by civil society organizations and the independent and opposition press, which ran accounts of voters casting multiple ballots and other irregularities. On July 2, the Judges’ Club—the professional syndicate of the Egyptian bench that has been vocally campaigning for greater judicial independence—issued a report confirming that turnout figures had been manipulated to exaggerate public backing for the amendment. The judges noted that, in several constituencies, turnout had been officially registered at 100 percent. In the terse words of the report: “Nobody died, nobody traveled, nobody was sick, had to work or was too lazy to go to vote?”

The controversy over the referendum was followed by a heated battle in the People’s Assembly over amendments to the laws governing, among other things, the formation of political parties, political fundraising and access to electoral information. Law 175 of 2005, which amended Law 38 of 1972, concerned the election directly. In it the government responded to long-standing demands of the opposition, notably stressing that security services should not interfere in elections, banning electioneering in government offices and confirming the judiciary’s right to monitor balloting. As in other laws, however, the NDP added provisions that seemed targeted at the Muslim Brotherhood, such as proscribing the use of mosques or prayer sites in campaigns. These laws were rushed through Parliament in late June with little attempt at discussion with the opposition, which protested both the laws’ content and the manner in which they were passed.

More at Stake

Swallowing their disappointment at these pseudo-reforms, the opposition mobilized for the parliamentary elections, in which they knew a great deal was at stake. The newly amended Article 76 and the new electoral laws had established a prerequisite for government-recognized parties that wanted to field a candidate in future presidential elections: control of at least 5 percent of the People’s Assembly.

Beyond that, in the July 20 speech launching his campaign, Mubarak had pledged to move ahead with important political reforms in 2006, notably replacement of the emergency law in place since 1981 with anti-terror legislation (another goal long pursued by the opposition) and introduction of measures increasing the powers of Parliament at the expense of the presidency. While the presence of a larger opposition bloc would not necessarily guarantee that the opposition would be listened to—the NDP was still certain to control enough seats to pass any law it wanted—an opposition united in its demands could at least contribute to debates and highlight the inadequacies of the regime’s legislation.

Officially, the NDP itself encouraged the participation of the opposition. But the ruling party’s new leadership, under the president’s son, Gamal Mubarak, faced a dilemma. On the one hand, the younger Mubarak had justified his entry into party politics after the 2000 elections on the grounds that declared NDP candidates had fared poorly against “independents”—party members who quit before the elections only to “rejoin” after winning seats. In 2000, in fact, official NDP candidates obtained only 38 percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, and the party only achieved its 90 percent majority when the so-called independents “rejoined.” In some cases, the “independents” belonged to factions at odds with the party leadership; in others, they were people who simply wanted the seat and were confident they would be taken into the NDP fold to pad its majority. Gamal had to prove that he and his coterie of “reformists” could not only improve the party’s image, but also win elections under the NDP banner. On the other hand, domestic and foreign pressure dictated that opposition forces occupy a greater number of seats in the next parliament; a return to 90 percent NDP control of the People’s Assembly would be described as a farce no matter how clean the contests.

Before the elections, therefore, there was a general expectation that while the NDP would do well, it would no longer command an overwhelming majority. When party spokesman Muhammad Kamal was asked what score he would like to achieve, for instance, he set the low standard of anything above the official 38 percent of 2000. It was expected that the Muslim Brotherhood would make gains. (Though the group is officially “illegal” and cannot run candidates under its own name, in the last several elections “independents” with widely known Brotherhood affiliations have run.) In statements to the press prior to the elections, the organization’s supreme guide, Muhammad Mahdi Akif, predicted that Brotherhood hopefuls would win 50-70 seats, whereas NDP officials did not expect them to win more than 40 seats. It was also expected that secular opposition parties, two of which had together secured about 10 percent of the vote in the presidential election, would increase their presence in Parliament.

These expectations, combined with the bolstered legal authority given to supervising judges and the introduction of phosphorus ink and transparent ballot boxes at polling stations, led to a general impression that the 2005 parliamentary elections would be freer and fairer than their precedents. This feeling was reinforced by the release of hundreds of Muslim Brothers detained since May 2005 and the fact that, unlike in 2000, none of the Brotherhood’s campaigners were arrested in the runup to the first round. On the eve of the elections, Essam al-Erian, a senior Muslim Brother, told Middle East Report that there was not a single member of the Brotherhood in prison for the first time since 1995.

Thugs and a Whistleblower

In practice, during the first round of the elections, held on November 9 with a runoff on November 15, there was markedly less violence and obstruction by security forces than on previous occasions. Incidents of violence did take place, but apparently at the behest of individual candidates who hired thugs to beat up on their opponents’ supporters. A far more serious problem was widespread fraud. Independent monitors and journalists reported dozens of cases where public-sector employees were bussed in en masse, as well as confusion about and manipulation of registered voters lists, and open vote buying. Some reports had would-be voters promising to support certain candidates in exchange for canned food or soft drinks.

Many Egyptian commentators were scandalized to see this chaos, blaming it on the fierce competition for seats and soaring campaign spending, notably by independent businessmen allied with the NDP, but also by the Muslim Brotherhood. “The Muslim Brotherhood uses religion to impose itself while the NDP buys votes to maintain its control of Parliament against the people’s wishes,” noted Abd al-Halim Qandil, editor-in-chief of the Nasserist weekly al-‘Arabi. “A seat in Parliament is the best investment in Egypt: one million spent on a campaign will generate ten million after the election of the candidate, who will use his position to make corrupt gains.”

But aside from the cheating, a second trend was emerging: while they were not interfering with the balloting, security forces were guilty of “passive neutrality”—in other words, deliberate failure to intervene to stop those candidates carrying out the fraud and violence, who tended to come from the NDP.
With first-round results showing that the Muslim Brotherhood had already doubled its number of seats, the regime’s tactics began to shift. Analysts had predicted that the Brotherhood would fare better in the second and third rounds, which were held in districts where it is popular. The first part of the second round, held on November 20, saw the beginning of massive interference by security forces, notably the Central Security riot control troops, which escalated during the runoff of November 26. State violence was selectively employed; some NDP candidates received more help than others. The most egregious incidents took place in the Delta town of Damanhour, even though there were more fatalities in Alexandria.

By the third round, the regime was resorting—again, only in selected constituencies—to closing polling stations altogether, on the grounds that “disruptive elements” were causing violence. According to eyewitnesses, election monitors, judges, and independent and opposition press reports, violence was being caused either by hired goons or voters responding to attacks by Central Security troops. In the meantime, the state press—which since the presidential election had begun to paint a fairer picture of opposition politics—adopted the Interior Ministry’s official stance that the violence was mostly caused by supporters of the Muslim Brothers. In the words of a representative Interior Ministry statement: “The incidents of violence witnessed during the election were the product of various candidates, in particular Islamists, and the strict neutrality of the security forces, so strict that they were even accused of ‘passive neutrality.’ These incidents required that security forces respond sternly to restore order and secure the electoral process…. [Our warnings] went unheeded by various candidates and their supporters, in particular Islamists, who insisted on abusing the unprecedented climate of freedom which the country is witnessing.”

Although independent newspapers, particularly al-Masri al-Yawm, were reporting daily on violations ignored by the state media, it was one account that finally blew the lid off the official story. In its November 24 edition, al-Masri al-Yawm carried a front-page article by Noha al-Zeiny, a legal officer who supervised the Damanhour election. Zeiny told of the many procedural and other violations carried out by the NDP and security forces. According to Hisham Kassem, the newspaper’s publisher, her article had to be reprinted for three consecutive days because issues were selling out so quickly. The paper subsequently increased its print run and received many letters by other whistleblowers wanting to give their testimony. The article also prompted a statement, signed by 120 judges, attesting that the violations described by Zeiny were common in other constituencies.

Although the third-round runoff on December 8, during which at least eight people were reported killed in altercations with security forces, would prove that a climate of violence and intimidation had taken over the elections, Zeiny’s whistleblower article was the tipping point in public opinion. Magdi Mehanna, the liberal columnist in al-Masri al-Yawm, concluded that “whatever the result of the parliamentary elections, it is now clear that the violence and bias of the security forces have seriously dampened political reform in Egypt.”

A Ruling Party in Crisis?

On the surface, the NDP has emerged yet again as the dominant party in Parliament, with 316 seats, or about 73 percent of the total. This super-majority not only allows the NDP to pass any law it wants (assuming party discipline), but also gives it enough votes to approve constitutional amendments, lift the parliamentary immunity of individual MPs and empower the executive branch to approve major contracts (particularly defense contracts), among other prerogatives. Whatever is planned for the “reform” process in 2006, then, will presumably be under the firm control of the NDP.

Technically, however, the ruling party lost the elections. Exactly as in the 2000 legislative elections, NDP candidates only obtained 38 percent of the seats—in other words, only 149 out of 444 NDP candidates actually prevailed in their respective races. The remaining 167 seats belong to NDP members who were not selected as official candidates but ran nonetheless as “independents.” The irony is that, for several years, the revamped NDP of Gamal Mubarak had claimed that it would no longer tolerate “rebels” challenging its favorites. Gamal had also himself insisted on the need to bring new blood into the party that would appeal to voters more than the entrenched apparatchiks.

In the runup to the election, the NDP made a big show of its democratic and scientific candidate selection process, even requiring prospective candidates to take an exam to determine their suitability for office. In reality, a small cabal of party leaders—from both the new and old guards—handpicked the slate. In some respects, the “new NDP” stuck to its promises: when Husni Mubarak, in his capacity as party president, announced the NDP’s list on October 13, 136 of the party’s 444 candidates were new faces, something party leaders pointed to as proof of their seriousness about internal democracy. But these claims were belied by frequent reports in the independent press of disagreements among senior party leaders over which candidates to pick. Later, during the elections, there followed accusations that some members of the old guard were backing rebel “independents” against the party’s official candidates.

The problem became obvious in the Qasr al-Nil district in central Cairo, where the incumbent Hossam Badrawi, often considered one of the few true liberals in the Gamal Mubarak camp, was defeated by “independent” Hisham Mustafa Khalil. Badrawi had been one of the most vocal advocates of barring independents from rejoining the party before the election, and even engaged in a public spat with party spokesman Muhammad Kamal over the issue. He is believed to be disliked by the old guard, which was rumored to have backed Khalil, and is one of the few NDP members to talk openly of the need to remove what he says are “corrupt” elements of the ruling party.

“It was my opinion that we should not allow the independents back, even if it meant fewer seats,” said Abd al-Moneim Said, a political scientist and a pro-reform member of the Policies Secretariat—the NDP’s “think tank.” “That would have made the NDP smaller but much stronger and more appealing to other political forces, with which it could have made a coalition.” That sentiment was echoed by key figures in the Egyptian intellectual establishment, such as influential al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmad Salama. But it has largely been ignored by the leaders of the party’s old guard, notably Secretary-General Safwat al-Sharif, who led the effort to draw the independents back into the fold—in some cases, without even asking for their permission beforehand. For the first time, some who ran as independents have said they will not rejoin the party.

This issue clearly divided the reformist camp of the NDP, many of whom are now grumbling about being ignored by the party’s leadership. Yet in the elections, it tended to be the old guard, who are associated with the party’s reputation for corruption, who lost. The 2005 parliamentary elections saw the fall, among others, of senior NDP members such as Ahmad Rashed, the dean of Alexandria University, Yusuf Wali, once a powerful minister of agriculture, and Amin Mubarak, a relative of the president. Official NDP candidates won no seats in three governorates (Suez, Ismailiyya and Matruh) and very few in three others (Sohag, Dahqaliyya and Qina). More generally, the 2005 elections have seen the entry of first-time politicians to the People’s Assembly: 77.5 percent of elected MPs are new arrivals, with only 98 incumbents reelected. The vast majority of those who lost were NDP members.

Overall, the performance of the NDP in the 2005 elections suggests that little has changed since 2000. Although new bodies such as the Policies Secretariat have attracted a few genuine liberals, the political machine remains in the hands of a sclerotic elite. The NDP, in other words, remains mostly a party of opportunists who join it for access to state resources and regime networks. Gamal Mubarak’s purported efforts at “party building,” hailed in the past three annual party conferences and in the aftermath of the presidential election, have been revealed as hollow. The younger Mubarak’s role is now a central problem, as it is unlikely that the NDP will ever evolve into a real party as long as it is considered by the regime to be an extension of the presidency. This is most clearly evident in the fact that key personalities responsible for the elections (from both the old and new guards) are expected to remain in place despite their poor performance.

Triumph of the Muslim Brothers

he Muslim Brotherhood’s success at the ballot box does not merely reflect the growing popularity of the Islamist group. It also marks a fundamental change in the Brotherhood’s strategy; the group is now working toward active political participation, rather than merely seeking to survive. In a January 2, 2005 interview with al-Masri al-Yawm, Supreme Guide Akif all but endorsed the reelection of Mubarak, even invoking the Qur’anic principle of wilayat al-amr, which says that Muslims should obey their leader. That spring, a rift seemed to be widening between Akif’s cautious older generation of Brothers and the more assertive “middle generation” who made inroads into professional syndicates and Parliament in the 1980s and 1990s.

The assertive tendency won out. While other parties focused on the presidential election, the Muslim Brotherhood, its network of supporters and campaigners out of jail, set about building grassroots support for the legislative contests. As analyst Mohammed El-Sayed Said noted, the group began lavishing money on charity and social projects during the month of Ramadan, a few weeks before voting commenced. Although, as Akif pointed out, the Brotherhood competed in fewer than 170 constituencies, it put up a vigorous fight wherever it campaigned. It is a testament to the group’s popularity and organizational skills that it managed to win 12 seats in the third round, despite the security forces’ closure of polling stations and targeting of Brothers for arrest. By the end of the balloting, Akif claimed, at least 1,300 of the group’s supporters had been detained.

The Brotherhood’s attention to planning went beyond electioneering. As it became clear that the next People’s Assembly would contain a large Islamist contingent, the Brotherhood launched a media offensive to assuage fears that it has hostile intentions toward secularists and Christians. The campaign came partly in response to wild alarmism in much of the Egyptian press (state-owned, opposition and independent), as well as concerns voiced by prominent Copts, notably intellectual Milad Hanna’s prediction, in the quasi-official daily al-Ahram, that many wealthy Copts would leave Egypt rather than accept a Brotherhood-dominated government. Brotherhood spokesmen appeared for the first time on Egyptian state television, as well as on pan-Arab satellite channels, and published editorials in the Arab and international press, seeking to reassure the world, as the November 23 Guardian headline put it, that there is “no need to be afraid of us.” In these interviews and articles, senior Brothers repeated again and again that they are committed to the democratic process and want to focus on political reform, rather than the Islamization of Egypt.

A meeting with the press to introduce the Brotherhood’s 88 new MPs began with a Qur’anic recitation, but then moved to chants of “Reform!” The guests of honor were Aziz Sidqi, a former prime minister who has formed a nominally secular reform movement with the Brotherhood, and Rafiq Habib, a Coptic politician formerly associated with the post-Islamist al-Wasat movement. Akif told those gathered that he would instruct the MPs to push for democratic reforms, chiefly reducing the powers of the presidency and placing a term limit on the head of state. Most strikingly, he also announced in an interview with the independent weekly al-Dustur that he will soon seek to modify the Brotherhood’s internal regulations to limit the term served by the supreme guide to four or five years, renewable once. The supreme guide currently enjoys a lifetime appointment.

Brotherhood leaders have also stated unambiguously, for the first time, that they seek to formalize their political role by creating, after a change in current legislation, a political party that would exist separately from the traditional da‘wa (proselytizing and charity) functions of the organization. Confirming what many long suspected, the 2005 elections have enthroned the Brotherhood as Egypt’s second political force and only truly effective party.

Bipolarity

he secular opposition parties introduced after the abolition of the single-party system in 1977 were not set up to perform well, as they are led by aging, uncharismatic autocrats and lack the money and organizational skills of the NDP and the Brothers. The scant voter enthusiasm for established opposition leaders was clear after the presidential election, when Numan Gumaa, head of the liberal Wafd Party, finished third with less than 3 percent of the vote, despite being described by the state press as Mubarak’s only serious opponent.

The Ghad Party headed by former Wafdist politician Ayman Nour might have been an exception if half of its senior leadership had not rebelled, apparently at the behest of the NDP, throwing the party into disarray. Nour, who is currently on trial on trumped-up election fraud charges and is likely to receive a prison sentence on December 24, lost his seat in Cairo’s Bab al-Shar‘iyya district. The NDP clearly devoted much effort to humiliating Nour, appointing a former police general as its candidate in his district to intimidate Nour supporters, and, according to reports by election monitors, illegally registering over 2,000 pro-NDP voters on the day of the election.

Other prominent oppositionists were also defeated, including Khalid Muhi al-Din, leader of the “legal left” Tagammu Party and Munir Fakhri Abd al-Nour, head of the Wafdist parliamentary delegation. Only the Wafd managed to keep its strength in parliament, with six seats, while the Tagammu won two and the rebel faction of Ghad and the Ahrar Party each garnered one. For the first time since its formation in 1977, the Nasserist Party did not win a single seat, although a breakaway faction, Karama (which is still in the process of forming a party), did win two seats. Although to a less spectacular extent than the Brotherhood, legal opposition candidates also suffered from fraud and election-day thuggery.

Alongside the rise of the Brotherhood, these paltry results—a total of 12 seats for the legal opposition, Karama included—underline the need for reform inside the opposition parties. Abd al-Nour of the Wafd has already been dismissed from the party after he called for Gumaa’s resignation. He is believed to have the backing of other senior Wafdists, who have protested his sacking. Nasserist leader Dia’ al-Din Da’ud has announced that he will not stand again in the party’s internal elections, which were brought forward as rumors of major splits in the party emerged. Other parties are likely to see similar clashes along ideological and generational lines in the coming months.

The implosion of the secular opposition, the likely demise of Ghad if Nour is imprisoned, and resentment among NDP liberals has led to renewed speculation that a new party gathering reformists from across the political spectrum could coalesce. In light of the disappointment with the NDP’s handling of the election and secular Muslim and Coptic trepidation about the Brotherhood, such a party could unite the opposition more effectively than the halfhearted attempt at a “National Front” before the election, particularly if this party could draw the support of leading businessmen who are unhappy with the NDP. The travails of Ayman Nour throughout 2005 have sent a chilling message to would-be liberal leaders that the regime will not tolerate the emergence of a populist-liberal alternative; however, a personality of greater stature than Nour’s could yet emerge from the debris of the legal opposition.

For the time being, however, the 2005 parliamentary elections have created a bipolar dynamic in Egyptian politics pitting the NDP against the Muslim Brotherhood both under the rotunda of the People’s Assembly and in the marketplace of clientelism and patronage. Both sides are bidding for the reformist mantle, but in light of the NDP’s recent conduct and the Brotherhood’s efforts to moderate its discourse, the Islamists are currently making the more convincing case. For Egypt’s secular-minded leftists and liberals, this is the most dangerous scenario: their place as a nominal alternative to the status quo has been usurped, leaving them on the outside looking in.

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