The Liquidation of Egypt's Illiberal Experiment

by Mona El-Ghobashy | published December 29, 2010

The Egyptian parliamentary elections that ended on December 5 defied expectations, not because the ruling National Democratic Party again dominates Parliament but because of the lengths to which it proved willing to go to engineer its monopoly. Official and unofficial ruling-party candidates garnered 93.3 percent of the seats in the national assembly, while marginal opposition parties received 3 percent and the Muslim Brothers got a lone seat to be occupied by a member who would not abide by the Brothers’ boycott of the runoff. While these results are identical to the outcome of the 1995 elections, the reaction this time has been much more severe.

Egyptian and international observers with no known sympathies for the opposition have condemned the conduct and outcome of the polls. Moderate political analyst ‘Amr al-Shubaki of the establishment al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies called it “the worst election in Egypt’s history.” [1] US spokesmen expressed “dismay” and “disappointment” at irregularities, in a collective throwing up of hands that reportedly goes to the very top of the State Department. Prominent National Democratic Party (NDP) member Hamdi al-Sayyid, who was ousted from the seat he had held since 1979, fumed, “The fraud perpetrated against me was systematic. They deserve a Ph.D. in rigging.” [2]

The outcome of the elections unsettled a widely held belief about the Egyptian regime: It tolerates a smidgen of parliamentary opposition to disarm domestic and international critics. Indeed, the longevity of President Husni Mubarak’s rule is often attributed to omniscient political manipulation that makes clever use of opposition, even creating it at times, but never permitting it to threaten the powers that be. The regime employed the results of the 2005 elections, when the opposition secured an unprecedented 25 percent of parliamentary seats, to signal that continued pressure upon Egypt to democratize would only bring fearsome Islamists to power. If British colonial officials wary of bumptious nationalists ended Egypt’s “liberal experiment” in 1936, one might say that the Mubarak cabal has halted the illiberal experiment, a second, less substantive venture into partial parliamentary politics. The 2010 contest’s liquidation of all credible parliamentary opposition, both secular and religious, raises two main questions: Why did the government abandon its previous modus operandi? And where does the shift leave the opposition, fragmented and hobbled in the best of circumstances, and now robbed of its tenuous parliamentary toehold?

A common answer to the first question is that Mubarak and his inner circle are consolidating their forces in anticipation of a choreographed transfer of presidential power, most likely to the aging president’s son Gamal. But the NDP’s total lock on Parliament has less to do with securing the impending presidential transition and more to do with cordoning off the legislature from bottom-up demands for representation. It would not be the first time an Egyptian regime has tried this gambit since multi-party legislative elections were restored in 1976. In 1979, the year of the Camp David peace deal with Israel, Anwar al-Sadat increased repression to return an assembly cleansed of credible critics; in 1995, Mubarak did the same thing. The experiences of the outgoing parliament’s session have made Egypt’s ruling cartel wary of normalizing a legislative opposition at a time of economic restructuring and widespread ferment in society. Rather than expand representative channels to absorb collective grievances, the regime is opting to close off all the outlets.

“Rigging with a Hint of Elections”

Elections are fraught moments for narrow ruling coalitions, particularly if they occur amidst heightened social demands for representation and redistribution of wealth. By definition, authoritarian cartels cannot win elections fair and square, so they carefully game the rules and use state violence to return legislatures mirroring their own interests rather than a fair sampling of interest groups in society. The 2010 elections were especially challenging for the Egyptian regime. The polls came at a time of aggressive economic transformation, with disadvantaged social sectors and their aspiring representatives seeking greater inclusion in state institutions. And they unfolded in an atmosphere of intense public anger about corruption scandals involving figures at the peak of the regime. To forestall the recruitment into Parliament of outsiders and wild cards riding the wave of discontent, the ruling clique resorted to its reliable tool kit of electoral skullduggery. Muhammad Badi‘, leader of the Muslim Brothers, quipped, “These were not elections with rigging; it was rather rigging with a hint of elections.” [3]

Manipulating the rules was the name of the game. Election management was wrested from judges and returned to civil servants, under the aegis of a Higher Election Commission with no real authority beyond the task of announcing election returns. Judicial supervision of the 2000 and 2005 elections had reined in the notoriously inflated turnout figures and vote counts of Egyptian elections past. [4] Judicial oversight of both voting and ballot counting increased the credibility of the elections, energized opposition participation and led to incrementally more representative legislatures. The rollback of full judicial supervision was thus a key plank in the regime’s preparation for the 2010 polls. A Wikileaks cable summarizing a 2005 meeting between Gamal Mubarak and Elizabeth Cheney, then a State Department official with responsibility for Middle East democracy promotion, says that Mubarak “blamed the low turnout in the presidential election (about 7 million voters or 23 percent) on overzealous judges supervising the September 7 ballot who had, allegedly, refused to allow more than one voter at a time into polling stations, and thereby diminished turnout.”

The meaning of ending judicial supervision was made immediately clear on election day. If the iconic image from the 2005 elections showed elderly female voters climbing makeshift ladders to enter polling stations blocked off by police but staffed by judges, the defining image from 2010 was a surreptitiously shot four-minute video of a voter-free polling station in the Bilbays district of the Delta province of Sharqiyya. Two poll workers calmly filled out ballot after ballot, stacks of which were then carried off by other civil servants to be stuffed in boxes off camera. [5]

By the early afternoon of November 28, the day of first-round voting, and in defiance of the Higher Election Commission’s strict ban on cameras inside polling stations, hundreds of election videos were being posted on YouTube and Facebook capturing the fraud-producing methods of yore. The clips are a valuable documentary record; it turns out that the ballot stuffing of Bilbays was ubiquitous. They also picture clusters of NDP voters huddled over ballot boxes collectively filling out ballots while uniformed police look on; opposition candidates and their representatives heatedly arguing with polling station heads who refused them entry, citing eleventh-hour rule changes; opposition voters assembled in front of closed-off polling and counting stations, chanting slogans against the cheating; and incensed citizens storming polling stations and hurling stuffed ballot boxes out the windows. The footage includes images of NDP candidates and their constituents burning down an NDP headquarters in Asyout, brandishing tear gas canisters for the cameras, and blockading roads in Minya and Minoufiyya provinces to protest rigging in favor of intra-party opponents.

Visual evidence of fraud was corroborated by testimonials from high-profile NDP figures. With barely concealed outrage, both Mustafa al-Sa‘id and Hamdi al-Sayyid, NDP parliamentary committee chairmen whose seats were taken, charged that civil servants who supervised polling in their districts were bought off by their NDP rivals. Former Justice Minister Mahmoud Abu al-Layl, head of the Higher Elections Commission in 2005, chimed in, dismissing the commission as ornamental and calling for a return to full judicial supervision and the principle of “a judge for every ballot box.” [6] And the ruling party’s Nash’at al-Qassas, a North Sinai deputy best known for his venomous attacks on the opposition in the 2005 parliament, irately told the press after his loss, “The elections are a huge travesty! Judges were replaced with poor government clerks who were bought off at all the polling stations, and I will testify to that!” [7]

The most widely discussed incident involved Judge Walid al-Shafi‘i, who went to the press with his election-day experience. Al-Shafi‘i was assigned to the Badrashin district in the October 6 province outside Cairo as one of the drastically reduced corps of jurists overseeing the polls. On the afternoon of the voting, he made his way to an auxiliary polling station to investigate reports that it was blocked off to voters. As soon as he arrived at the station, he was detained and his ID card confiscated by Ahmad Mabrouk, head of the Badrashin State Security Investigations Department, who barked at him, “You step aside.” While in police custody, al-Shafi‘i saw no voters at the station but did see poll workers sitting at desks in a classroom filling out empty ballots. A hapless worker came up to him with a pile of completed cards, saying, “I’m finished, sir.” [8]

Under the Rotunda

Why has the Mubarak regime abandoned what is thought to be its trademark asset, namely the calibration of election rigging to let in some legislative opposition, polish its image and thereby stabilize its hold on power? The oft-made claim that the regime needs total control of Parliament to stage-manage the 2011 presidential election is unconvincing. Even with a quarter of the seats, a parliamentary opposition cannot field a contender for executive office. The rules laid out in the amended Article 76 in Egypt’s constitution are expressly designed to block the presidential candidacy of anyone outside the regime.

Article 76 lays out two paths to presidential candidacy. The first path runs through membership in a party, provided that the party has been in existence for at least five consecutive years before the date of candidacy and has at least 3 percent representation in both the lower and upper houses of Parliament. In addition, the presidential candidate must have been a member of the party’s high council for at least one consecutive year. A built-in exception exempts an existing party from the threshold, allowing it to field a candidate even if it has only one parliamentary seat. Four regime-created opposition parties received one seat each in the 2010 elections. (The Muslim Brothers who held 88 seats in the outgoing assembly were compelled to campaign as independents, and not members of a party, since the Society of Muslim Brothers is outlawed by the regime.) The second path to the presidential palace is for “independents,” who must obtain the signatures of at least 250 elected officials distributed as follows: 65 from the lower house and 25 from the upper house of Parliament, and ten members of every municipal council in at least 14 governorates. The upper house and municipal councils are entirely dominated by the NDP.

Both NDP members and their critics attribute the 2010 election outcome to the party’s new guard, headed by assistant secretary-general Gamal Mubarak and his right-hand man, organization secretary Ahmad ‘Izz. Regime apologists deploy the rhetoric of superior organization and dogged constituency service to portray the government party’s dominance as a “sweeping win.” NDP court intellectual Abdel Moneim Said insists: “The NDP had begun to prepare for this campaign five years ago, applying a minutely calibrated scientific approach that involved thorough studies of all the electoral constituencies.” [9] Opposition writers agree that the election was the handiwork of the NDP’s junior elite but give them a negative cast, depicting Gamal Mubarak and ‘Izz as political neophytes with a zero-sum view of politics. [10] Writing at the BBC website, the novelist Alaa al-Aswany drew a nostalgic contrast with the grizzled old guard represented by Kamal al-Shazli, the consummate horse trader whose death shortly before the elections symbolized the complete takeover of the NDP by the crony capitalists surrounding the younger Mubarak. Another view holds that the new guard’s ham-handed methods failed to produce the more favorable outcome bandied about before the elections, in which the regime was expected to recraft its parliamentary opposition by deftly replacing the Brothers with the reconstituted Wafd party.

A focus on the crew of NDP forty-somethings now steering the ship of Egyptian state should not obscure the deeper social dynamics driving their calculations. As the new guard commandeers public assets for delivery into private hands, Parliament moves to center stage as the site where the legal framework for the transfer is hammered out. As with any exclusive club, being a member of Parliament allows entry into new networks of privilege created by the economic shift, but it also enables access to information about economic rearrangements that is routinely hidden from public view. NDP hangers-on seek Parliament for the profits, while the opposition seeks Parliament for knowledge and proximity to the bureaucracy controlling public services. Because of its visible size, at 121 deputies, and its representation of normally excluded interests, the combined opposition in the 2005 parliament was able to clamor for the information and services that the NDP wanted to reserve for itself. So as to forestall a reprise, the regime decided to shutter Parliament as a place to do politics, reallocating the opposition’s valuable seats to a wider net of NDP dependents.

Egypt’s opposition parliamentarians had no illusions about their clout under the rotunda. The NDP’s overwhelming majority drowned out even their loud voices in debates over legislation and parliamentary rules prevented them from blocking government policies. So they ramped up their problem-solving and monitoring functions instead, channeling goods and services from the bureaucracy to their constituents, and activating mothballed legislative oversight instruments to funnel information to the public about controversial bills and policies. One of the most intense confrontations between government and opposition inside the chamber concerned the state budget for FY 2008-2009. In the March 30, 2010 plenary session to vote on the budget, 98 Brotherhood and secular opposition deputies tabled a written protest accusing the government of manipulating revenue figures. Budget Committee chairman Ahmad ‘Izz angrily pounded on the podium and shook his fist at fellow committee member and Muslim Brother MP Ashraf Badr al-Din, “I know more than you do! This is just an attempt by the ignorant to instill public doubt in the state budget!” [11] Not surprisingly, in an extended rationalization of the NDP’s “victory” after the elections, ‘Izz targeted the Brothers’ parliamentary performance. “The overall attitude of MB representatives over the past five years was to reject every single draft of legislation and every article -- and every paragraph in every article -- of draft law, for no logical reason,” he wrote in the quasi-official al-Ahram newspaper. “Our MPs debated, amended and passed legislation allowing the private sector to participate in infrastructure projects so our country can reduce budget spending, but none of them agreed.”

When their views were mooted inside the chamber, opposition deputies simply took them to the sidewalk outside. Bearing signs and wearing sashes emblazoned with slogans over their suits, the protesting opposition parliamentarians were a novel sight for eager news photographers. The deputies staged walkouts on a host of domestic and foreign policy matters, including the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006, the wholesale constitutional amendments of 2007, President George W. Bush’s visit to Egypt and the exclusion of opposition candidates from municipal elections in 2008, the renewals of emergency law in 2006 and 2008, and the undemocratic amendments to the law on the exercise of political rights in 2010. They joined forces with the extra-parliamentary opposition, participating in the May Day protest demanding an increase in the national minimum wage and sitting cross-legged on the ground with the protesters who camped outside Parliament during the spring of 2010, listening to their grievances and attempting to broker negotiations with government officials. The parliamentary opposition represented a much wider social base than the regime is prepared to deal with in an official institution.

The newly seated parliament faces a docket of crucial, controversial bills regulating work and life conditions for large swathes of the citizenry. These draft laws include an “anti-terrorism” bill to replace emergency law; amendments to the 1978 law regulating government employment; a reconsideration of the real estate tax bill shelved in 2008 because of parliamentary opposition; bills introducing the privatization of public utilities such as water and health insurance under the rubric of “public-private partnerships”; a new law to regulate work conditions in the nursing profession; a new law governing the allocation of state-owned land in the wake of corruption scandals involving regime cronies; amendments to the 1993 law on internal elections in professional associations; and two bills long awaited by Coptic citizens, regulating the building of churches and the burning issue of divorce and remarriage. With the safe removal of opposition deputies, who ‘Izz frankly admitted were a “stumbling block,” the univocal parliament can legislate a new social order in peace, insulated from demands for redistribution and accountability by affected constituencies.

“A Parallel Country”

Credible oppositions in countries gripped by authoritarian regimes are no strangers to political banishment. They operate on the understanding that inclusion in national power structures is never irreversible. Dislodged from their perch in Parliament, the Egyptian ex-legislators will return to the grassroots that catapulted them there in the first place: the professional associations, social movements, unlicensed political parties and home districts. The new element in 2010 is an attempt by the booted parliamentarians to maintain the new ties they developed under the rotunda, in the guise of a popular, “parallel” parliament. The day that the “rigged parliament” was seated on December 13, a crowd of ex-MPs from the opposition stood on the steps of the administrative courts complex in Giza and recited the oath of office, cheering the role of the administrative courts in issuing hundreds of rulings invalidating election procedures and vowing to carry on the representative and monitoring work they did from 2005 to 2010. Political scientist and ex-MP for Shubra al-Khayma Gamal Zahran said that the parallel parliament is a natural extension of the opposition walkouts during the 2005 term. [12]

Despite the vast asymmetry of power between the ruling clique and the perpetually weak and divided opposition, the emergent idea of a parallel parliament has been met with swift and withering criticism across the board. In scripted remarks made to look spontaneous during his inaugural address to the new parliament, Husni Mubarak japed, “Let them pass the time.” Parliamentary speaker Fathi Sorour, assuming his post for the twentieth consecutive year, told Egyptian state television that the parallel parliament subjects its members to Article 86 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes associations that harm social peace. And political scientist Samer Soliman pronounced the initiative dead on arrival. “It is a joke more than anything else. It is more of a media than a political phenomenon…. Are they engaged in mobilizing people or do they just talk to the press?” [13]

Ridicule and veiled threats aside, the parallel parliament initiative brings popular politics full circle. For some time now in Egypt, real politics is to be found in alternative spaces improvised by citizens shut out from formal institutions. Doctors, lawyers, pharmacists and engineers have turned their professional associations into mini-parliaments, complete with competitive elections. University students barred by the authorities from contesting student union elections have organized free and fair parallel polls, supervised by sympathetic professors. And property tax collectors have succeeded in establishing an independent union when the official union failed to defend their interests. In a widely circulated letter, a reader wrote in to a newspaper half-mockingly calling for generalizing the phenomenon: “We need more than a parallel parliament, student union and trade union. We need a parallel country with a parallel democracy guaranteeing freedom and rotation of power and a parallel constitution.” [14]

Two features distinguish the former parliamentarians from the cross-ideological alliances of counter-elites in the 1990s. First is the shared experience of equal-opportunity election rigging, which secular opposition members acknowledge that they did not anticipate. The Wafd’s divested Mustafa al-Gindi put it bluntly at a December 11 press conference: “Everybody first thought that it was the Muslim Brothers who were going to be targeted, but it became clear that the government is targeting everyone who doesn’t say yes.” A testament to the regime’s effective divide-and-rule tactics, this realization will not be enough to counter the daunting collective action problems facing the opposition. A second new feature is the parallel parliament’s attempt to rally under a single banner the radical-leaning new social movements such as Kifaya and the April 6 youth movement, the moderate, establishment-oriented Wafd and Democratic Front parties, and umbrella formations in their own right such as Mohamed ElBaradei’s National Association for Change. The Wafd has gingerly accepted participation in the parallel assembly and offered its building as a provisional headquarters, while the Muslim Brothers are divided between a skeptical Guidance Bureau that shies away from any formation lacking legal standing and ex-MPs like Muhsin Radi, Muhammad al-Baltagi and Ahmad Diyab, who are founding members of the shadow body.

The popular parliament faces the familiar roster of existential dilemmas bedeviling opposition groups in Egypt for decades. How will they maintain viability in the face of government repression and internal centrifugal pressures? How will they treat the imbalance between the heft of the Muslim Brothers and the small scale of secular groups? And will they take to the streets now that official channels are sealed off, as the Muslim Brothers’ leader hints? [15] The ex-MPs have taken heart from the regime’s hostile response, interpreting it as proof of their disproportionate influence on a powerful, but defensive-minded ruling cartel. The measure of their effectiveness will not be whether they mobilize the people, a tall order for an embattled opposition facing state coercion at every turn. It will lie in the cogency of their claim to inform and represent a broad, restive, disenfranchised majority.

Endnotes

[1] ‘Amr al-Shubaki, “Why Are These the Worst Elections?” al-Misri al-Yawm, December 2, 2010. [Arabic]
[2] Al-Misri al-Yawm, December 15, 2010.
[3] Reuters, December 23, 2010.
[4] A reversion to inflated figures can be seen in district-level returns from the first and second rounds, posted online at: http://www.elections.gov.eg/index.html.
[5] The clip is available online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4HBUKkXyIc. It has had more than 210,000 views.
[6] Al-Dustour, December 8, 2010.
[7] Al-Misri al-Yawm, December 3, 2010.
[8] Al-Misri al-Yawm, November 30, 2010.
[9] Abdel Moneim Said, “Last Word on the Elections,” al-Ahram Weekly, December 16-22, 2010.
[10] ‘Imad al-Din Husayn, “A Palace Coup in the NDP,” al-Shurouq, December 8, 2010, and Dia’ Rashwan, “Who Gave the Order and Why?” al-Shurouq, December 27, 2010. [Arabic]
[11] Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 31, 2010.
[12] Al-Shurouq, December 20, 2010.
[13] Al-Misri al-Yawm (English), December 21, 2010.
[14] Ahmad ‘Abd al-Ghani, “A Parallel Country,” al-Misri al-Yawm, December 20, 2010. [Arabic]
[15] Reuters, December 23, 2010.

Filed under: