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Egypt Elections Watch: Use with Caution

[Revolutionaries besiege the Egyptian parliament. Image Source: Hossam el-Hamalawy,] [Revolutionaries besiege the Egyptian parliament. Image Source: Hossam el-Hamalawy,]

In a context in which emergency law, military trials of civilians, official bans on workers strikes and demonstrations, state use of violence against peaceful protesters, and frequent detention of political dissidents are all prevalent, it is hard to look at the upcoming parliamentary elections in Egypt with anything but a healthy dose of skepticism. For many observers, these elections signify a historic moment for Egyptians and a monumental step in their so-called transition to democracy. According to such perspectives, Egyptians will finally be allowed to vote in multiparty elections that are not managed by deposed President Hosni Mubarak or his ruling party, the National Democratic Party (NDP). For others, this event reflects the persistence of a political practice that Mubarak instituted long before his demise, namely the convening of elections with a view to impose a façade of democratic openness on a reality devoid of any democratic openness. This view becomes even more compelling once one considers the ambiguity surrounding whether or not the next parliament will have any meaningful authority to advance the ambitious reform agendas that some candidates and parties are promising, not to mention the equally ambiguous question when exactly military rule would end.

These opposing views are at the heart of an ongoing clash between two narratives on the state of Egypt’s Revolution—a battle that any meaningful discussion of Egypt’s 2011/2012 elections cannot overlook. One narrative, which the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and its supporters have tried to promote through friendly media outlets, alleges that the January 25 Revolution has succeeded—with the help of the Egyptian army—and that the time has come for protest movements to vacate public squares, the streets, and factories, and begin deferring to elite politics: elections, parliaments, and constitution writers. From this perspective, elections are viewed as an important step toward advancing the change that Egyptians have called for during the eighteen-day uprising that toppled Mubarak.

An opposing narrative, advanced by many dissident individuals and groups through demonstrations, strikes, and other forms of contentious political action, posits that the Revolution is far from complete and is under severe attack from the SCAF. Advocates of this latter narrative tell us that the upcoming SCAF-sponsored elections are a step toward normalizing and legitimating a political reality in which Egypt’s military rulers can dominate the current “transition” and dictate its terms in ways that favor their own anti-democratic bureaucratic interests. Thus, proponents of this view fear that these elections will be used to abort rather than advance the revolution, which remains ongoing.

Taking the contested meaning and significance of the upcoming parliamentary elections as a point of departure, Jadaliyya’s Egypt Elections Watch (EEW) project, launched in partnership with Ahram Online, and co-sponsored by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University and the Middle East Studies Program at George Mason Universityoffers a critical perspective on Egypt’s 2011/2012 parliamentary elections. EEW provides readers with a wealth of information and analysis on the major actors and institutions that make up these elections, as well as a close view into Egypt’s “new” political arena. The project does not take for granted the notion that these are truly competitive elections equally accessible to all important social forces in Egypt, and featuring serious candidates and real political parties with meaningful agendas and coherent political platforms. Therefore, where relevant, EEW researchers have sought to highlight tensions and flaws challenging such a view, in the interest of providing readers with an accurate insight into the Egypt’s electoral field and in order to avoid conveying a misleading image of coherence and structure to the upcoming electoral battles.

Based on extensive research and interviews, EEW’s profile entries are divided into three main categories: (1) Parties and Movements; (2) Actors and Figures; and (3) Laws and Processes. Additionally, EEW will provide regular updates and analyses to its readers about the unfolding elections and the context in which they are being convened. These sections will be updated regularly throughout the coming weeks.

Here are some of the most important features and trends that that each section will bring to light.

Parties and Movements

In this section, EEW overviews the important political groups and electoral coalitions that are participating in the 2011/2012 elections. Also included in the section are profiles for parties that have decided to boycott the parliamentary poll such as the Democratic Workers’ Party (DWP), but whose presence in the political arena is worthy of attention. Besides legal political parties, this section will be updated in the coming weeks to highlight important movements that are not participating (at least not directly) in the parliamentary poll, but that are still playing a major role in shaping the wider political context in which elections are being convened. Readers will also find information on the major political parties that are believed to represent some of the elements and factions that once constituted the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which was dissolved by court order in April 2011. 

Each political party profile is meant to give readers a detailed view into the party’s political history and (if relevant) the various political trends and factions constituting the organization, its plans for parliamentary elections, its positions on salient political matters, its alliances and relationships with other members of the political community, and the most important figures associated with the party.

While many parties identify themselves as agents of the January 25 Revolution and long-standing anti-Mubarak activists, the sub-section “Before the Revolution” often brings to light realities that do not always bode well with the self-narrated histories of these groups, along with their self-professed “revolutionary credentials.”

Some of these parties, moreover, are sensitive to how they are being identified in public discussions. For example, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) often claims that it enjoys autonomy from its mother organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Free Egyptians Party asserts that its founder and famous Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris is not in charge of the party on grounds that he does not hold an official post inside it. We do not take such claims at face value, since what they conceal is of great importance to any critical understanding of these groups.

The sub-section on “Parliamentary Elections” is meant to give a summary of how many seats each party is contesting, who their most prominent candidates are, and (if possible) what their electoral prospects look like in various regions in Egypt. It is notable to observe that the majority of parties that have been able to present candidates for more than ninety percent of the available seats in parliament are either traditional opposition forces that Egypt inherited from the Mubarak era (e.g., Al-Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood-led Democratic Alliance for Egypt), political groups allied with big business interests (e.g., Egyptian Bloc electoral coalition led by Naguib SawirisFree Egyptians Party), Salafist groups that seem to have an immense amount of resources but no clear financiers (e.g., the Islamist Bloc led by Al-Nour Party), parties dominated by former NDP members, or some combination of all the above. Left-leaning parties that do not cater to any of the aforementioned interests seem to be struggling in fielding a comparable number of candidates through their electoral lists. The Revolution Continues Alliance, featuring the Socialist Popular Alliance Party (SPA) and the Revolution’s Youth Coalition (RYC) as well as others, is a case in point. It is competing for no more than sixty percent of the parliament’s lower house.

The sub-section on “Relationship with Other Political Parties” highlights a given party’s most significant alliances and rivalries. Additionally, EEW offers a fuller and more detailed profile of the four largest electoral coalitions, namely the Democratic Alliance for Egypt, the Egyptian Bloc, the Islamist Bloc, and the Revolution Continues Alliance (RCA). 

One important trend is worth highlighting. These coalitions seem to be largely based on unequal partnerships, whereby a resourceful “sponsor” dominates the electoral lists of each alliance. That sponsor is the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP in the case of the Democratic Alliance, the Free Egyptians Party (albeit to a lesser extent) in the Egyptian Bloc, Al-Nour Party in the Islamist Bloc, and the SPA in the Revolution Continues Alliance. As the only licensed party in the Revolution Continues, the SPA is the only member of that alliance with the right to field party lists in the elections, and thus all other groups in the coalition are obligated to field their party list candidates through the SPA. 

This pattern partly reflects asymmetries in the financial resources and electoral experiences across parties. It also mirrors the strong interest of certain actors, like the Muslim Brotherhood, in portraying their potential electoral gains as the outcome of a broad national consensus that travels beyond a single group, as opposed to an attempt to single-handedly dominate the electoral arena at the exclusion of others. Whether or not the Democratic Alliance—wherein the FJP dominates the candidate rosters while the coalition’s other parties get the “leftovers”—does in fact qualify as “broad national consensus” is open to interpretation. However, its very existence reveals a great deal about how the Brotherhood would like to be perceived.

Finally, the asymmetrical nature of these alliances also underscores the dominance of parochial orientations among many Egyptian parties. The abundance of parties that can agree to bargains limiting their own electoral prospects to a handful of parliamentary seats suggests that, for many parties in Egypt today, the narrow objective of getting a few good men elected is taking precedence over the need to represent meaningful national agendas that travel across more than just a few districts. The latter observation could not be more pertinent given widespread assertions that once protest movements demobilize, party life and elected legislatures in Egypt would step up to the plate and pick up where these movements have left off in terms of advancing important national political and economic reform agendas.

The sub-section on “Stances on Salient Issues” summarizes each party’s positions on important policy questions. It includes an explanation of each party’s understanding of social justice, along with its vision for improving the country’s economic conditions. Given the public backlash against the socio-economic inequalities that the Mubarak order has harbored, it has become politically correct for any political group in Egypt—irrespective of its economic orientation—to profess a commitment to “economic development with an emphasis on social justice.” The party profiles EEW present, however, do not take this proclaimed commitment for granted and reveal that behind phrases like “development” and “social justice” is a wide range of possible positions on economic and social policy. This sub-section also includes a discussion of a given party’s position on the role of religion in the affairs of the state, foreign relations, particularly vis-à-vis the United States and the Arab-Israeli conflict, military trials of civilians, and labor strikes. 

In compiling this information, EEW researchers did not simply defer to each party’s written platform. Instead, they attempted to reach out to party leaders, and assessed the consistency of their official positions with their actions and inactions. Inconsistencies and ambiguities were not sidelined. In fact, they were highlighted. For instance, EEW shows that while almost all parties claim to recognize workers’ right to strike, some add baffling qualifiers such as: they only support strikes that do not obstruct economic production and operation of business. Such qualifiers are important to emphasize because, in essence, they reflect an illogical understanding of what a strike is—one that excludes the conventional definition of the concept commonly understood to mean “to stop work in order to force an employer to comply with demands.”

Figures and Actors

While each political party profile includes short biographies of key party officials and associates, the section on “Figures and Actors” expand on some of these short summaries to provide fuller profiles of these individuals. The section also offers profiles of individuals who are not currently occupying official leadership positions inside legal political parties, but who are shaping Egyptian politics in meaningful ways. EEW will add more profiles in this section in the coming months, but not with the purpose of providing an exhaustive list of Egyptian politicians and activists. Rather, the goal is to offer a set of illustrative examples of emerging activists who are seeking to carve a role for themselves in the political arena, along with examples of traditional politicians who are struggling to reinvent themselves to survive in a changing political environment. The latter trend has taken many shapes and forms, going as far as NDP leaders posing as supporters of the revolution. For instance, after leaving his position as NDP secretary-general a day before Mubarak’s resignation, Hossam Badrawi who was known to be one of Gamal Mubarak’s closest associates, reportedly attempted to form a party by the name of “The Youth of January 25.”

This section adopts a similar approach to that on parties and movements in that it highlights the role that these politicians have played before and after the January 25 Revolution. In the spirit of critical analysis that this project seeks to foster, these profiles highlight, where relevant, some of the contradictions or inconsistencies in the positions of various political figures. This is not done with a view to question the credibility or integrity of these individuals, but rather to demonstrate to readers how the volatile character of Egypt’s political environment is pressuring activists and politicians into pragmatically adapting many of their longstanding positions. 

Laws and Processes

The section on “Laws and Processes” will be updated in the coming weeks to give a full account of the rules and bodies that will govern the 2011/2012 elections. Egypt’s electoral field is subject to a number of laws and frameworks that govern the powers of various state branches and agencies, the formation of political parties, the exercise of political rights, the powers of the parliament and the method of its election, and the mandate of the bodies responsible for overseeing the electoral process. We will provide an in-depth analysis of each of these subjects in the coming weeks, situating them in the wider Egyptian political context. For the time being, “The Concise Idiot’s Guide to the Egyptian Elections” summarizes the most basic relevant rules and regulations, including dates for voting (and run-offs) in each governorate, number of constituencies, and electoral systems.

[Developed in partnership with Ahram Online.]

From Jadaliyya Editors:

For more on Egypt Election Watch (EEW) entries by category, click on the following links:

Parties and Movements  
Actors and Figures 
Laws and Processes   

To view all entries on one page, click on
Egypt Elections Watch, and for EEW team members click here. Our Egypt Page can always be accessed view here.

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