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Rigging The Egyptian Elections: The Organizing Narrative (Why The Wafd Has To Participate In The Upcoming Elections-Part 1)

[The Mubaraks, father and son, voting in the last upper-house elections. Image from] [The Mubaraks, father and son, voting in the last upper-house elections. Image from]

On 17 September, a number of opposition movements organized a “youth” protest in front of the headquarters of the Wafd Party (the old liberals) to persuade it to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections. The protest was set to coincide with the Wafd’s general assembly meeting that gathered to determine the party’s position on the elections. The protestors chanted slogans against taking part in the upcoming “charade of elections,” threatening the party that participating in these elections would be “a shame that will scar its history forever.”  Meanwhile, a group of party members that calls itself Wafdists Against Inheritance(i.e. Gamal Mubarak inheriting the Presidency from his father) organized a sit-in at the meeting’s entrance against participating in an election “the only purpose of which is to pave the way to Inheritance.” 

These protests were only echoing wide consensus among opposition groups at that time, which readily equated participating in the upcoming elections with betraying the nation. Statements to that effect have been made by Kefaya, the Popular Democratic Movement for Democratic Change (Hashd), the National Assembly for Change, as well as al-‘Amal, al-Ghad, and al-Djabha Parties—to name some. The spread of this call, therefore, nailed the parties that intend to participate in the elections in a somewhat tight corner, at least initially. To make things worse for them, these parties wrote a collective letter to the ruling party to demand basic fair election guarantees, which was ironically drafted by the Wafd on their behalf. But the ruling party rejected it "politely," as some newspapers put it. This rejection only worsened their situation at that time, as they were rash enough to imply that their demands were conditions for participation when they never intended so (already they were lampooned for calling on the ruling party to observe the minimal fair-election rules).

In due course, justifying their participation in the elections grew to become a serious problem for them. And as a result, most of them delayed announcing their position on the matter for months until another party volunteered to do it first. Previously, they had all declared that they would boycott the elections if the opposition as a whole agreed on so. “I’m doing it only because they’re doing it,” thus, became their way out of this dilemma, and this raised the big question: which party was going to declare its participation first?

The Wafd finally decided to pioneer in this affair. In a way it couldn’t wait longer because the elections were already due in two months when they decided so. Being the first, thus, put in a rather sensitive position. If it decided “yes,” the rest of the parties would follow it, and everyone would then blame it for sabotaging the boycott. Conversely, if it were to decide “no” when others decided “yes,” it would end up only leaving the game for them. Apprehensive about their tricky position, the party leaders decided therefore to take the matter to their General Assembly, even though it lied well within their authority. They clearly wanted it to come out as the decision of the whole party, rather than be blamed for it alone, inside and outside the party. This was basically the meeting that attracted the protests above, and it ended in a “yes” decision, as all had expected.

The last amendment

Calling on people to boycott the elections is certainly not new to Egypt, but never before did we have such a forceful call. Until two months ago, most opposition organizations and activists in Egypt judged it to be the only sensible position to adopt. Thereafter, however, they shifted rapidly to favour participating in the elections, and as we shall see, much of our well-known boycott story is totally forgotten now. Such is the result of a programmatic amnesia that is integral to the very election story that we are exploring here. That is to say, the boycott story carried within it the necessary dynamic for its eventual eraser. The question from the start was about when are we supposed to forget it, not whether or not we should forget it, as the latter was already settled in favour of participation form the start, and everyone knew it.

I can list at least two reasons why the call was much more forceful this time than ever before. First, the upcoming round of lower-chamber elections will be the first to run under the 2007 constitutional amendments, which removed the little election guarantees that existed before—dysfunctional as they were. Secondly, it will determine the parliament that will most likely manage the awaited succession from our ill and aging President to whoever will follow him (in 2011). Most analysts, thus, believe that the 2007 (and 2005) amendments were carried out precisely to facilitate this succession, likely to be from Mubarak to his son, Gamal, a reasonable assumption to make in light of the recent developments inside the ruling party—albeit it remains uncertain to date.

To manage this succession in the midst of the son’s intense unpopularity, the story goes, the regime needs, among other things, a more obedient parliament. It can no longer afford to have 88 Muslim Brotherhood (and 24 independent) MPs sitting in the parliament (out of 445 seats). To begin with, they use their political immunity too often to organize protest activities that embarrass the regime and increase their popularity. Their last Gaza convoy provides good illustration of this point. During the Israeli attack on the Flotilla, the Egyptian state declared that it decided to open its border-crossing with Gaza, indefinitely. The media quickly framed this decision as an Egyptian determination to ease the Gaza embargo, against Israeli plans. A group of Brotherhood and independent MPs responded almost immediately by organizing an aid convoy to Gaza that was clearly led by the Brotherhood MPs. The police blocked their journey many times on the way, to which they responded with sit-ins that made “breaking news.” This went on for two days, after which they were finally let into Gaza, without their cargo. In the end, their convoy exposed that the crossing wasn’t opened as the regime had proudly announced, a fact that subsequent convoys only confirmed. Add to this the fact that two Brotherhood MPs had participated in the Flotilla (all Egyptians on the Flotilla were members of the Brotherhood) and you’d easily guess who’s on which side of the Gaza embargo. Many other incidents testify to the same point, the most vivid being the Brotherhood’s role in the infamous strike of the Justice’ Association in 2006. (I chose to demonstrate it with the Gaza convoy only because I intend to compare it to the Wafd’s convoy in my next post).

More importantly, the way the Brotherhood used its last parliamentary term to “legitimate their existence” is probably what worries the regime most at the moment (their very existence is still technically illegal). Until not long ago most people fell victim to the official propaganda about them, to the extent that many used to lump them up with armed Islamic groups like Al-Qaida. I know a lot of people who used to argue that the regime should just lock them all up. Now, however, I catch many of them happy to see the Brotherhood scandalize the regime’s politics. In some strange way they’ve come to count on them to prevent, oppose, or at least scandalize certain policies, be it they are still against them ruling in any capacity. Like this some of them even started to critique the Brotherhood for not doing enough. You’d encounter this critique even among some of their most stern enemies now, which obviously carries a latent bet on them (unthinkable until only a few years back). The instrumental affect in this bet revolves mainly around wanting the Brotherhood to do “the dirty work" for them—to exploit the Brotherhood to anti-Brotherhood ends, that is. This comes out even more strongly in the way the National Assembly for Change (NAC) has been trying to recruit the Brotherhood for anti-Brotherhood ends. In this way this new bet is both latent and instrumental, but it also entails a radical shift from how things were only five years when the Brotherhood was denied entry to the Kefaya coalition by the same people who now welcome them in NAC. And this means that things might shift even more.

In other words, many of the people who used to dismiss the Brotherhood outright got used at least to them being around, and hence have come to accept their existence more than they used to (especially outside the field of organized politics). Now their presence is normalized enough for their press statements regularly to make news headlines (five years ago that would unimaginable); for delegates representing the political spectrum in Egypt to call on them to boycott the upcoming elections for Egypt’s sake, and activists to talk about them all the time on Twitter and Facebook, even though they hardly thought about them five years ago. The extent to which their image changed in recent times is patently huge, eve if it remains highly underestimated. It goes without saying that this change is by and large the result of their overall persistence and struggle, but notable in this was their strong parliamentary presence, which made them a normal part of everyday opposition news.

Thus, the regime cannot afford to wait until they become even more accepted, not because they represent a serious threat now, but because of how things are moving over time: what worries is it is the dynamics of the ordeal, not its statics (a point that escapes many analyses). For who knows, maybe the instrumental affect that was mentioned above shifts to something a bit more sincere. The likelihood of this shift becomes higher the more the regime grows unpopular over time, and the closer it gets to its pitiful succession.

Hence, the story continues, during the succession phase the regime plans neither to tolerate their usual noise nor allow them to become more accepted in society. That is why it has been working on replacing them in the parliament with the more obedient formal parties, especially the Wafd since March 2007. These “formal opposition parties,” as they’re called—a very ironic name when you think about it—are the ideal opposition for the regime in the coming phase, for they hardly ever oppose anything. And more importantly, they don’t have much support on the ground. The regime, thus, stands a lot to gain if it manages to get people to see these toothless parties as its main alternatives, instead of the more grounded Brotherhood.

Between the old and the new rigging mechanisms

“Amending” the constitutional checks on election-monitoring is, therefore, meant not only to reduce the “illegal” opposition, but also to boost the “formal” one. Obviously the stakes in this aren’t about rigging the elections per se. The regime already managed this job well as far back as one remembers. Rather, the regime needs to change the very rigging mechanism. The old mechanism relied mostly on forging voting IDs, voting of the dead, multiple voting, restricting entry of opposition voters by police force, detaining opposition campaigners and voters until the end of the election—that is to say, it relied primarily on measures that take place before counting the votes, and this by definition entailed exercising a lot of brute violence that was always easy to document. Evidently, manipulating the vote-count used to take place too, but usually not as a primary strategy. That meant that while the regime rigged the elections it still needed a lot of votes (a point that most people used to underestimate).

To be sure the regime didn’t need this rigging gear so much against the formal opposition parties, which would lose badly even in fair elections. Historically speaking, the regime drew on this gear mostly to fend off two very different rivals. First, there are the independent candidates who usually includes well-established, local leaders commanding very powerful support-networks. A point not to miss here is the fact that becoming so well-established passing all types of security tests beforehand. In other words, “independent” in their case doesn’t mean opposing the ruling regime (except rarely). The ruling party used to counter these by, firstly, selecting equally tough candidates to run against them—let us not undermine this fact, either. These candidates would be also equipped with more campaign money to buy votes, and official status and connections that get you building permits, licenses, advance your position in all sorts of waiting lists (including vital ones related to health)—i.e. vital patronage goodies that only the state could provide. And lastly, they have the rigging institution above to serve them. Visit any electoral area now and you would quickly notice that they are indeed tough. I was recently in Ma’sara, for example, which is witnessing a tough competition between Sayed Mish’al (ruling party) and Mustafa Bakry (independent), and the impression that I got was that more people are planning to vote for Mash’al (who promised them heaven and provided them with a lot of official goodies) than Bakry (who becomes more popular the closer you get to Hilwan). Ruling party candidates are, in other words, more than the fake politicians that people take them to be.

In the end, if an “independent” candidate manages to win still, the ruling party then simply recruits him into the party. Only few of them ever rejected this call in the past, because doing so means not to win again, and also because most of them would be already members of the party who rebelled. What happened in the last election is case in point: the ruling party actually lost its majority to independent runners. The 2000 elections exhibited a similar trend too, be it with a smaller margin. But most of these independent runners were already members of the ruling party who rebelled against their party’s choice for their area, ran against its nominee, and eventually won him. In the end, the party brought them back in (together with others who were not members in the party beforehand), and regained its overwhelming majority in a couple of days—but only after it was seriously challenged.

To avoid this trap in the upcoming elections the party is now running with two nominees per area in over 90% of all electoral areas, which captures the dilemma that it is now facing. It’s probably the only party in the world that is competing with itself so intensely (it’s now like two parties competing with each other under one name). The other alternative would have been to kick the extra people out and then harvest their wrath, and they able people, as said. The party clearly decided not to let them run on their own and then bring them in after the elections, perhaps because of the sensitivity of the current phase. As a result, we now have two party members engaging in a killing competition in 90% of all ballots, sometimes literally so. Only yesterday, an election feud saw one man from the ruling party shooting another ruling-party-member (who belonged to a rival camp) dead.

Still, there are more than two strong people per area for the party worry from: an electoral area would probably have a good five of them. To overcome the need to run with five competing candidates per electoral area, the party changed its party nomination system this time over. It kept secret the identity of all its nominees and submitted their application to the elections’ committee only an hour before the deadline. In this way the ones who were not selected by the party knew about it only after the deadline had passed, and hence missed the opportunity to apply for the elections. Now, many of them are threatening that they will support the Brotherhood against the ruling party in response to their exclusion, a support that the Brotherhood rejected in public, but who knows what will happen on the ground. The point to take from this that the regime was not as all mighty as all people think. It always had to play games and compromises with the local power upon which it rests. In response to how this local power was slowly overtaxing the old system beyond its capacity, the regime just “amended” both the national electoral and its internal systems (the fact that both came together is also telling) to provide more leeway.

The more important rival is of course the Brotherhood, for ultimately its candidates cannot be recruited into the party after they win. It also has strong support on the ground, unlike the “official opposition parties.” And so, it requires special treatment. Until recently the regime used to control them by making deals with them, which they admitted doing in more than one occasion. Formal or implicit, these deals would fix the number of seats (and to a lesser extent areas) that they’re allowed to contest below the level that would harm the ruling party’s overwhelming majority—even if they win them all. Usually a deal like that would be proceeded by large arrest campaigns and threats against their members (sanctioned by the emergency law and the fact that the Brotherhood is banned by court ruling) to “persuade” them to lower their demands during negotiations. The last deal allowed them in the end to compete for only 160 seats (out of 445), of which they were left to win 88, or more than 50% of what they contested (still making them the biggest opposition block in the lower-house by far). (This was a special deal that came after the US had pushed strongly for more open politics; also note that they are tried to contest 169 in this round--which features a larger parliament of 508 seats due to introducing extra seats to satisfy the newly introduced the women quota--but managed to register only 130 of them).

After reducing their number in this way, the regime then marks a number of their candidates that must lose from the start. These include all of their top leaders and main figures, as well as the ones who are competing with the ruling party’s main figures. Deal or no deal these have to lose, often by manipulating the vote-count very harshly. Gamal Hishmat’s loss to Mustafa Elfiqi in 2005 is a case in point. In the end, the regime used to deal with their remaining candidates in the way described above (blocking the entry of their voters, mass arrests, etc.)

Several elements of the old constitution mandated managing elections in this way. Important among them was the stipulation that the judiciary must supervise the entire election. This point used to put some pressure on the process, as it seems that many judges prefer fixing activities to take place outside their ballot committees. In this way, it becomes easier to turn to falsifying voting IDs, arresting voters, etc., than manipulating vote-counts too harshly. Although experience says that many of them still fix the counts when needed, there remains a segment among them that causes trouble when the required results are just too far off, and now more than before. Elfiqi’s (ruling party) case is a good example here too. He had lost badly to Gamal Hishmat (Brotherhood) in the last elections, but was declared the winner nonetheless. Mona Elzini—one of the judges who supervised his voting committees—took the real numbers to the press, setting off a nationwide scandal. And so the regime was more inclined to do most of the rigging before counting the votes even though doing so required exercising a lot of violence in public (e.g. mass arrests). And this meant that it was easy to spot (unlike rigging the count in closed rooms). As a result, the press coverage of the elections has always entailed news about brutal police violence and conspicuous violations, bleeding people, people dragged from their hair, crowds surrounded by the police until the end of the elections to stop them from entering the ballots, and so on.

And thus the Wafd has to participate

This system suffices no more, it seems. For while it could still guarantee the ruling party its usual majority in the way above—even if with a lot of scandals—it at least doesn’t cater for selecting the “proper” opposition. Sadly, to get more of this “opposition” into the parliament they need to fix the elections in favour of “opposition” candidates who cannot win on their own, which also requires failing people by vote-count more often than before. Recall that the old system was based on letting some of the opposition candidates win, but only if they were able to win for real. Now, they need certain opposition candidates to win without having the votes for it, which is a different game altogether. There is no way out of this without falsifying the counts completely. There is no way to reduce the Brotherhood’s stake significantly without doing so. Then again, doing so is fine now, as the 2007 amendments allow them to appoint civil servants of their choice to supervise the entire election process—no more rebellious judges, that is. In fact, the president of the general voting committee has just announced that it is no longer illegal for a member of the ruling party to chair voting ballots: from now on the party will personally count the votes of its competitors.

The last elections of the upper-house (last June) expose the new system well. They were so badly rigged that they became the joke of town. We were asked to believe, for example, that the Brotherhood failed to win a single seat. At the same time, four formal-parties, including an absurdly marginal one, managed somehow to amass hundreds of thousands of votes each, which won each of them a seat. The situation was so embarrassing that the Nasserie party had to fire one of its members for having won a seat in this farce. More farcical was the fact that the four members of ruling party who lost to the four candidates of the formal opposition parties came out in the press to detail how the ruling party rigged the elections against them. In one case, a veteran MP of the ruling party lost to “a nobody” from the formal opposition, who used to score less than 50 votes in previous elections (but by a stroke of rigging magic he started scoring hundreds of thousands of votes). Another explained what happened to him poignantly as follows: they treated me as if I were a Brotherhood member (referring to the treatment that he got form the police and the ballot committee). While this was the first time for us to hear about the ruling party rigging the elections against its candidates in favour of second-rate opposition candidates, it obviously won’t be the last.

That is why many opposition groups called for boycotting these elections, now that voting became totally meaningless. They claimed that the regime would be worse off managing the coming phase with a zero-hegemony parliament. As it stands now, the presence of several independent opposition groups, especially the Brotherhood, supposedly adds some hegemony to this parliament, which the claim boycott would end. Ironically, however, that is also why the Wafd has to participate in the elections too. That is, the Wafd has to participate for the same reasons that motivate the others to boycott.

The running estimate sees the regime reducing the Brotherhood’s stake in the parliament form 88 seats to maybe 15, and dividing the remainder between the ruling party and its formal opposition, especially the Wafd, as said before (this estimate has been circulating since at least last March). Already there is a lot of excitement in the media to convince us why the Wafd has improved so much that it might increase its 6 seats to maybe 40 (a 600% growth). The Wafd is thus under the impression that it will effortlessly triple its seats if it plays along in this farce, so it would be foolish of it to waste this opportunity. I am aware that people still called on it to boycott the elections because they see it as a straight opposition party that has always fought for fair elections. But the Wafd’s recent history testifies to a different reality. You’d be hard pressed to come across any significant opposition activities on its CV during the last parliamentary term, a period that was thrive with grave turbulences and struggles. We simply don’t see them in any struggle.

The adjective “straight” doesn’t fit here, either. We already know of a case where the regime had rigged the elections in favour of one of their candidates in a previous election by way of getting rid of, again, a Brotherhood candidate. If they didn’t mind it so much then why would they mind it now? Besides, they didn’t mind wining a seat in the last upper-house election scam. Recall that the Nasserite party had to fire one of its members for having won in this farce. The Wafd, in cotrast, celebrated one of the “independent winners” who joined them a few days after he had won in the same farce. They didn’t even bother wait a month to avoid exposing that he was a Wafdist in disguise. In short, there is nothing surprising in that they’d play such games because they did so before.

Conspiracy as an organising narrative

The assumptions mentioned thus far are not without problems, to be sure. For instance, I am not particularly convinced that the regime would be better off managing Gamal Mubarak’s risky succession with a more obedient parliament (if indeed they settle on him in the end). Nor is pushing the Brotherhood outside the official political system necessarily good for it. Assumptions like these stem from the reformist, legalistic thinking that dominates the Egyptian opposition (which suffers from a constitutional fetish), and to some extent the ruling regime itself (which suffers from a severe fetish for treaties and international diplomacy). In the same way it’s not certain that the regime would actually raise the Wafd in the way everyone is saying.

But these problems don’t really affect the argument that I’m trying to make here. I didn’t explore the situation above to propose that this is what will happen. Rather my main point is that the above account captures what the main players think and say about the matter in relation to concrete material reality and developments on the ground (e.g. real shifts in the rigging system). That is to say, the great majority of the political players understand the stakes in the Wafd’s participation in the way above, especially the Wafd itself, as we shall see in part two. It is, hence, a hegemonic conspiracy narrative that organises election imaginaries and politics in Egypt today (this is the typical view, for a recent articulation of it). As such, its validity doesn’t matter in the particular sense. It’s enough for our purposes that all the players believe it and act on it, its soundness aside.

I submit we cannot even start to understand the reactions of the game without understanding how the entire game organizes around this narrative. Like good conspiracy stories, our narrative tries to make sense of concrete oppressive material reality that remains in many important ways opaque to its victims; an oppressive reality that doesn’t fully reveal its details to its victims, and leaves it to their imagination to decide what to make of it. In other words, it articulates the symbolic violence of the oppressed in relation to very concrete material developments as we’ve seen above. Indeed, the marginalized often tend to explain the position of exploiters and oppressors in terms of deals and conspiracies, imagined or real. But our narrative also involves what sociologists call méconnaissance (misrecognition). This is an expression that very roughly describes situations like seeing someone you know and deciding to pretend not to know him or her, but more in relation to the articulations of this tendency in the socio-political domain.

The second part of this post will explore more concretely how this narrative organizes elections’ representation and politics on the ground—in its capacity to evoke both conspiracy and méconnaissance in relation to the Wafd and the Brotherhood. We shall see how it forces the great majority of political players and media personnel to embody the following deranged proviso now:

“We all know well that it is all a conspiracy against the Brotherhood; but we need sincerely to believe that it is about rigging the elections in general by an undemocratic regime; for ultimately the Brotherhood deserves what’s happening to it because it is what it is; and this has nothing to do with the fact that we have almost zero popularity on the ground and would lose badly in free elections; because the masses are actually with us; so down with Mubarak and long live fair elections.”

In the next post we shall see how this seemingly deranged imaginary is in reality a very serious one: it makes sense too. Moreover, we shall see that anything other than this imaginary would have produced very different election politics and representations from what is going on now in Egypt—especially in relation to the Wafd’s role in it. More than what political players and analysts do and say, it’s what they don’t do and don’t say that capture this apparent derangement most, which as we shall see sadly imbricates on the closely related hysteria that we witnessed during the recent euphoria of Elbaradei (or chapter one of our election fable). In the final part, the election stories that we read in the press, the various accounts that we now get from the different parties, and the seemingly disparate politics that we see on the ground, are all but different articulations of one story about the Brotherhood.

[to be continued/completed here]




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