In the May 1984 general elections in Egypt, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) won almost 73 percent of the vote. The new Wafd got just above 15 percent. The other three contenders failed to get the eight percent minimum needed for a seat: the Socialist Labor Party (‘Amal) got just over seven percent; the National Progressive Unionist Party (Tagammu‘) got just over four percent; the Socialist Liberal Party (Ahrar) did not exceed one percent. These “lost” votes accrued to the biggest party, the NDP, which thus took 390 seats to the Wafd’s 58 seats. [1]

These elections were important because they represented Husni Mubarak’s effort to secure a greater degree of legitimacy and stability for his regime. The effort involved at least a partial cooptation of the legal opposition into the system in order to dissociate it from the Muslim fundamentalist opposition and to contain the pressure of the “Sadatists” in the power structure inherited from his predecessor. [2] Mubarak allowed the opposition party press to reappear, and did not oppose the return of the Wafd to the political scene. This first met with resistance from the NDP-controlled “Committee of Political Parties Affairs,” which claimed that the Wafd was no longer a legal party, but these objections were overruled in court. Mubarak’s willingness to abide by the court’s verdict was clearly a political decision, one that fundamentally changed the nature of the elections.

For the Wafd was the party that had dominated Egyptian politics from World War I until 1952. Historically the champion of Egyptian national independence, the Wafd had won every free election in the rather imperfect parliamentary system that existed before 1952. The growing influence of conservative landed interests in the party and its inability to address the pressing social crises after World War II eroded the party’s prestige, and with it the parliamentary system of which it was the pivotal element. When the Free Officers took over in 1952 and dissolved all parties, it seemed to seal the Wafd’s fate. Nasser instituted a single party system, embodied after 1961 in the Arab Socialist Union (ASU). Candidates for the ASU and for the National Assembly (renamed the People’s Assembly by Sadat) were carefully screened by the ASU executive of the interior ministry. This produced growing disaffection with the electoral process and the political system.

Sadat, in an effort to enlarge his political base, undertook the first step towards liberalization after the October War of 1973 by “reforming” the ASU. He encouraged three “tribunes” to form which eventually became parties: Marxists and left Nasserists within the ASU formed the Tagammu‘; Ahrar was supposed to represent the conservative right; the ruling “tribune” (the Misr Party, which in 1978 became the NDP) occupied center stage. Other parties could only be formed with the sponsorship of at least 20 members of parliament. In the first elections under this new system, in the fall of 1976, the ruling party won 275 seats, Ahrar won 12, the Tagammu‘ won 3 and independents took the remaining 48 seats. These results expressed a prevailing scepticism towards “multipartyism from above.” When the former leader of the Wafd, Fuad Sarag al-Din, announced its decision to resume activity as the New Wafd, he had no difficulty finding the necessary 20 sponsors among these independents.

But the beginning of Sadat’s liberalization proved also to be its heyday. Already after the January 1977 insurrection against cutbacks in food subsidies, Sadat proclaimed new laws which practically paralyzed legal avenues of opposition. In protest, the Wafd dissolved itself (it later claimed it had only “frozen” its activity) and the Tagammu‘ kept a low profile. To provide for a more “responsible” opposition, Sadat promoted the creation of a new party, the Socialist Labor Party, even lending a few of his own MPs to satisfy the 20-sponsor minimum. Parliament was disbanded and new elections held in 1979: ‘Amal got 29 seats, Ahrar was left with three, the independents dwindled to nine and the Tagammu‘ was eliminated altogether. [3] Today even government circles acknowledge that these elections were “cooked.”

But political currents in society proved less malleable than political institutions, as the evolution of the ‘Amal Party showed. ‘Amal was, to a considerable extent, a resurrection of the pre-1952 Misr el-Fatat (Young Egypt) Party. Its leader, Ibrahim Shukri, Sadat’s former minister of agriculture, was once the party’s only MP. It calls itself socialist, but is best characterized as nationalist with strong Islamic overtones. [4] Although initially it approved of Camp David, normalization of relations with Israel and Sadat’s unilateral concessions gradually transformed ‘Amal into a real opposition force; it joined the left and the underground Islamic movements in their rejection of Camp David.

Sadat’s arrest in September 1981 of all leftist, moderate and fundamentalist opposition forces signalled the utter failure of his controlled liberalization process. His assassination a month later, and the abortive uprising which followed in Asyut, left Mubarak with a very fragile political system indeed.

The 1984 Campaign

Mubarak’s decision to allow the New Wafd to contest the 1984 elections greatly enhanced the credibility of those elections. The 1984 campaign was hailed as the freest ever since the July Revolution of 1952. This acclaim lent even greater significance to the resounding success of the ruling NDP over the Wafd and the elimination of the other contenders. In this light, the disappointing results for the Tagammu‘ appear to be just another manifestation of the crisis and stagnation afflicting the left throughout the region. But a closer look reveals a more ambiguous situation. For one thing, the competing parties did not at all exhaust Egypt’s real political spectrum today. An important political force like the Muslim fundamentalists was not allowed to participate (although one faction, the Muslim Brothers, got in through the back door via an alliance with the Wafd), because the existing parties law does not allow parties formed on the basis of religion or class. This formula also excludes the communists. In addition, the independent Nasserists (those who, in the 1970s, refused to join the “tribune” that would become the Tagammu‘) are still awaiting the government’s permission to form their own party.

Secondly, the opposition parties that did participate have unanimously criticized the unequal conditions of the electoral contest and widespread falsification of the results by the ruling party apparatus at the local level. The first charge refers to the NDP’s unrestricted use of the government apparatus, including the mass media. The four opposition parties had only one weekly each, distributed mainly in the cities, and were given only 40 minutes on television — no match for the round-the-clock publicity for the NDP’s alleged achievements.

An even bigger bone of contention was the NDP-tailored electoral law, which introduced a proportional system instead of the customary winner-take-all district system. Any party unable to obtain eight percent of the vote nationally was automatically eliminated; these votes then accrued to the largest party — the NDP — which would also secure the special seat reserved for women in almost every district. In addition, the new law did not allow for coalition lists, which would have enabled smaller parties to pool their votes and overcome the eight percent hurdle. The law also forbade independent candidates, who in the past enabled political elements unable to form their own party at least some representation in parliament.

After the proclamation of this electoral law in the summer of 1983, the opposition first tried to organize a boycott. It managed to do this with the October 1983 elections for the Consultative Council (established by Sadat to limit further the powers of parliament). All the existing opposition parties — Ahrar, ‘Amal and Tagammu‘ — joined in a Committee for the Defense of Democracy. Representatives from the Muslim Brothers, the Communists and the Nasserists also participated. The Wafd, before it had won its legal sanction, was informally represented by two Bar Association members (although it later denied it was ever party to the agreement). The legalization of the Wafd completely changed the array of political forces and the boycott collapsed. The Wafd had never conceived of itself as just an opposition party, but as the “national alternative.” Its decision sealed the fate of the boycott even though, strictly speaking, it was ‘Amal which first broke ranks. The others then had no choice but to participate in the contest on the terms set by the government or default altogether.

The government has dismissed charges of electoral fraud as isolated incidents, inevitable in a society where, especially in the countryside, “tribal” or family loyalties and rivalries still loom large. In fact, incidents included the murder of one opposition candidate and the wounding of another’s wife, the disappearance and burning of ballot boxes, the intimidation of official opposition observers and the like. These incidents occurred consistently at the expense of the opposition.


On election day, several colleagues and I visited 15 different polling stations. We started in Cairo, moved to the northern suburbs, and from there to the rural province of Qalyubiyya. In the city centers of Cairo and Benha, procedures were, in general, correctly observed (as the press has widely reported). In the poorer outskirts and in the countryside, however, the rules were tampered with on a large scale.

The most widespread phenomenon was the impossibility of casting a secret ballot. In the few cases where a curtain was available, we did not see it used. People invariably voted on a large table in the middle of the polling room, surrounded by many people, mainly from the NDP.

The opposition has charged widespread irregularities in the lists of those entitled to vote and the provision of false voting cards. (The government had rejected a demand to let people vote only by their identity cards.) This is difficult to verify on a visit, but we witnessed some incidents that seemed to corroborate these charges. In the village of Tukh, a row developed between a peasant who wanted to vote and the official representative (mandub) of the Tagammu‘ (each party can delegate a representative to supervise procedures at each polling station). The mandub did not trust the peasant’s voting card, and asked for his ID as well. Since the names on the two cards differed slightly, the mandub objected to this peasant’s right to vote. One bystander told me that similar incidents had occurred earlier in the day, and that a man he knew to have died three months before had managed to “vote” by proxy. The NDP representative who accompanied us back to our car implicitly suggested the incident was not an isolated one when he described “those Tagammu‘ people” as “just a bunch of communists who were making trouble the whole day.”

In the village of Tagammu‘ leader Khalid Mohieddin, we found many people with official voting cards waiting to vote. All had ID cards verifying their names. They were nevertheless turned down because, curiously enough, their names failed to appear on the lists at the polling station; these lists also differed from the ones handed out earlier to the party by the authorities.

Out to Lunch

Tagammu‘ in particular has accused the government of intimidating its mandubin, encouraging them to “disappear” after handing in their tawkil (power-of-attorney). In more than one case we found opposition mandubin absent. In the village of Manshiet el-Hurriyya, Tagammu‘ candidate Lutfi el-Kholi claimed that all his representatives had been thrown out by vigilantes of the NDP candidate. Upon our arrival in the village, we observed many police with shields and helmets, who had not been so conspicuously present elsewhere. We were immediately joined by the NDP candidate’s assistants, who accompanied us on every step to the different polling stations. Other NDP assistants were present in force around the voting tables in the middle of the polling rooms. It would have taken a lot of courage for any villager not to vote for the NDP. We did not find a single mandub from the Tagammu‘, Wafd or ’Amal parties, although their authorizations were there. When we inquired as to their whereabouts, we were invariably told that they were out for a bite to eat. In response to our obvious disbelief, we were later urged to meet the Tagammu‘ mandub who had “just returned” to his post. When we asked his name, it was not the same as that on the tawkil. The poor fellow had great difficulty remembering his “own” name.

We also met a Wafdist mushrifal-‘amm (an observer who circulates among polling stations in a given area to keep track of things). He complained of lots of irregularities, especially in some polling stations for women. He brought us to one in Shubra el-Kheima. There we were told that approximately half of the 600 registered voters had already cast their votes. Finally, the ‘Amal Party mandub confirmed that only 37 women had voted, a figure which the president of the voting committee then reluctantly endorsed. The disclosure of this discrepancy unleashed a heap of abuse from one of the NDP officials, who could only be restrained when one of his colleagues referred to the bad impression this was making on the “foreign press.”

It is hard to credit the government’s claim that some 40 percent of the voters turned out for this election. In the places we visited, turnout nowhere exceeded 20 percent by the middle of the afternoon (the polls closed at 5 pm); more often the figure was close to 10 percent. Electoral lists are frequently not updated, penalizing youth who have recently come of age. This, along with the fact that more than a million Egyptians are working abroad, makes the claim even more unconvincing.

Inflating the turnout makes it more difficult for those parties relying on their real votes to reach the eight percent threshold. A by-election in Alexandria just a few months earlier sheds light on this claim, since all agree that the results here were not falsified. (Some Egyptians have argued that Mubarak tried to overcome hesitations among the opposition to participate in the general elections by keeping this one clean.) After a hotly disputed contest, in which both the united opposition and the government mobilized their forces, the turnout barely exceeded ten percent. The Tagammu‘ candidate, al-Hariri, won by a very narrow margin. Three months later, the same candidate failed miserably, while the turnout had miraculously risen.

Why were the results of the election “corrected” in favor of the ruling party? Mubarak often declared himself in favor of honest elections, and the freedom during the campaign lent credibility to this democratic disposition. By fixing the results, Mubarak has lost in political legitimacy what the opposition lost in seats. Some have suggested that an anticipated Wafd victory and rumors of army intervention in that case prompted the regime to preserve the existing formal equilibrium. Once he gave the green light for some “corrections,” according to this view, Mubarak’s still insufficient control of the state apparatus did not allow him to prevent “Sadatists” in the NDP from cashing in and thus destroying Mubarak’s balancing act. [5]

In the absence of more solid information, it is difficult to judge the plausibility of this interpretation which, like the cooptation thesis, postulates a power struggle inside the regime between a “parasitic capitalism” generated by the infitah and linked to foreign interests and a more nationally oriented “rational and productive capitalist bourgeoisie.” Probable as this may be, the contours of this struggle among the different camps still remain very vague. After more than three years of Mubarak’s presidency, it is still difficult to maintain that the struggle inside the power structure has been over substance rather than style. The regime’s handling of the elections looks deceptively like the beginning of Sadat’s controlled liberalization experiments, where the limits were quickly drawn when the process developed a dynamic of its own. In any case, the suggested explanation reminds us of the role of the army in the power structure. Its position has tended to be relegated to the background in discussions about the competing forces in the civil arena, but it is obviously ever present, even if it is difficult to know precisely in which direction its political weight is brought to bear.

The Left’s Performance

The government manipulation of the results does not mean that the opposition would have been victorious in genuinely free elections. The government party’s exclusive access to subsidized essential goods and services, from flats to fertilizers, assures it of considerable advantage over its rivals. Many people, especially in the countryside, insisted on casting their vote publicly in an obvious display of loyalty. But the bias in the official results means that these are of limited help in assessing the extent of the popular support the parties are able to mobilize. This is particularly true for the left, whose electoral standing is so persistently weak that it hardly seems to justify the massive attacks to which the government has subjected it. It is probably more instructive to have a closer look at the campaign itself to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the legal left.

The introduction for the first time of nation-wide proportional lists (and the eight percent limit) instead of the district system (winner-take-all) ruled out the Tagammu‘ strategy of concentrating on areas where the party was relatively strong. Since the new law made it impossible to form alliances with progressive independents, the party now had to field its own candidates in every district, including those where it had little or no previous political presence. The fact that Tagammu‘ was able to place candidates everywhere (with the exception of five sparsely populated areas like south Sinai) was something of an achievement: approximately 900, including reserve candidates, compared with 34 in the 1979 elections. For the first time in Egypt, an independent left party waged an electoral battle nationally under its own slogans and program.

The elections thus made it both necessary and possible to break out of the closed universe of internal party meetings to which Tagammu‘ had been confined under Sadat and the emergency law following his assassination. Regardless of how fair the elections were, there was an atmosphere of unmistakable relaxation during the month the campaign officially lasted. There were restrictions: street demonstrations were outlawed; rallies had to be held in special, expensive tents (siwan) at sites chosen by the authorities — often inconspicuous side streets. Nevertheless, one could sense the audiences’ astonishment that the merciless critiques of the government coming from the rostrums were not silenced by the police.

Tagammu‘ organized hundreds of such meetings, and distributed more than a million pamphlets and posters. There were many smaller meetings with community leaders, youth clubs, and professional organizations. Some candidates chose to forego the expense of large public rallies and confined their campaigning to small groups in alleys and coffeehouses. These meetings absorbed much time and energy, and were not easy to start up or keep going. Coffeehouse proprietors came under pressure to refuse access to their premises for this activity. In one incident we witnessed, police confiscated the ID card of a Cairo barber who allowed a small Tagammu‘ group to install itself at his door. The lively discussions came to a halt as we all trooped to the police station, where it took all the candidate’s diplomacy to pry this precious document loose. Everyone got the message. In a village in Gharbiyya province, we waited in vain for a number of prominent peasants who were “discouraged” from keeping their rendezvous with a Tagammu‘ candidate. The government’s systematic and intense propaganda campaign against Tagammu‘ facilitated this harassment and subtle intimidation.

Islam and the Campaign

The NDP and other rivals constantly attacked Tagammu‘ for its “incompatibility” with Islam. In response, the party gave prominent place on its lists to representatives of what is called the “enlightened religious trend” in the party, such as the al-Azhar sheikh, Mustafa Asi, who headed the list in East Cairo. Since the elections were held on the eve of Ramadan, Tagammu‘, like the other parties, distributed imsakiyya (fasting calendars). On the reverse were some central demands from the party program and an “Islamic graphic” with this caption: “the heavenly revelations are a force towards progress and in favor of the struggle against all forms of oppression, despotism and exploitation.”

Almost every meeting I attended included either a Quran recital or a speech by a religious dignitary. This obviously made good sense in places like Zawiya al-Hamra, the Cairo neighborhood torn by sectarian strife in the summer of 1981. Here a successful meeting was held where the al-Azhar sheikh, the Coptic head of the local list and a well-known Marxist party leader worked hand in hand, literally, to convey the party’s respect for religious values and its conception of national unity. Once, in Giza, the place assigned for a meeting was just next to a mosque. The imam complained that the meeting disturbed the evening prayers, and began to attack the Tagammu‘ over the mosque’s powerful loudspeakers. Sound and lights for the meeting were cut off. With some improvisation, the current was reestablished, but tension built up as excited worshippers streamed out of the mosque loudly venting their hostility. The situation was saved by the sheikh’s authority and wit.

On other occasions, it seemed as if the party was adopting too much of a defensive posture in order not to be outflanked on this issue. As Khalid Mohieddin acknowledged to me, the political impact of these accusations had less to do with their content (atheism and communism) than with the message that voting for Tagammu‘ amounted to “going against the government.” Judging from reactions at meetings I attended, both urban and rural, Islamic themes did not seem to be of central concern. One villager from Gharbiyya province, in response to a speech on social justice by a rural sheikh on Tagammu‘’s team, used all the polite Arabic expressions to thank the sheikh for his beautiful words — ”of course, we all love Islam deeply” — but would he please explain what the party proposed to do about his daily problems. Most people would politely applaud the “real-Islam-as-expression-of- socialist-ideas” theme, but really get involved when the discussion turned to corruption, inflation, housing, subsidies or the International Monetary Fund.

An interesting though still marginal and expensive experiment was some Tagammu‘ candidates’ use of video.* In a meeting in an industrial neighborhood of Alexandria, an American television tape on Sabra and Shatila made a vivid impression on the audience — at least those who managed to get close enough to see anything — and provided the start for a radical critique of the logic of Camp David. Khalid Mohieddin’s TV speech was also videotaped and used to explain the party’s program. A tape of English language commercials on Egyptian TV provided the occasion for a trenchant and witty critique by candidate Ashraf Bayyumi of the infitah policy. Criticism of the infitah was, of course, a central ingredient in all Tagammu‘ meetings, where the “thousand factories of Nasser” were constantly compared to the “Seven-Up policies of this Schweppes government,” to use Lutfi el-Kholi’s phrase.

All this activity was sustained by a great number of enthusiastic, mainly young, militants. The party found people willing to work for it in places where it had not displayed much activity before, even though the elections took place in the midst of exams and thus prevented many students from fully participating. The widespread desire to engage in issues of public concern, to transcend private solutions for social ills, was very impressive. One important task for the Tagammu‘ will be to provide a post-election framework for this political energy and thus bind the new membership to the party in a more permanent fashion. Criticism within the party of the “seasonal” character of so much political activity shows that this problem has not yet been satisfactorily solved.

Political Education

Perhaps the main import of these elections lay in the possibilities offered by the campaign: for an entire month, the Tagammu‘ was able to carry out an extensive political education for its local cadres and sympathizers, winning new ones and revitalizing “sleeping” ones. Scores of branches that had lapsed into inactivity after the repression following January 1977 have resumed their activities, mostly with new people. The systematic critique of local situations by many new militants might, in Egypt’s difficult circumstances, prove to be explosive. After all, many of the slogans during the January 1977 demonstrations had been coined first during the much more restricted 1976 election campaign three months earlier. Tagammu‘ consistently campaigned against lowering any subsidies on basic food items, and against a new social insurance law which amounts to a lowering of real wages. Precisely these measures led to massive demonstrations in September 1984 among the textile workers of Kafr al-Dawwar, the industrial town near Alexandria; three people were killed and 26 wounded, and Mubarak responded by partially cancelling the price rises. The government simultaneously blamed the Tagammu‘ for the turmoil, arrested many of its middle cadres, and tried to win its support or at least neutrality for the policy of cutting food subsidies. This all indicates that the government itself does not believe the party to be the marginal grouping that the election results would indicate.

On the other hand, the Tagammu‘ must now realize the magnitude of the task at hand if it wants to become a mass party with electoral weight. The disappointing results reflect more the lack of political groundwork in preceding years than the oppressive scrutiny of the regime and the electoral fraud of the NDP. The election of party lists rather than personal lists, originally an opposition demand to feature programs rather than personalities, may be right in principle, but requires a high degree of political consciousness and an elaborate party machine. The NDP advantage on the latter score was not offset by the requisite political sophistication, especially in rural areas. Time and again I witnessed the difficulties candidates faced in explaining the complexities of the electoral procedure, sometimes even to their own rank and file. (“So we don’t vote for Mahmud Bey?” “No, you vote for our list, and its headed by so-and-so.”) The head of the list would often be somebody from another place in the same large geographical area, someone they did not know or who did not count in the local power structure.

Apart from its influence among intellectuals (and in certain professional organizations), the Tagammu‘ has always derived its main strength from workers in the large public sector industries, from public employees, and from certain rural Delta areas with a history of political struggle around land reform issues. But support in certain key sectors of society is not easily transmitted in campaigns that address the public at large, especially if constituency borders are drawn in such a way as to include industrial suburbs with adjoining rural districts. The Tagammu‘ presented many candidates who had won trade union elections in the big factories or elections to local government councils. But these local leaders frequently lacked the regional prominence necessary in a political culture still dominated by personal politics and persisting kinship and clan ties. In the words of one party leader, “the people respect and trust our cadres, but don’t think they carry weight in government circles.”

The Tagammu‘ candidates with the highest number of votes, general-secretary Khalid Mohieddin in north Qalubiyya, and central committee secretary Lutfi Waked in Sharqiyya Province’s third district, are not only well known political figures (both are ex-Free Officers), but also traditional notables in their respective areas. [6] Most electoral fraud occurred at the local level, where the ability of local bosses to deliver votes to the NDP was at stake. While some of this was perpetrated by outright violence, such as throwing out opposition mandubin or burning ballot boxes, much was accomplished through heavy-handed “persuasion.” It takes a large, organized presence on the ground to counter this kind of pressure, to reinforce the confidence of supporters and sympathizers, who are aware through the constant government attacks that voting for the opposition could entail political risk. This may not be so important in the anonymity of the city, but it counts in the countryside where, if you can vote secretly at all, nobody believes your vote will remain secret.

The Tagammu’ presence on the ground is as yet very uneven, especially in the countryside. At one meeting I attended in Daqhaliyya province, more than 700 people enthusiastically pledged their support. How much of this was due to the fact that it was the candidate’s native village? In another village, the audience might hardly exceed the number of people from the provincial capital accompanying the candidate on his tour. (These instances may have reflected the fact that meetings had to be held before sunset, when most peasants were still in the field; the opposition complained about the fact that the elections were held at harvest time.)

Apart from the problem of getting the party and its program known to the people, there was the problem of convincing people that it was worthwhile for them to bother about elections at all. “Kulluhum zay el-zift”(“They are all bullshit”) was a frequent remark about the parties from politically conscious villagers who were quite willing to participate in informal discussions with the candidates in the coffeehouses, shops or homes, and who often showed a genuine interest in the programmatic proposals of Tagammu‘. From these discussions, I had the strong impression that if they were not going to vote Tagammu‘ it was not because they worried about the party’s “atheism” and “communism” but because they simply did not believe voting Tagammu‘ would change anything. So why take a risk and displease Mahmud Bey? This skepticism was shared, albeit with different practical consequences, by many of Tagammu‘’s own militants. Especially the more radical ones availed themselves of the opportunity for “political mass work” with little concern for the results of the voting. The leadership stressed that there was a real chance to meet the eight percent minimum, and that this would be an important political breakthrough. This did not happen. In evaluating the Tagammu‘ performance, party leaders differentiate between the “electoral battle” they have lost and the “political battle” they claim to have won. This cannot be dismissed as mere rationalization of defeat. The party has used the possibilities of the campaign to strengthen its influence and create the basis for further expansion.

Other Parties

The Socialist Labor Party (‘Amal), although it officially received almost twice the number of votes as the Tagammu‘, was much less convincing as an organized political force (and much less visible during the campaign) than its leftist counterpart. It benefited from favorable coverage by the government-controlled media, but it obviously lacked the cadres and organizational infrastructure for a national campaign. The return of the Wafd deprived it of the greater part of its potential constituency. ‘Amal’s credibility was not enhanced when, after the elections, it accepted the nomination to parliament of four of its previously unsuccessful candidates. (The president has the right to nominate ten MPs. The Tagammu‘ has refused this kind of deal: when one of its candidates, Milad Hanna, nevertheless did accept Mubarak’s offer — officially as a Coptic community leader — he was stripped of all leadership responsibilities in the party.)

The Socialist Liberals (Ahrar) are probably the only party for which the official results (less than one percent) truly reflected its political weight. Created by Sadat to be the official “right” which would make the government party look centrist, it was condemned to remain an empty vessel from the beginning. The Wafd made it completely redundant.

The return of the Wafd to the political battlefield aroused the greatest Western interest in this campaign, especially its alliance with the Muslim Brothers. The Wafd has traditionally represented a “secularizing” force, drawing more on the Napoleonic Code than the shari‘a for its legislative inspiration. For this reason, it has always found many adherents among the Coptic minority. The electoral alliance with the Muslim Brothers, seemingly a reversal of its traditional stand, has been interpreted as another manifestation of the fundamentalist upsurge in Egypt. A few prominent members of the party even resigned in protest. Still, one should not attribute too much significance to what is a tactical electoral alliance on terms largely dictated by the Wafd.

Since independents could not run and religious parties are forbidden, the Brothers’ choice was to stay home or affiliate with an existing party. The Wafd stood the best chance of passing the eight percent threshold, and was also the party which shared the Brothers’ aversion to the regime springing from the July 1952 Revolution. Of some proposed 70 Muslim Brothers candidates, the Wafd accepted only 18 on its list, and only eight in positions which stood a chance of being (and indeed were) elected. The Wafd’s decision-making bodies are still dominated by the old guard; the Brothers have not gained access. The Wafd’s program now calls for the principal source of legislation to be the shari‘a, but this slogan is nowadays adopted by all parties, including the Tagammu‘. This is more a concession to the general Islamic mood than to the demand of its partner.

If this alliance does not imply a significant fundamentalist turn for the Wafd, neither does it solve the question of political representation for the important social force of Muslim fundamentalism. The present Muslim Brothers (Omar Tilmisani and his friends) are only the moderate wing of this movement, which includes many different groups and tendencies. Much more militant are the Gama‘at Islamiyya (Islamic Communities), a collective label for different groups whose main strength is in the universities, and armed groups like al-Jihad, which was responsible for the assassination of Sadat and the uprising in Asyut which followed. The Gama‘at were party to no agreement and did not take part in the elections, except in Alexandria where two candidates reportedly close to them obtained a place on the Wafd list; one was elected. A Wafdist spokesman later belittled these candidacies as a result of a “misunderstanding.”

The distance between the Wafd and those who adopted its label was never clearer than in Alexandria. In typical Wafd meetings, after enthusiastic slogans saluting every intervention of Fuad Sarag al-Din, one would hear a faint echo of “ Allahu akhbar” to show the presence of a few Brothers. In one of the more impressive meetings I attended, though, more than 3,000 people came to support one fundamentalist candidate in Alexandria. They made their presence, perfectly clear: “Rusul Za’imna!” (“The Prophet is our leader!”) The few who started to applaud when Sarag al-Din’s name was mentioned were immediately hushed to silence by a three thousand-fold “Allahu akhbar.” Here was none of the joyful cacophony of other parties’ meetings, but instead a tightly controlled service d’ordre. Cheerleaders chanted Islamic slogans from the rostrum, punctuating the Islamic remedies which the different speakers proposed for Egypt’s ills. With its final prayers in honor of martyrs, like Sayed Qutb and other Brothers hanged or tortured under Nasser, and its community singing, the meeting had more the spirit of a religious revival than an election rally.

On the Defensive

The campaign of the NDP has revealed that the regime is ideologically very much on the defensive. After years of “de-Nasserization,” and while the basic policies initiated under Sadat (infitah, Camp David, alignment with Washington) remain in place with only minor modifications, the regime has increasingly adopted a Nasserist political discourse. If one had only followed the campaign of the NDP, he or she would never have known that Egypt had once had a president by the name of Sadat. It made great efforts to portray itself as a “progressive” force as opposed to the “reactionary” Wafd, broadcasting a trove of archival footage on television to remind Egyptians of their sufferings at the hands of the feudalist landlords when the Wafd was in power. Its defense of the “socialist gains of the workers and peasants” under Nasser, its calls for “productive infitah” — all this implicitly acknowledged the validity of much of the Tagammu‘ critique.

But such a political discourse makes it even more difficult to persuade the Egyptian people to accept the economic sacrifices entailed by a totally different philosophy of infitah. The demonstrations at Kafr al-Dawwar have pointedly reminded the government, in case it might have forgotten the lesson of January 1977, how difficult it is to administer the bitter medicine of the IMF without convulsive reactions from the patient. Mubarak’s movement of retreat suggests that his half-hearted liberalization attempts have resulted not in stability but in a dangerous kind of immobility in a situation where the regime, in spite of an overwhelming “popular mandate,” lacks the political base for the policies it is committed to.

There is no doubt that the May 1984 elections have greatly improved the regime’s image abroad and, to the extent that they have 4ed to an extension of political freedoms, also at home. But in Egypt itself the limits of liberalization have become apparent. The net effect is a parliament without real opposition in vital areas, since the Wafd is in basic agreement with the government on foreign and economic policy issues. The only, though important, basic difference is the Wafd’s greater commitment to more democracy. But any genuine progress in this area would immediately (re)introduce those forces and currents that have remained wholly or partially excluded from institutionalized politics. In the meantime, the social and political demands carried by those forces will continue to express themselves in struggles outside the parliamentary arena. There is already the instance of Kafr al-Dawwar, and the earlier protests in 1984 of the students in Mansura, Cairo and elsewhere against the intimidation by secret campus police and curtailment of their rights to organize. The very fact that the state of emergency, enforced since 1981, was extended for another year, shows that the regime itself lacks confidence in its own crushing majority. Mubarak’s resounding success has all the appearances of a Pyrrhic victory.



[1] Al-Ahram, June 1, 1984.
[2] See the analysis by Mohamed Sid-Ahmed in Le Monde Diplomatique, May 1984.
[3] Gudrun Kramer, “The Democratization Process in Egypt and the Elections for Parliament of May 1984,” (in German) (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Ebenhausen, 1984) provides an informative comparative analysis of the elections of 1976,1979 and 1984.
4 See James Jankowski, Egypt’s Young Rebels: “Young Egypt,” 1933-1952 (Stanford, 1975).
[5] See Mohammed Sid-Ahmed’s article in Le Monde Diplomatique, December 1984.
[6] See al-Ahram, June 1, 1984, for a breakdown of the official results by district.

* Video is quickly becoming an important social phenomenon in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. (See Samir Farid, “Video: How, Why and Where To?” Arab Alternative Futures Dossier ll, January 1984.) Its potential for political propaganda could become very important in the near future. One need only recall the role of cassettes tapes in Khomeini’s mobilization against the shah, or the tapes of fundamentalists like Sheikh Kishk in Egypt. The impact of visual messages could be even greater.

How to cite this article:

Bertus Hendriks "Egypt’s Elections, Mubarak’s Bind," Middle East Report 129 (January 1985).

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