If the riots of February 1986 ushered in a year of doubt about the future of Husni Mubarak’s regime, the events of early 1987 appear to indicate that he has consolidated his position both domestically and internationally. [1] Mubarak upstaged the opposition and enhanced his legitimacy by calling new parliamentary elections in which opposition forces were able to significantly increase their representation in the National Assembly. The government party, however, remains firmly in control of the parliament, virtually assuring the president's renomination in the fall for another six-year term, and approval of a new standby loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

The elections were held on April 6, with runoffs for nine contested seats on April 9. Of the 448 elected seats in the chamber, 400 are distributed according to the vote for party lists. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) captured 309 of these by winning 69.6 percent of the vote. The Islamist-nationalist Socialist Labor Party (SLP) list, which represented an alliance between that party, the Muslim Brotherhood and the rightwing Socialist Liberals Party (Ahrar), won 17 percent of the vote and 56 seats, while the center-right New Wafd Party earned 10.9 percent of the vote and 35 seats. The National Progressive Unionist Party (Tagammu‘), the only leftist party in the lot, got only 2.2 percent of the vote and no seats, since the law requires a party to garner a minimum of 8 percent of the national vote in order to be represented. [2]

According to a new election law, the remaining 48 seats were set aside for independent candidates or individual party nominees. Of the 48, NDP-sponsored candidates won 39 seats; five others were won by NDP independents who had not gotten party backing. No representative of the Wafd or the Tagammu‘, or any true independent, captured an individual seat. The combined results give the NDP a total of 353 seats in the parliament, or just under 80 percent. The SLP grouping holds a total of 60 seats, of which 38 have gone to Muslim Brothers, 16 to the SLP itself, and six to Ahrar. The Wafd has 35 seats and the Tagammu‘ none. [3] In the newly-elected parliament, the opposition is larger and more diversified, though still without a leftist voice. Islamist forces in particular have a much stronger presence, and Mubarak will face increasing pressure to adhere to the shari‘a (Islamic law); debate over the issue erupted in one of the first meetings of the assembly. [4] With the NDP still commanding the two-thirds majority needed to pass legislation, however, the outcome of any parliamentary decisions remains a foregone conclusion.

Sudden Elections

In the view of many Egyptians, the elections of 1984 were marred by numerous incidents of tadakhkhul (government or NDP interference in the voting process, such as intimidation of voters and obstruction of poll watching) and tazwir (ballot box stuffing, inflation of the vote count, and so on). In the three years since those elections, opposition parties have continued to stress the issue in their press and through legal channels. In November 1986, despite sharply divergent ideologies and political programs, these parties united with the Muslim Brotherhood to support a program of democratic reforms aimed at breaking the electoral stranglehold of the NDP.

The opposition has been able to substantiate many of its charges of election fraud. In March, for example, an administrative appeals court upheld 10 complaints filed by the Tagammu‘ and the SLP. According to Egyptian law the findings of this court go to the parliament itself for further action. The assembly is free to ignore them, which of course it did. [5]

More threatening to the regime was a constitutional case challenging the legitimacy of the election law itself. Filed independently by lawyer Kamal Khalid, the case charged that by prohibiting independent candidates the law violated a constitutional provision guaranteeing the rights of individuals. The Supreme Court released its initial report in January 1987, finding in favor of Khalid. The final court decision, by tradition always based on the initial report, was due out several weeks later. Mubarak was faced with a major dilemma, since the parliament was scheduled to nominate him for a second term in November 1987; election by an unconstitutional parliament would clearly jeopardize his claim to legitimate rule.

When the initial report was issued, the opposition coalition called for a rally on February 5 to demand abrogation of the 1984 law, dissolution of the parliament and new elections based on revised electoral procedures. The opposition expected that the final court ruling would compel Mubarak to meet with their leaders and agree on ways to implement their demands. Mubarak caught the opposition off guard and preempted the court by announcing on February 4th — the day before the scheduled rally — that he was calling for a national referendum on disbanding the parliament and holding new elections. On February 12, he issued amendments to the old electoral law to circumvent the court’s objections.

The new election law set aside one seat in each voting district for independent candidates. However, the law also permitted party-nominated candidates to contest these seats. A stipulation that a candidate needed 20 percent of the total vote in order to win (thus forcing the two front-runners into a runoff) gave an added advantage to candidates with access to the financing, organization and prestige of a party, especially the stronger NDP. In this April’s election, the ruling party got 70 percent of the party list vote; but NDP members won 92 percent of the individual seats, including all nine of those requiring runoffs.

The new law maintained the requirement that a party receive eight percent of the vote nationwide in order to be seated. This stipulation in effect overrides the will of individual districts when a party wins a substantial part of the local vote but does not have a strong national presence. The new law also kept a number of provisions which the opposition charges facilitate fraud, such as election supervision by the interior minister, who is appointed by the president, and the fact that voters are not required to prove their identity upon entering the polls. [6]

The February 18 referendum carried by a 90 percent majority with 77 percent voter turnout, according to official figures. [7] Mubarak promptly called for elections in early April, giving the opposition forces only seven weeks to campaign. This only enhanced the crushing advantage already enjoyed by the NDP, which commands greater financial resources and has control of television, radio, and three official daily newspapers. The opposition parties were given a total of 40 minutes each on the broadcast media to present their platforms.

Mubarak’s move was a clever one: the opposition parties, having themselves initiated the call to dissolve the parliament, could not reasonably boycott the elections despite the suddenness of the campaign and all the deficiencies of the new law. Such a decision would clearly have cost them whatever legitimacy they had gained in the movement against the old assembly. The move also splintered the opposition front.

The Opposition

All of the opposition forces currently active in the Egyptian electoral arena have their origins in the pre-revolutionary period. They were banned from political activity during Nasser’s rule, however, and owe their return to electoral politics to Sadat’s halting commitment to democratization.

The Tagammu‘ and the Ahrar were formed originally as the left and right wings, respectively, of the Arab Socialist Union (ASU), Nasser’s third and most successful attempt to develop a single mass organization as a conduit between the government and the people. Sadat mandated the creation of left, right and center manabir (platforms) within the ASU in 1976 as a prelude to dismantling the organization. The majority formed the center platform which supported Sadat and his policies of infitah and a separate peace with Israel. The right platform, barely distinguishable from the center, formed around the call to extend free enterprise and limit the public sector; its head, Mustafa Kamil Murad, was president of the Cotton Exporters Association. Sadat assigned to the leftist pole residual Nasserist elements in the ASU and communists who had been active in the 1940s and early 1950s but spent much of the Nasser years in prison. These two groupings united initially around a program of opposition to infitah and support for the achievements of the July 1952 revolution. Khalid Muhi al-Din, a former Free Officer, headed the platform.

In 1977 Sadat dissolved the ASU and declared each of the platforms political parties. The left became the Tagammu‘, the center the NDP, and the right the Ahrar. Shortly thereafter, adherents of the Wafd, a popular nationalist party that had been in power intermittently during the pre-revolutionary period, came together again as the New Wafd. The Wafd, which in the past had articulated a liberal nationalist position, called for an end to corruption, expansion of opportunities for the private sector and stronger ties with the West. [8]

Sadat, after initiating the return to parliamentary democracy, soon found it increasingly threatening as he moved closer towards peace with Israel. In 1978 he placed crushing restrictions on all parties, and established a new “loyal opposition” to compete with the Wafd and the Tagammu‘: the Socialist Labor Party. Despite its name, the party had no particular orientation towards labor; its program and initial base derived from a nationalist-Islamist group that flourished among urban youth in the 1930s and 1940s known as Misr al-Fatat (Young Egypt) and its offspring, the Socialist Party. Ibrahim Shukri, a past leader of the Socialist Party and Sadat’s former minister of agriculture, was designated as president of the SLP; Sadat delegated his brother-in-law to be one of its first members.

The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, was outlawed by Nasser in 1954, and its members jailed. Sadat freed them and permitted their activity, a move aimed at establishing his own Islamic credentials and promoting them as a counterforce to the left. The Brothers are generally viewed as the most conservative of Egypt’s Islamic organizations; more radical tendencies emerged while the Brothers were in prison.

Mubarak, upon coming to power, gradually legalized more opposition activities, and the identity of the new parties crystallized during the 1984 election campaign. Ahrar emerged as the most rightwing, attacking the government mainly for monopolizing many sectors of the economy. Its platform called for the abolition of food and rent subsidies and unconditionally supported the Camp David accords, though these positions were actually hidden from voters during the campaign. The SLP criticized government corruption, called for expanding democracy and defended itself against charges that it was a paper party by emphasizing its historic roots and the contributions of its predecessor organizations to the nationalist movement. The SLP platform criticized the infitah and Camp David and called for the application of shari‘a, but the party put little emphasis on these issues during the campaign.

The Wafd contested the 1984 elections in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. Most Egyptians saw this as an opportunistic move to guarantee that the party would surpass the 8 percent minimum at the expense of the party’s traditional secular appeal. For the Brothers, the alliance was a way to participate in the campaign and gain seats in the Assembly despite the fact that religious organizations are legally prohibited from such activity; Mubarak tolerated this, apparently in recognition of the relative conservatism of the Brothers and the fact that their participation added legitimacy to the electoral process. The Wafd dominated the alliance, however, and emerged as the representative of small businessmen lacking connections to the government. The central issue of the campaign was government corruption, with a secondary emphasis on expanding democracy; the call for implementing the shari‘a and strengthening the role of Islam in the society came third. The Wafd also opposed Camp David in its platform, but downplayed foreign policy issues in the campaign.

The Tagammu‘ distinguished itself in the 1984 campaign as the only party to give primary emphasis to issues concerning the public welfare, and the only one whose actual campaign issues closely resembled the priorities reflected in its program. The party called for protecting subsidies and free education, raising wages and legalizing strikes, and developing the public sector. Its foreign policy program would abrogate the Camp David accords, renew and strengthen Egypt’s ties with the Arab world, and return to non-alignment vis-a-vis the superpowers. [9]

The Seven Week Campaign

As boycotting the 1987 elections was not a realistic possibility, the Tagammu‘ proposed an alternative strategy: a unified opposition ticket. The seats won by such a list would be divided among the parties according to a prearranged formula reflecting each party’s presumed strength. In this way, the weaker parties would be able to circumvent the 8 percent rule and all of the opposition forces would have some voice in the new assembly. The Wafd refused to participate, apparently believing it would fare better by going it alone. Its withdrawal confirmed a rupture between the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood, the seeds of which were apparently planted right after their 1984 success at the polls. While it is unclear exactly which side made the final decision to separate, the dissatisfaction was mutual: the Wafd’s traditional support among the Coptic Christian minority had suffered because of the alliance, while the Brotherhood resented the Wafd’s domination.

In its 1987 solo campaign, the Wafd again portrayed itself as the party of Egyptian nationalism and the legitimate heir to the 1952 revolution. Party propaganda attacked government corruption, and called for expanding democracy. This year, however, the party moved some distance from the pro-American stance of its platform, probably in an attempt to hold on to the anti-Western votes it had garnered through its alliance with the Brotherhood.

For the Tagammu‘, the Wafd’s withdrawal was a serious setback, since the party felt that it could not participate in an incomplete opposition ticket. Without the Wafd, party officials felt that the alliance lost its quality as a united front of different political forces to challenge the hegemony the electoral law gave to the NDP. They feared that Tagammu‘ participation would be viewed by supporters as a cheap tactical maneuver to gain seats at the expense of principles. For these reasons, the Tagammu‘ also pulled out of the incipient coalition.

In its campaign, the Tagammu‘ again concentrated on issues of public welfare. As the elections approached, the party paper Al-Ahali increasingly took up the issue of the expected election fraud. This was different than in 1984 when the party chose not to make this a campaign issue. Such stories in advance of voting day invariably helped dissuade some party supporters from going to the polls; a Tagammu‘ official acknowledged privately that this reflected the party’s recognition that it could not win the 8 percent minimum.

The remaining opposition grouping, which came to be known as the Tahaluf (Alliance), formally contested the elections as the SLP party list, since the law prohibits party blocs and the open participation of the Brotherhood. It was widely understood, however, that the Brotherhood dominated this alliance much more than their previous alliance with the Wafd. The campaign projected vague appeals to Islamic sentiments; the official slogan was “Islam is the solution” and the main demand implementation of shari‘a law. Given the contradictions between the positions of the parties in the Alliance, such generalities were predictable. The Alliance caused severe dissension within the ranks of the SLP. [10]

The smaller parties all slated their most popular figures as independents. The Alliance entered several popular shaikhs in Cairo, and the Tagammu‘ ran party leader Muhi al-Din in his native Qulyubiyya district, where his family enjoys longstanding prestige. Muhi al-Din was elected from this district in the ASU platform contest in 1976, and in 1984 the Tagammu‘ won 10 percent of the vote there. The new election law also allowed members of the outlawed Communist Party (CP) as well as candidates seeking to establish a new Nasserist party to run as independents. Three CP candidates ran openly as Marxists — lawyer Nabil al-Hilali in the industrial district of Helwan, Mahmud Amin al-‘Alam, a noted literary critic, in Cairo, and Mubarak Abdu Fadil in Heliopolis. This gave the Communists a new avenue to express their views and provided an opportunity for the Tagammu‘ to distinguish itself from the Communists. While the Tagammu‘ and the independent Marxists cooperated in their campaigns, each was careful to clarify that the Communists were not Tagammu‘ members and that the party does not adhere to Marxist principles. A similar arrangement obtained between the Tagammu‘ and the independent Nasserist candidates where they ran. [11]

The response to the call for independent candidates was incredible; in most districts there were between 40 and 50 on the ballot. The call unleashed a number of new political forces, including such curious and marginal elements as Egyptian environmentalists trying to start a Green Party. Not surprisingly, though, the campaign for both party and individual seats was dominated overwhelmingly by the ruling party. NDP propaganda also stressed Mubarak’s role in expanding democracy, but at the same time attempted to discredit the opposition parties. The official press insinuated that the Wafd was divided and confused, while the Tagammu‘ and the Alliance were portrayed as extremists bent on disrupting national unity. In Kafr al-Shaikh province an outbreak of sectarian strife between Muslim and Coptic Christians was blamed on the Tagammu‘, and two party functionaries were arrested; the government-owned press featured the incident prominently. As in 1984, the party was also prevented from holding meetings and rallies on several occasions. [12]

As the vote neared, the target of government repression shifted to the Alliance. Two days before the elections the government rounded up Islamist radicals throughout the country, charging they were planning to use arms to disrupt the elections. Egyptians interpreted the move as a means to restrict the Alliance’s election day successes. The SLP paper claimed that 100 of the Alliance’s headquarters were raided and that 2000 cadre, including many poll watchers, were arrested. [13]

The Vote and the Violations

For both the government and the left opposition, foreign journalists became the arbiters of truth concerning election day violations, as if both sides were acknowledging their own lack of credibility. Among the incidents cited: police detained Guardian correspondent David Hirst after he witnessed a conflict between Tagammu‘ poll watchers and the police in the Qulyubiyya district; a Reuters photographer was held after recording the early closing of a polling place near the pyramids. [14]

The Wafd and the SLP, in addition to complaining of interference and falsification, also charged that the interior ministry incorrectly distributed the party seats and altered the seating priorities of individual party members reflected in their lists. An administrative court upheld the complaint on April 21; a government legislative committee stayed the ruling, pending further investigation of the legal issues involved. Some 78 seats are affected. [15]

No Egyptians I talked to doubted that results had been falsified, but there was disagreement as to the degree of dishonesty relative to the previous election. The best argument for increased tazwir was the surprising last-minute defeat of Khalid Muhi al-Din given his personal popularity in Qulyubiyya and the Tagammu‘’s previous performance there. Early tallies showed him with such a commanding lead that the official press listed him as the probable winner, and some foreign journalists reported his victory. The electoral successes of the Alliance provided evidence of a more honest poll; in Cairo’s southern district, which includes Helwan, a Muslim Brother defeated the minister of state for military production. Such cases have helped Mubarak to increase the legitimacy of the electoral process, and hence his own presidency, by at least some degree.

People recognize that even without tazwir the NDP would have won the decisive majority of seats; Khalid Muhi al-Din conceded this publicly well in advance of the vote. [16] The strength of the NDP derives from its control of the state. In the more traditional areas of the country the party is able to garner support based on the distribution of social services and the mobilization of tribal and patrimonial leaders. The government monopoly on the broadcast media in particular deprives the opposition of an important means to reach the population, especially the illiterate.

Given all the hoopla around the elections and the onrush of independent candidates, perhaps the most striking thing about the poll was the general lack of popular enthusiasm it evoked. The official voter turnout of 54 percent represented something of an increase over 1984, but since about half of the country’s eligible voters (all citizens over 18 except those in the armed forces or working overseas) are not registered, this means that only about one-fourth of the adult population actually went to the polls. [17]

Though precise figures are not available, it appears that both non-registration and abstention are more prevalent among women and young adults. Both phenomena are also markedly more common in the bigger cities. In 1984, Egypt’s three largest cities had the lowest voter turnout and gave the least proportion of votes to the NDP; the highest participation and strongest support for the ruling party came from the country’s most illiterate and underdeveloped areas. [18] This year seemed no different; in a tour of five Cairo polling places on election day I saw few people voting, and initial figures put the voter turnout in Cairo at only 30 percent. This rural/urban dichotomy stands out as one of the prominent political realities in Egypt.

Further evidence of disenchantment with all the political forces involved in the campaign was an increase in protest votes. Several friends told me they deliberately invalidated their ballots, rather than abstaining, to prevent the NDP from using their uncast ballots for tazwir. While I know only of educated Cairenes who did this, the phenomena was evidently widespread: more than 5 percent of the total votes cast were disqualified, an increase of 64 percent over 1984 at a time when voter turnout increased by only 15 percent. [19]

The results can be taken as a fair, albeit imprecise, indication of the relative strength of the various opposition forces. The Islamist forces are clearly the strongest. The success of the Alliance is only one of a number of indicators of the growing undercurrent of Islamist sentiment in Egypt; another is the recent victories of candidates from radical Islamist groups in university elections. But one should not interpret a vote for the Alliance as desire for an Islamic state or even strong opposition to the present government. A number of Egyptians told me they supported the Mubarak regime and opposed the concept of an Islamic state, but voted for the Alliance to create more balance and a stronger Islamist voice in the parliament. It is the groups that did not participate in the campaign and the millions who did not vote who pose the larger danger to Mubarak.

The Wafd proved that it is the strongest of the opposition parties, and the only one able to surmount the 8 percent barrier on its own. On this basis, the party has protested Ibrahim Shukri’s self-appointment as opposition spokesman in parliament, charging that the number of seats held by actual SLP members is fewer than those held by the Wafd.

The left stands exposed as the weakest of the opposition forces. Despite the stress of its platform on issues of broad public concern, the Tagammu‘ has been unable to disabuse the populace at large of the idea that the party is dominated by Communists who are subservient to Moscow and hostile to religion. Some — but not all — of this problem can be blamed on the efforts of the government and the other parties to discredit the Tagammu‘. The party has also failed to attract significant sections of young Egyptian progressives. A number of former student activists have told me that they consider the Tagammu‘ hopelessly caught up in the past, and autocratically run by the older generation of leftists. The Tagammu‘ will have to change its image and broaden its base in the coming period if it is to remain a significant player on the Egyptian electoral scene.



[1] See Ben Rose, “Cairo’s Long Summer,” MERIP Middle East Report #142, (September-October 1986).
[2] Al-Ahram, April 11 and 12,1987. In the parliament elected in 1984, there were no individual candidacies. The ruling party won 73 percent of the vote and held 391 seats. The Wafd, which ran in alliance with the Brotherhood, got 15 percent of the vote and the remaining 57 seats, of which 8 were given to the Brothers. No other party achieved the 8 percent minimum. The president has the authority to appoint an additional 10 members to parliament, and in 1984 he included members of the SLP and the Tagammu‘ in the 10. The SLP obtained four seats in this manner. The Tagammu‘ refused the appointments in protest of the 8 percent rule. This year Mubarak did not repeat the offer.
[3] See Al-Ahram, April 9-15, 1987, for details.
[4] See Al-Ahram, April 28, 1987.
[5] Al-Ahali (newspaper of the Tagammu‘), April 1, 1987.
[6] For more on opposition objections to the new law and alternative proposals, see Al-Ahali, April 1, 1987.
[7] There were about one million “no” votes, presumably by adherents of the NDP.
[8] For more detail on the founding and development of the opposition parties, see John Waterbury, The Egypt of Nassar and Sadat (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984); Bertus Hendriks, “Egypt’s Elections, Mubarak’s Bind,” MERIP Reports #129 (January 1985); and The Parliamentary Elections, 1984 (Cairo: Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, 1987). (In Arabic; hereafter Parliamentary Elections.)
[9] See Hendriks and Parliamentary Elections, pp. 25-54 and 99-116 for more on the 1984 campaign.
[10] Al-Ahram, April 2, 1987.
[11] Al-Ahali, March 25,1987, and Sawt al-Arab, March 29,1987.
[12] Al-Ahali, April 1 and March 25, 1987.
[13] Al-Sha‘b (newspaper of the SLP), April 7 and 14, 1987. Note that Al-Wafd (April 12, 1987) said that only about 1200 were detained, and most foreign press put the number at between 500 and 1000.
[14] Al-Ahali, April 8, 1987.
[15] Al-Akhbar, April 22, 1987. See also Al-Sha‘b, April 12, 1987.
[16] Al-Hawadith, March 13-23,1987.
[17] Parliamentary Elections, pp. 223-224.
[18] Parliamentary Elections, pp. 229-238.
[19] See Parliamentary Elections, pp. 223-24 for figures on 1984 invalid ballots, and Al-Ahram, April 11,1987 for 1987 figures.

How to cite this article:

Erika Post "Egypt’s Elections," Middle East Report 147 (July/August 1987).

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


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