November 8 marks the beginning of the third and final round of elections to the lower house of parliament in Egypt, the largest Arab country and the second-largest recipient of US foreign aid. With 282 of the 444 races now complete, results so far have included a strikingly poor showing by President Husni Mubarak’s scandal-plagued National Democratic Party (NDP), coupled with an unexpectedly strong performance by the officially outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. In the first round, the NDP won only 59 seats out of 150; in the second, 42 of 134. The dimensions of the debacle become clearer when the results in particular districts are examined—the party lost all four of its seats in Suez, won only one of 18 seats in the Delta town of Kafr al-Sheikh, and gained only one seat out of six in the southern town of Aswan. The 2000 elections—the first ever to be supervised by Egypt’s independent judiciary—have been free to date of the large-scale ballot-tampering which characterized earlier polls. That procedural reform, coupled with economic woes, corruption scandals and a revival of Egyptian street politics, predestined the NDP to losing seats. But so far, Mubarak’s party has found other ways of ensuring that the NDP will maintain its dominant position in parliament.
The last several legislative elections have seen the NDP’s share of the parliament’s seats steadily increase, from 68 percent in 1987 to 86 percent in 1990 to an incredible 94 percent in 1995. In the 1995 elections—widely viewed as Egypt’s most violent and fraudulent ever—only 14 of 444 seats went to opposition parties. But the NDP had plenty to be nervous about as this month’s elections neared. In July, the Supreme Constitutional Court, which had dissolved assemblies in 1985 and 1987 for discriminating against independent candidates, ruled the 1990 and 1995 election procedures unconstitutional as well. The constitution calls for judges to supervise balloting in all locations; in 1990 and 1995, civil servants had overseen voting at the small rural polling places where most electoral fraud had occurred. Meeting an old demand of the opposition parties, the Court decided that elections would be carried out in three stages to ensure that judges could observe voting everywhere.
The NDP’s Nightmare Summer
After two years of pretending to the public that Egypt was awash in hard currency, this summer Mubarak’s government was forced to admit to a severe liquidity crisis. Late in the summer, the Central Bank devalued the Egyptian pound from roughly 3.4 to 3.65 pounds to the dollar, squeezing the purchasing power of most Egyptian consumers. The Economic Affairs Minister assured TV viewers that this “rise in the value of the dollar against the Egyptian pound” would not affect “limited-income families,” citing government price subsidies for staples like bread, sugar and cooking oil. But prices for most other goods have risen, while incomes have not.
To make matters worse for the NDP, several parliamentary deputies were convicted in high-profile corruption cases this year. One deputy was found selling permits for the pilgrimage to Mecca which he received as a perquisite of his job. Four other NDP MPs and 28 others were jailed for exploiting their connections with the leadership of the Nile Bank to receive inadequately secured loans of up to $1.5 billion. As many middle-class Egyptians struggle to earn $3000 a year, another NDP MP was jailed for bouncing checks worth over $600,000. The connection between the liquidity crisis and the careless NDP stewardship of the economy, as symbolized by the Nile Bank debacle, was easy for citizens to draw.
Despite the government’s best efforts, the first two rounds of the election took place in a highly energized political atmosphere. While the government’s already strict control of mass gatherings usually tightens in electoral periods, the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in Palestine brought large numbers of Egyptians across the country into the streets. The protests —including a nearly successful march from Cairo University to the Israeli Embassy on October 4 and an October 16 demonstration at Cairo University in which a cellular telephone call to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin of Hamas was broadcast to the crowd—put the NDP, which supports Mubarak’s cautious diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel, in a difficult position. Especially after Mubarak heeded US pressure to host the Sharm al-Sheikh summit, a large vote for candidates rejecting any ties with Israel became more likely.
Return of the Muslim Brothers
Despite being technically illegal, the Muslim Brotherhood has run candidates in the last four elections as independents. For the first time this year, the Brotherhood ran a female candidate, Jihan al-Halafawi. The group has already won 15 seats, and expects more in the final round—an astonishing result considering the government’s concerted attempts over more than a year to destroy the Brotherhood’s electoral chances. Late last year, 16 Brothers, including leading figures in the Brotherhood’s takeover of several professional syndicates, were arrested and put on military trial on charges of reviving the outlawed movement and trying to establish control over the syndicates. The government has tried to stem the Brotherhood tide through tactics both familiar — arresting Brotherhood spokesman Mamoun al-Hudaybi’s campaign organizers and poll representatives a week before he entered elections in Cairo — and truly bizarre. When 18 Brothers whom she had appointed to represent her in polling stations were arrested on the eve of the first round, female candidate Halafawi filed a lawsuit demanding postponement of the poll in her district. The government ignored the court ruling postponing the election, but when Halafawi and her Brotherhood counterpart in the district received the highest number of votes going into the runoff election, the Interior Ministry used the original court decision as the pretext for delaying the runoff.
At least some Brotherhood votes are classical “protest” votes against the NDP’s corruption and economic mismanagement, but other opposition parties have not been able to exploit the ruling party’s weaknesses nearly as effectively. The Wafd, Egypt’s oldest party, has suffered a severe beating, winning only four seats to date despite sponsoring a list of 273 official candidates, its largest ever. Once a stalwart defender of economic and political liberalism, the party’s 1984 alliance with the Brotherhood drove many Coptic party veterans away. More recently, the Wafd’s liberal credentials were further tarnished when it opposed reprinting the controversial novel “A Banquet for Seaweed” on the grounds that it insulted Islam, and opposed the revised personal status law passed by the government earlier this year. Many feminists cautiously welcomed the law, which affords women more rights in divorce matters. Having abdicated the mantle of political liberalism, the Wafd is left with staunch support of economic liberalization. But the NDP’s consistent support of such policies gives the Wafd no distinct message to offer.
The other bulwark of the secular opposition, the National Progressive Unionist Party (NPUP), has also obtained four seats to date. Given that the party won a mere five seats in 1990, when it was the only major opposition party contesting the elections, NPUP’s results so far are not surprising, and with 15 party members contesting seats in the third round they are almost certain to improve. The party has moved noticeably to the center in recent years, dropping the word “socialist” from the party title in 1995 and voting to abstain from rather than oppose Mubarak’s reelection referendum in 1999. The NPUP lacks a strong popular base, partly because government controls on labor organizing and unions restrict the party’s outreach to its natural constituency—Egyptian workers.
“Independents” and Monitors
While the results of the first two rounds have been embarrassing for the NDP, they will not affect its overwhelming majority power in the new parliament due to the large numbers of candidates running as independents who rejoined the NDP after winning their seats. An unprecedented 79 percent of all candidates ran as independents this year. Most of the “independents” are actually NDP members who did not win their party’s nomination, and in fact the number of these “independents” who have rejoined the NDP upon their election has more than doubled the NDP’s numbers, bringing it to 224 of 282 seats—a very comfortable majority. The large number of independents is due not only to the lack of discipline within the NDP but also to the many restrictions which the state places on the formation of political parties. Any group wishing to form a party must win the approval of the Political Parties Committee, which has licensed only one party in the last twenty years. All of the other 11 parties licensed in this period won their licenses through court appeals.
So far, the full judicial supervision of the 2000 balloting appears to have forestalled the direct fraud that marred past elections in Egypt. Vigilant election monitoring by NGOs was key to proving the fraud in the 1995 election, but government attacks over the last two years on key monitors all but crippled such efforts for this poll. One monitor, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, was arrested on June 30 on charges ranging from the purposeful dissemination of information damaging to Egypt’s image to forgery of ballots, and withdrew from monitoring in early October to prepare for trial. The Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR), which carried out the bulk of the field monitoring in 1995, is suffering financially. Authorities arrested the group’s secretary-general in 1998 for having accepted foreign funding without notifying the government. Fearing imprisonment, the group’s leaders will not accept any further foreign funding, virtually guaranteeing the organization’s near bankruptcy. Despite NDP setbacks in the 2000 elections, the government’s silencing of Ibrahim and the EOHR, its campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood and continued restrictions on the formation of political parties demonstrate that Egypt is still a long way from truly free and fair elections.