On Sunday, this week, Egyptians went to the polls to elect members of the National Assembly, in what observers say is one of the most controversial elections in the Arab world’s most populated country in recent years. Official government propaganda presented the parliamentary election as the most women-friendly Egyptian poll, because in 2009, the ruling National Democratic Party government of long-standing helmsman, President Hosni Mubarak, passed a law creating a new quota system which added 64 new seats to the People’s Assembly, which can only be contested by women. Expected to be in place over two five-year election cycles, the quota will ensure that women will control at least 12 percent of the Egyptian National Assembly.
The BBC’s Jon Leyne, reporting from Cairo, on the eve of the elections, said turnout was not expected to exceed ten percent, because Egyptians have lost faith in politics and politicians. But the EAWORLDVIEW saw a complex motivation behind the new gender quota policy. It quoted an observer as saying that the Egyptian regime is good at finding ways to maintain power, and the new gender quota policy represents a part of a larger strategy. Hosni Mubarak’s regime is using it to curry the favour of the liberal, secular elite as well as the international community, without changing conservative attitudes on the ground or relinquishing any political control. In any case, most of the women likely to benefit from this quota will be members of the ruling party.
And as if to confirm the skeptical reading of the new policy, by Monday this week, opposition parties began to report very heavy defeats in the Sunday polls. The website of RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY quoted the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition party as saying that none of its 130 candidates won a seat in the election. Brotherhood spokesperson, Abdel Galil sl-Sharnoubi, said they either lost to the NDP or face a December 5 runoff. The liberal New Wafd party also said it had no winners in the first round, while a handful of its members will go for the runoff.
The journal FOREIGN POLICY did a postmortem of the parliamentary poll, saying it “went off basically as expected, with vote buying, voter intimidation and fraud the norm across the country despite protests”. It said that Hosni Mubarak’s party will “take a majority of the votes and continue to control the parliament, as it has done for almost 30 years”. Shadi Hamid, a researcher at the Brookings Institution apologized, he said, “if I gave some people the impression that these were elections, in any real sense of the word. They are not”.
Election day was marked by numerous reports of abuses: “from democratic activists beaten in Nile Delta to repeated attacks on journalists by state security forces to candidates in Cairo slums paying 100 Egyptian pounds (about $20) per vote, and much more”, according to FOREIGN POLICY. Hossam el-Hamalawy, a blogger, activist and journalist, was quoted as saying “we all expected violence will be the name of the game today, but I think the level of violence that actually happened has surpassed some of our wildest imagination”.
In Alexandria, Aljazeera reported rival members of the ruling party doing battles in the streets, while at least three people were killed in election-related violence and the son of an opposition candidate was stabbed to death, the night before the elections, while putting up posters for his father. Most of the election-day violence was reported by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has always been at the receiving end of the worst behavior of the Egyptian authorities. Though officially banned, the Brotherhood remains Egypt’s largest and best-organized opposition party. It was under tremendous pressure from the government in the run up to the polls last Sunday.
In the last parliamentary poll in 2005, the Brotherhood had won an unprecedented number of seats and that was an experience that the NDP regime was determined to ensure was not repeated last Sunday. At least 1,200 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested in the run up to Sunday’s poll. While on the Friday before the polls, 11 people were found guilty of taking part in election demonstrations and campaigning for the banned Muslim Brotherhood. And in May, the parliament voted a two year extension to the country’s state of emergency, to uphold the atmosphere of repression in the country.
The run up to the polls had also been dominated by discussion on whether or not to send observers to watch the conduct of the polls. Egypt was very angry that the United States contemplated sending observers. Mubarak opposed the idea and monitors were not accredited. Nevertheless, the Middle East Director of Human Rights Watch dispatched himself to a small city in the Nile Delta, and he was subsequently detained by the police. Many people stayed home in fear of election-day violence while the international media reported that the notorious traffic jam disappeared from Cairo as people stayed away from the streets.
Some 42 million people were eligible to cast their votes in the elections, while the new parliament will have 518 members, 508 of whom will be elected and 10 will be appointed by presidential decree. Each of the 254 constituencies will return two MPs representing two sets of people: workers and peasants represent one group, and professionals, the other. According to the constitution, the former must account for at least half of all MPs. The BBC added that winners are decided on a first-past-the-post basis. And to win outright, a candidate must get more than 50% of the vote. Otherwise, the top two battle it out in a second round.
Observers say that the ruling National Democratic Party will end up winning an embarrassingly large victory, which will further undermine the credibility of the elections. The results released by Monday confirm this trend of an “embarrassingly large victory”. They similarly view the parliamentary elections held last Sunday as a test run for next year’s presidential election, when the octogenarian President Hosni Mubarak will be up for another six year term. The widespread speculation in Egypt, is that Mubarak is likely to pass presidency to his son, Gamal, who occupies a very important party position at the moment. What is not very clear is the mechanism for power transfer. In Egypt anyway, there is not a lot that is very clear about the tightly-controlled and authoritarian political structure; however, the parliamentary election held on Sunday shows clearly, as FOREIGN POLICY puts it, that the government is ever willing “to use violence or outright fraud to maintain power. That’s a lesson both Hosni Mubarak and his opponents will keep in mind next year”.