Egyptian political factions strategise ahead of November legislative vote
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Egypt’s first legislative elections since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak are scheduled to begin November 28. The Muslim Brotherhood, former National Democratic Party members, and Tahrir Square militants are already strategising.
It is the next chapter in Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition period: the first legislative elections since the pro-democracy revolution last winter are scheduled to begin on November 28 and wrap up on March 11.
The first round of voting will be for the People’s Assembly (the lower house of parliament), and the second for the Shura Council (the upper house), according to the state-owned Al-Ahram daily newspaper, which cited a senior official as its source.
After the parliamentary elections, a committee will draft a new constitution to replace the one from the Mubarak era, paving the way for presidential elections to be held.
Since Mubarak’s resignation on February 11, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has governed the country, promising to hand over control as soon as elections are complete. Initially planned for September, the elections were postponed in July. The decision came as a relief for those who led the revolution and who did not consider themselves ready to tackle an electoral campaign – especially considering that the Muslim Brotherhood was the main opposition force during Mubarak’s rule and therefore had a substantial head start in terms of organisation.
“Last June, the Brotherhood were ready and their campaign was organised. They were already campaigning in villages and in neighbourhoods around Cairo,” explained Sonia Dridi, France 24’s correspondent in the Egyptian capital. “They have been lobbying for the elections not to be delayed by too much.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, an unpredictable factor
The role of the Muslim Brotherhood - created in 1928 and officially banned since 1954 - in the upcoming elections is difficult to assess at this point. “No one knows how many members the Brotherhood has,” explained Claude Guibal, French daily Libération’s correspondent in Egypt. “But the movement is the most structured of all of them. They’ve been campaigning for sixty years, whereas the opposition is just starting to get organised.”
Outside Cairo, the Muslim Brotherhood are an inescapable presence, with a widespread influence over banks, hospitals, schools, and charities. The organisation’s second-in-command, Rashad al-Bayumi, told German magazine Der Spiegel last February that government estimates put Muslim Brotherhood membership between three and four million, but said exact figures are hard to pin down. “We know simply that we’re everywhere, in each city, each village, each street,” he said.
Muslim Brotherhood leaders have promised they would aim for no more than 40% of the 504 parliamentary seats, since the movement has now joined the National Democratic Alliance for Egypt, a coalition of 33 political parties formed after the 2011 revolution.
Indeed, the organisation’s strategy seems to be to downplay its ambitions for the political future of the country. “They’re trying not to scare people. Their purpose since the revolution has been to show that they’re respectable,” explained Claude Guibal. “The Salafists are helping them a lot, because they’re the ones scaring people. The Muslim Brotherhood is playing the role of the model student in the democracy game….and the benefit they’re reaping is political legitimacy.”
Still, Guibal explained, the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to influence the future Constitution. “They want widespread Islamisation and want to craft a Constitution that suits them,” Guibal said. “But they’re intelligent: they do not want to take power immediately, if only because the task awaiting the next government looks very difficult.”
Blacklisting former National Democratic Party members
In addition to the Muslim Brotherhood, differently oriented pro-democracy militants are forging alliances in an effort to “present a united front” against the former leaders of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, Sonia Dridi explained.
Those who want to turn the page on the Mubarak era without paving the way for the Muslim Brotherhood have the choice between longstanding opposition parties and more recent movements associated with Tahrir Square. Among the older opposition parties are the left-wing Hizb al-Tagammu “National Progressive Unionist Party” or the centrist Hizb Al-Adl “Justice” party, which is popular among many writers and intellectuals.
As for the newer options, divisions persist on the likelihood that the April 6 movement – a largely Web-based pro-democracy initiative led mainly by industrial workers and students – can transform itself into a political party. But one of its representatives, Tarik Khouli, said that certain leaders from the movement would run independently.
Many of the activists from the movement are launching a campaign to track the most infamous and corrupt former members of the National Democratic Party. “The National Democratic Party had no ideology,” explained Guibal. “The party’s main political priority was buying votes.”
Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, which brings together groups that organised the Tahrir Square protests, will also be running in the election.
“The political field is open,” Dridi said. “The role and importance of each party is still uncertain.”
Under the restrictions of emergency rule
Several weeks before voting begins, organisations such as Human Rights Watch are already concerned about the transparency of the election. “According to information that we have, the access to vote-counting rooms will be strictly limited, bordering on impossible, for international observers,” warned Heba Morayef, head of the group’s Cairo branch.
Another source of concern has been the protection of freedoms of assembly and speech. The emergency rule that has been in place since 1967 – apart from an 18-month break in 1980 – allows Egyptian authorities to detain individuals without formal charges and suspend certain constitutional rights. Restrictions were further reinforced following the attack on the Israeli embassy on September 9.
“Of course, the army can’t arrest everyone at every political rally....soldiers no longer dare arrest prominent activists, as they were doing in March and April,” Heba Morayef explained. “But I worry about lesser-known activists, those who are not in the spotlight and who can be arrested without the media even noticing and without us being able to help them.”