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"Hire a thug" and other campaign expenditures

The legally imposed limit on campaign spending of LE100,000 is proving little more than wishful thinking, what with the cost of billboards, TV adds and thugs for hire

Yasmine El-Rashidi, Wednesday 15 Dec 2010
cairo billboards
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When Egypt’s recently-formed High Commission for Elections increased the ceiling on campaign spending to LE100,000 ($17,500) last month – up 43 per cent from that of the last elections in 2005 - reaction from candidates and critics alike was slight. This figure, which buys little air-time in a country where a 30 second advertisement on a primary TV channel can cost up to LE30,000 ($5,254) not including production, largely means nothing.

It is widely acknowledged that campaign spending limits – LE100,000 for incumbents and LE200,000 for new candidates – are mere token figures, part of the government’s efforts to dissimulate corruption under the umbrella of “fair and free”. With no rigorous expenditure monitoring system in place, candidates are known to dip into deep pockets and spend amounts that far exceed what is allowed. Candidates have been giving out laptops, fridges, and washing machines in some constituencies this year, as well as walking around with cash-filled bags and handing out LE50 ($8) bills to woo voters.

In the last parliamentary election cycle, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights’ (EOHR) informal tabs tallied expenditures of some candidates at between LE3 - 5 million ($500,000 - 900,000). Estimations by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) were even higher – reporting that some candidates had spent as much as LE15 million ($2.6 million). The greatest breaches in cases came from candidates of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) itself, which could not be reached for comment.

Campaign funding and expenditures, which include restrictions on any foreign financial assistance or endorsements, are an issue of contention and intrigue in a system where government and business are the best of bedfellows. Beyond the discernible question of tracking the stipulated limits, the nature of the expenditures themselves have also become a predicament in the already-chequered landscape of Egypt’s political system and elections. While campaign expenditures span the traditional spectrum of advertising collateral – posters, banners, television and print ads, flyers – in the last elections, a new expense found its way onto the balance sheets of campaigners.

“There were thugs everywhere,” says Ayman Nour, Chairman of the Al-Ghad opposition party and a former Parliament member who ran for presidency in the first multi-candidate election of 2005. In reports, election watchdogs described it as “a new term phenomenon called 'pay for violence' [was witnessed in the 2005 elections] which means to pay rent for committing violence, in which some candidates of NDP, Muslim Brothers or Independents rent trouble makers to attack voters using cold steel and wooden sticks, and security forces noticed the whole scene neutrally.” Nour, who is boycotting the elections this year, explains the details of the election “thuggery” business as one might expect an advertising executive explaining a rate card.

“There is a whole elaborate system,” he says. Sitting in the wood-panelled back-office of his party headquarters on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the “anti-succession movement”, Nour gathers with several other opposition party guests and election watchdogs. They offer anecdotes about the violence and corruption that occurred during the last election rounds. In some cases thugs are paid to man a set of streets, tearing down opposition posters as they come up. In other cases they are paid to beat people up – at the ballot boxes or long before, during the campaigning stages. On request, they assist in falsifying papers, giving license – or revoking license – for candidates to put up banners in the streets. Prices vary, by area, by service, by difficulty of the task – including levels of violence.

The range is wide, with quoted prices running from LE500 ($87) to LE50,000 ($8,756). “We need to monitor campaign spending, but where do you begin? With the bribes, or the thugs, or the free TV ads given to NDP candidates?” says activist Hossam Ali. “Spending limits mean nothing.” Vote-buying is another story. Candidates have allegedly paid civilians in popular districts between LE200 ($35) and LE6,000 ($1,051) per vote. Election watchdogs have cited it not just as an NDP antic to secure votes, but as the emergence of a new type of non-political candidate - essentially rich people seeking election for reasons unrelated to politics and willing to buy votes for money.

While candidates claim the allotted limits set this year offer adequate resources to put together a good campaign that is free from corruption, prominent MPs, including the NDP’s Hisham Khalil, Secretary-General of the Wafd Party Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour, and Secretary-General of the pan-Arab Nasserist Party Ahmed Hassan, have all publicly called for the monitoring of both spending and corruption, citing the limit as “meaningless”.

The EOHR has also put forward a bill to the High Commission for Elections addressing these issues. In the bill, which includes 28 articles, Hafez Abu Seada, EOHR chairman, proposes that every candidate open a campaign-specific bank account in an accredited bank. “ He [the candidate] must deposit all funds allocated for his electoral campaign and all donations,” the bill states. “Withdrawing money from the bank account must be under the supervision of a certified public accountant. The candidate has to give the High Commission for Elections all records and financial transactions that he uses after the termination of the electoral process.”

The bill also proposes that the High Commission be granted the power to disqualify a candidate in the case expenditure limits are exceeded. The question of how the line would be drawn if a monitoring system is instituted raises perhaps more questions than it intends to answer. State-owned media often offers gratuitous airtime to NDP candidates or MPs who are also businessmen, selectively discounting rates to negligible fees. Donations to campaigns – whether monetary or through services – are commonplace.

And government-backed candidates have access to urban advertising space, such as on government-controlled buildings, bridges and municipal spaces – locations that even money could not buy for opponents. Ehab Salam, a lawyer, human rights activist and election watchdog, says the fundamental parameters of campaign funding need to be addressed before a rigid monitoring system can be put into place.

“We have a long way to go before we are able to monitor expenditures. There are a lot of questions to be answered first, such as that of donations. And then this figure of LE100,000 is ludicrous. We all know from experience that a good campaign costs millions. This figure is unrealistic, so what are we to monitor if we already know the outcome?” MPs who were contacted for their campaign budgets did not respond to requests. While the violations of campaign expenditure limits are already obvious and ignored, the question of thuggery is what is most troubling to observers.

When the ballot boxes open on November 28th, brutality is anticipated to be rife. Human rights and election watchdog groups have announced they will be keeping careful tab on violence. They know that their efforts will probably be to little avail, but they say that the media attention they can generate, and the subsequent reprimanding of Egypt from abroad, makes it worth their while.

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