Egypt has 7000 years of civilisation and about 90 years of expertise in electoral fraud! The country has only had three relatively free and fair elections since it got its independence in 1922 and before the 1952 coup d’état. Electoral fraud is an authentic tradition in Egyptian politics, especially under the authoritarian regime founded by Nasser. Electoral fraud is not “news”; it is business as usual. The news is the echelon and forms of fraud.
There is almost a consensus among commentators and independent observers that electoral fraud in 2010 is higher than in 2000 when judicial supervision over elections started, and much considerably higher than in 2005 when this supervision was extended.
Electoral fraud by falsification of ballots decreased in 2000 and 2005 in favor of electoral bribery and the use of naked force by hired bullies. It was clear that the power of money in the form of banknotes and goods is slowly but steadily competing with the power of connections with state bureaucrats who can stuff false ballots of absentees and dead into the ballot box.
The outcome has been a gradual increase in the representation of businessmen in the People’s Assembly from 12 per cent in 1995, to 17 per cent in 2000 to 22 per cent in 2005. We have to wait a few weeks in order to tell the respective percentage of 2010. For the job title of the new elected parliamentarians in 2010 is not yet available. Only the names are published by the Higher Elections Committee. Yet it is most probable that businessmen have increased their seats in the current People’s Assembly. Indeed, many observers from civil society organizations have noted a sharp increase in the costs of electoral campaigns resulting from electoral bribery.
In 2000 and 2005, electoral bribery and heavy money spending were coupled with less reliance on electoral fraud. Why then the reversion back to old vulgar fraud? To answer this question we have to go back to the late 1980s. The biggest challenge that the National Democratic Party (NDP) has been facing under Mubarak is the shrinking financial capacity of the government. Oil returns, Suez Canal revenues, and foreign aid that used to be a cornerstone of the national budget at the beginning of Mubarak rule in 1981 have been increasingly marginalized. Maintaining the financial capacity of the political regime in Egypt is a must, as the regime cannot rely on repression alone.
Political control in Egypt rests on the use of the stick (repression) and the carrot (distribution). As the financial capacity of the state was shrinking, and as there should be a limit to more reliance on the stick, the regime decided to open its ranks to business tycoons. The ruling party that used to be the Socialist Union under Nasser is no longer solely reliant on the state bureaucracy. Key posts in the party today are increasingly occupied by business magnates. To mention just one illustrative example: Kamal El-Shazli, the old bureaucrat who used to be the organisational maestro of the ruling party under Mubarak had to leave his position for the “steel emperor” Ahmed Ezz.
The “liberal” turn of the ruling party has provided it with more resources, relatively compensating the shrinking purchasing power of the state budget. Businessmen were happy with the “financialisation” of Egyptian elections. Yet this move initiated a fragmentation process in the political system. Internal discipline in the ruling party was fading away. An increasing number of NDP members ran against the official candidates of the party, depending on their own resources during 2000 and 2005. The worst case was in 2005, when the official candidates of the NDP only got about 33 per cent of the vote. The ruling party could maintain its majority in parliament only when it decided to “forgive” the NDP dissidents and let its prodigal sons come back to the fold.
The financialisation of Egyptian elections has also created another problem. It provided space for some opposition groups. The Muslim Brotherhood is a wealthy organisation. And since early 2000s, business cadres were occupying key positions in the Brotherhood. Hence the elevation of business magnate Khayrat Al-Shater to become the organisational maestro of the Brotherhood. In 2005, observers noted heavy spending by the Brotherhood that no doubt helped secure the parliamentary penetration they achieved by winning 88 seats. The same applies for the Wafd Party. That party is headed today by a business tycoon, Sayed Al-Badawi. The heavy spending on publicity by the Wafd and the huge expenditures of many candidates like Rami Lakah showed that this party could compete when money talks.
The setback to old harsh fraud is then an attempt to reverse the fragmentation process that decreased the control of the central authority over the political domain. It is a “corrective” measure to excess in the “financialization” of Egyptian politics. Politicians do not live by money alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the regime. This seems to be the main “moral lesson” of Egypt’s parliamentary elections in 2010.
The writer is assistant professor of political economy at the American University in Cairo