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The big surprise

The sweeping win of Egypt’s ruling party at the polls may have been surprising in extent and depth, but the factors for it have long been apparent to careful observers

Abdel Moneim Said , Sunday 5 Dec 2010
Views: 2833
Views: 2833

I do not have a shadow of a doubt that the results of the first round of the People’s Assembly elections held last Sunday came as a surprise to all participants in the political process in Egypt, regardless of their positions. I know top leaders in the National Democratic Party (NDP) itself who are still rubbing their eyes in disbelief at the news that flooded in from around the country, reporting gains that their party had not obtained in many years.

The great surprise was not triggered solely by the NDP’s huge success in the polls but also by the crushing defeat of the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood, which had used the cloak of independent candidacies in order to acquire legitimacy in the political arena. Even if this had been what the NDP had worked for, the surprise results had unintentional effects. The civil opposition parties also performed poorly, receiving far fewer seats than not only they, but than the NDP as well had expected.

However, perhaps the most startling surprise is that the electoral battle was not only settled in the first round but has already been settled for the second round. The NDP won 209 seats in the first round and it is certain to win another 114 in the reruns, because in these constituencies NDP candidates will be playing off against each other. On top of this, it is sure to win an additional 75 seats in the reruns in which an NDP candidate will be competing against a candidate who left the NDP in order to field himself in the elections as an independent but who will most likely rejoin the party afterwards. The NDP, thus, secured a sweeping victory, with 398 — or 78.34 per cent — of the People’s Assembly seats in its pocket even before the second round begins, regardless of the results of the rest of the polls with the opposition or banned Islamist organisation, and before we know how the rest of the independents will act.

A surprise of this magnitude requires an explanation. Perhaps the amazement and, for some, the shock would have been somewhat reduced had they taken seriously the survey conducted by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies of a sample of 2000 Egyptians. The results, some of which were published in Al-Ahram the day before the first round of the elections, indicated that there would be a 35 per cent turnout and that 80.2 per cent of the electorate preferred the NDP. This is only 1.86 per cent more than what the party actually received. But I suppose that only a relative handful of people had read the report on the survey to begin with, and that many of those had remained sceptical of its findings. Hence the magnitude of their amazement, or shock.

Still, the prediction, however accurate, does not relieve us of the need to explain the actual outcome. This, of course, is the product of concrete developments and recent changes in the world around us, and it would be wise to look at these carefully in order to develop a clearer picture of what lays ahead. Nevertheless, the first and most widespread reaction among numerous newspapers, satellite television stations and opposition political parties and groups is to shout fraud. Beneath this heading, familiar from all Egyptian elections, falls a long list of charges from forging voter registration cards, physical abuse, preventing observers and delegates from entering polling stations and raiding the premises of civil society associations to attacking television stations, even if they had nothing to do with the elections, cancelling a famous television show and transferring the ownership of an opposition paper so as to transform it from an open forum to a party organ for the Wafd. This list down to the last detail is to be found in all the reports of Egyptian human rights groups and other associations that appeared on the scene for the occasion of the elections, and it was echoed across the foreign media.

It appeared in a statement by the Action Group for Egypt and it was repeated in full in a set of documents, commentaries and studies published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace authored by American scholar Michelle Dunne and Egyptian scholar Amr Hamzawy. Now some of the items on this list are undoubtedly debatable. It is certainly not clear whether Al-Dostour under its previous or current ownership, the programme “Cairo Today,” a collection of television stations seeking to ignite sectarian strife or a selection of herbal remedies would have altered the outcome of the polls. But more significant is the absence from this long list of two basic facts. The first is that the Higher Elections Committee (HEC) acknowledged in its report that disturbances erupted in 16 constituencies, that 1,053 ballot boxes had been tampered with and were declared invalid, and that the returns of the Billa constituency had to be annulled due to suspicion of fraud. Altogether, the HEC and the Administrative Court annulled the results from seven constituencies in three governorates.

The second fact is that none of the studies, commentaries and reports, as many as they are and as scientific as they claim to be, thought to mention the total number of constituencies and polling stations. Clearly it is impossible to gauge the prevalence of fraud in an election without a yardstick of this sort. Otherwise one might imagine that the violations noted applied to all the 508 seats that were contested in 222 constituencies plus the 64 constituencies reserved for women, and one might think that they took place in the more than 44,000 polling stations that were supervised by 2,286 judges and monitored by 6,130 observers from the civil society community together with the local, Arab and international press.

Putting facts one and two together puts matters in their proper perspective. If we merely mention that there were 1,053 grave breaches we create the impression that this was a ubiquitous phenomenon and applied to every polling station. Conversely, when we juxtapose that figure and the number of constituencies whose results were annulled against 44,000 polling stations and 286 constituencies we get an entirely different — and much more objective — picture.

What the foregoing signifies is that although there have indeed been mistakes, infringements and violence, the electoral monitoring system managed to rectify them. It did so, moreover, not by means of reports from the Carnegie Endowment or the US-based Action Group for Egypt, but by relying on our own mechanisms and electoral system, which we hope will be cured of such ills and offer greater scope and freedom of movement to civil society agencies to monitor elections as they wish. If actual foreign monitoring agencies had been present the polls as they actually unfolded would not have roused the tempers and ruses of many forces in Egypt and abroad. In fact, not only would the abovementioned ratios of breaches to polling stations have been taken into account, another rate would have been stressed. According to available statistics, this year’s polls had the lowest levels of severe election-related violence ever. In the 1990 elections 10 people were killed, 59 in 1995, 50 in 2000 and 13 in 2005. All these figures far exceed the four who died during the first round of the 2010 elections, and the causes in most of these cases were not directly related the electoral process itself. However, the NDP rejected the idea of foreign monitors for reasons to do with national sovereignty and pride. Perhaps these same reasons are what also inspired the opposition forces to refuse outside monitoring as well. But they probably had another reason as well, which was that foreign monitors would have cut short their current ploys and forced us to stop dwelling on electoral fraud and to search for the real reasons for this year’s election surprise.

One major cause is that expectations of a pact between the NDP and the secular opposition parties had no basis in reality and were given credence only in the minds of those satellite and news networks that thirsted for some conspiracy of one sort or another. So, in fact, the performance of the secular opposition parties in the polls should come as no surprise at all. Their results are merely a continuation of a major trend in Egyptian politics. According to all the indicators pertaining to these parties, since their emergence in 1976 until today they have remained very weak in terms of their membership, their representation in parliament, their political performance and, even, the level of public familiarity with them. The opposition parties’ representation in the People’s Assembly has always varied from one parliamentary term to the next. In 1984, the Wafd was the only party to manage to enter the house, which it did by means of an alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood. That alliance won 58 seats of which eight were won by Muslim Brotherhood candidates. In those elections, the Labour, Liberal and Tagammu parties proved unable to reach the minimum of eight per cent of the votes that the electoral law at the time required for a party to be able to sit in the People’s Assembly.

In 1987, the Labour and Liberal parties in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood won 60 seats and the Wafd won 35. Again the Tagammu was unable to gain entry into the house. But its fortunes changed in 1990, when it won five seats and became the only opposition party to be represented in parliament because the other major opposition parties boycotted the elections and none of the other participating opposition parties were strong enough to win a single seat. In 1995, the opposition parties won 13 seats: the Wafd six, the Tagammu five, and the Liberal and Nasserist parties one each. Their luck improved only very slightly in 2000 when they won 16 seats: the Wafd seven, the Tagammu six, the Nasserist Party two and the Liberals one. In 2005, they were reduced to nine seats: the Wafd six, Tagammu two and Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party one. They thus occupied 2.08 per cent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, taking into account the Karama (Dignity) Party, which was under formation but whose candidates had run as independents and won two seats.

As the foregoing suggests, the 2010 elections should not be seen in isolation from previous elections. There are a number of factors that we should consider when assessing what came as a surprise to many this year. The first is the marked decline in the membership of most parties. Although they began with relatively large memberships when they were first established, figures gradually declined for various reasons, such as restrictions on mass activities, poor organisation and the consequent lack of a sustained systematic connection between members and the party. Because of such problems, while parties tend to attract new members during electoral campaigns for the legislature, municipal councils and occupational syndicates, members soon drift away, generally in greater numbers than are attracted during campaign seasons.

The second is poor connectivity. The problem of generation and social gaps has always plagued these parties, even though one of the most crucial ingredients of a party’s popularity is its human resources in the form of competent leaders with strong popular appeal, especially in the countryside. As a result of this flaw, the parties have become more in the nature of political clubs located in the capital. Most do not even have proper party structures and organisational frameworks spread across the country and even fewer cared about the formation of new second and third rank leaderships and the injection of fresh blood.

Internal rifts are a third prevalent blight in the absence of effective mechanisms for containing conflict, managing differences of opinion and handling diversity. The examples are innumerable. Among them are the rifts that splintered the Wafd Party when Noaman Gomaa and Mahmoud Abaza headed the party, the breakaway of the Hamdein Sabahi faction from the Nasserist Arab Party in 1996 in order to form the Karama Party, and the fracture of Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party into the Moussa Mustafa and Ayman Nour factions. The Liberal Party suffered rifts as did the Labour Party whose socialist wing opposed the Islamists’ hold over the party. Even the Democratic Front, founded only a few years ago (2007), has not been spared this illness.

A fourth major impediment that the secular political parties face is funding. Political parties are prohibited from engaging in any economic or commercial activity outside of the field of press and publications, which in the field of politics is not a very big money earner due to the costs of publication, on the one hand, and low distribution rates, on the other. Consequently, parties are forced to rely on membership dues, which is not, in itself, a source of income sufficient to fund a party’s activities. Lack of sufficient financial resources obviously impairs a party’s ability to open new headquarters in the governorates and rural capitals, to cover daily operational expenses, to maintain communications between the different levels of the rank and file, and to hold regular assemblies of the leadership committees at the governorate and district levels. Naturally, it also hampers a party’s ability to launch effective campaigns and, hence, its electoral prospects.

To these factors we should add a fifth, pertaining to this year’s polls. The civil parties were very late in deciding to take part in the elections, after having flirted for a while with the fringe trends and wavered over whether or not to boycott the elections. Then, once they did finally make up their minds, they made some very unrealistic choices for their candidates. They opted for film stars, famous football players and other luminaries on the mistaken belief that they could attract more of a faithful following than individuals who already had a presence in their constituencies and were familiar and involved with their constituencies’ problems and aspirations.

The Muslim Brotherhood, alone, stood as an exception to the rule in the opposition. In 2005, it scored a landmark win, earning it 20 per cent of the seats in the People’s Assembly. However, the Muslim Brotherhood of election year 2010, following the decline of the reformist camp and the rise of hardliners to power in the organisation in recent months, was no longer that of 2005. Add to this the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood suffered a bitter internal division over whether or not to take part in the elections this year. The Brotherhood leadership’s inability to resolve this problem did little to help its public image.

But beyond this, the Brotherhood offered no feasible and practically implementable alternatives to the NDP’s policies. In fact, it made no concrete changes in its campaign platform, as though time since 2005 had come to a standstill. In addition, the performance of Muslim Brotherhood deputies in the last parliamentary session was weak whether in terms of their influence on legislation or the effectiveness of their watchdog role. It helped little that some of them were involved in cases connected with medical treatment at government expense. On top of such factors, the Muslim Brotherhood’s declining influence should be seen in the context of the declining influence of the Islamist trend in Sudan, Lebanon and Palestine, not to mention the rupture of this trend in Iran and other countries.

A second major reason why this year’s election results should not have come as such a surprise is the new burst of vitality that the NDP experienced in the wake of the 2005 elections, when it awoke to the organisational and ideological capacities of the Muslim Brotherhood. Galvanised by those election results into revamping itself, the NDP succeeded in creating an organisational operation that was, in its own way, more cohesive and efficiently run than the Muslim Brotherhood’s. Towards this end, the NDP relied in particular on the energies of its younger members, intensive use of communications technology, and a dynamic campaign strategy that took the grassroots level in each constituency as its starting point. Every constituency was studied and analysed in great depth, with each being the subject of at least four different surveys. In the course of this process, some 850,000 people were polled within a relatively brief period, making it possible to gauge the pulse of each constituency and to draw up a campaign strategy that was closely attuned to that pulse.

The NDP was effective in other ways. Above all, it had begun to prepare for the elections early on by holding internal elections in its electoral college and local units in order to produce the best possible candidates and, in the event that opinion could not settle on a single candidate for a particular constituency, the party decided to field more than one and to let voters have the say as to which was fittest. Then, in addition to studying the social composition, needs and problems of each constituency, local NDP campaign committees went to work knocking on people’s doors to rally support and to offer neighbourhood services, some of which were funded shortly before elections day.

But the NDP also learned from past experiences. It identified the shortcomings that caused it to lose seats to its adversaries among the opposition parties, independents or Muslim Brothers, and it devised ways to avoid them. Perhaps the most important tactical innovation of the party this year was to run more than one candidate in a single constituency. Although this tactic was a source of sarcasm on satellite news programmes, in fact the method proved the key to absorbing an adversary’s support base founded on regional or kinship allegiances, thereby paving the way to the victory of the strongest NDP candidate for that constituency.

The NDP achieved a victory that came as an unqualified surprise to everyone who had underestimated the party, its organisational skills, its new vigour and the energies of its new members who conducted studies and surveys, who held preparatory elections and who performed the other necessary tasks that no other party or organisation did. However, electoral success — like failure — can cause problems, especially when it is so sweeping. The responsibility for Egypt is so great that it is almost impossible to be borne by a single party or group that faces no opposition of note. However, this is another political issue that merits profound thought.

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