Last word on the Egyptian elections

Abdel-Moneim Said , Monday 13 Dec 2010

While so many cried foul over the results of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, the reality is that the opposition parties failed utterly to mount effective campaigns


I could not turn the page and move on to other subjects after encountering that outpouring of anger on the part of Al-Ahram readers in response to my commentaries on the recent parliamentary elections. Among the many letters I received, there was not a single positive reaction. Admittedly, they represent a relatively narrow segment of the Egyptian people, those members of the middle class who own a computer and act on their urge to comment on the articles they read, whether in Arabic or English, but they form a very proactive and vibrant segment. Nor were they the only ones who volunteered their opinions; so too did quite a few colleagues who respect me as much as I respect them. I therefore felt that a last word on the subject was needed in order to put everything in perspective and so that everyone, from writers to readers and colleagues, can meet their responsibilities in journalism and politics.

The chief principle that has always guided me in my intellectual and political career is that if one is to be of benefit to others he must tell the truth as he sees it (on the basis of solid evidence and argumentation, of course). I equally believe that little good can come from a public that does not listen and read with an open mind. These principles become more than vital when a state of “groupthink” takes hold of an elite and prevents its members from accepting any idea or fact that jars with their way of thought, while embracing everything that confirms what they have collectively agreed on, as though it were the sacred truth. The abovementioned term derives from a political science book that was widely read in the 1970s called Victims of Group Think by Irving Janis, a prominent psychologist, and that encapsulates a form of collective behaviour that sociologists have cited as a cause for mass phenomena such as the spread of violence or hysteria.

Something akin to groupthink is happening today in connection with the People’s Assembly elections. A large portion of the elite has formed the unshakeable belief that these elections were forged because of the sweeping victory of the National Democratic Party (NDP), the complete defeat of candidates representing the banned Muslim Brotherhood and the meagre results obtained by parties such as the Wafd and the Tagammu, which had thought they could win many more seats in parliament than they did. Among all the responses to my articles, not a single one treated the arguments I laid out. Then, after the authors dismissed or deliberately ignored these, only one pervasive argument prevailed, which was that the NDP could not possibly have won by such a landslide, to which was appended the observation that no rational person could believe otherwise unless he were biased or an active NDP member.

But herein lies the very secret of the “great surprise” of the elections: it was perfectly logical and anticipatable. The NDP had begun to prepare for this campaign five years ago, applying a minutely calibrated scientific approach that involved thorough studies of all the electoral constituencies. Meanwhile, the legitimately established political parties were preoccupied by their internal conflicts as they dithered over whether or not to boycott. As for that illegitimate party carrying the Muslim Brotherhood banner, not only was it mired in infighting, it could not even produce a clear and succinct platform for a civil state. Moreover, it pursued policies and issued statements that made it patently evident that this party placed “Islamist universalism” above “Egyptian patriotism”. There was one party that had a meticulously designed platform that detailed targets, costs and timeframes. That was the NDP. All the other parties shouted slogans of varying degrees of stridency and fury, depending on the amount of time they had to come up for air from their internal squabbles.

None of this was new to my critics, but they overlooked it. Nor was this all they ignored. They also failed to appreciate that all the excesses, breaches and falsifications of the polls were caught, cited and handled by the Higher Elections Committee and the judiciary in accordance with law. Readers and commentators recited these violations one after the other in great detail as proof of their contentions. However, they made no mention whatsoever of the total number constituencies and polling stations in relation to the constituencies whose results were annulled, or of the frequency of incidents of electoral violence and tampering compared with the prevalence of such incidents in all previous elections from 1924 to the present. Otherwise put, none of their many letters and articles put things in their proper perspective for a developing country that, contrary to what is generally put about, does not have many of the democratic traditions that would render electoral conduct here the same as it is in Switzerland, Holland or even Turkey.

In addition to the foregoing, this writer is expected to become part of the groupthink that not only dons the required blinkers with respect to the NDP, but also never once entertains the thought of applying the same type of assessment to the other parties that took part in the elections and that committed some very flagrant mistakes and wrongs.

All this confirms my long-held position, which I have advocated in the NDP and elsewhere, that foreign monitoring of our elections would spare Egypt and the NDP in particular all this commotion surrounding the integrity of the polls. Outside monitors have been brought in to many other countries —including the US and other Western nations by the way —without destroying histories or cultures, and without surrendering to mass phenomena and groupthink. Their scientific methodologies take into account all the facts and figures, yield accurate results and place them in their proper contexts and perspectives. Yet the NDP, along with the rest of the parties, was keener on some notion of sovereignty than on protecting Egypt from the periodic pandemonium that arrives with every election season and that raises the political temperature to a point where it becomes impossible to reach any consensus over important policies for shaping the future of our country.

Curiously, those who were so vigilant over our national sovereignty do not bat an eyelid at the assault against the honour of Egyptian football through recourse to foreign refereeing, which has become the rule now rather than the exception. Foreign referees are regularly brought in for playoffs between Ahly and Zamalek, or for playoffs between these and Ismaili, and more recently the Enppi, Army Vanguard and Border Patrol clubs, for the Premier League or the Cup of Egypt tournaments. The purpose, of course, is to avert the type of problems that arise when the results of a match are called into doubt. Interestingly, more and more local clubs are asking for foreign referees for their games with Ahly or other teams. Some commentators have remarked on a new fashion or craze, so frequent are the applications to the Egyptian Football Federation to request from Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France and Belgium candidates to referee games between our local teams. Although there are no reliable figures on how many foreign referees were brought in during 2010, no one uttered a peep against this practice for the obvious reasons of the need to protect public order or even to safeguard the integrity of athletic competitions. But sports is not the only field of activity in which Egypt has sought arbitration from abroad; in various economic domains and activities, Egypt has sought recourse to foreign courts to ensure justice and affirm its economic probity with the same zeal with which it safeguards its football honour.

I am certain that the NDP would have emerged victoriously from the parliamentary elections had foreign monitors been on hand. The other parties, as a whole, presented a pitiful sight. They were weak and confused and seemed to have stumbled into the elections by accident. Most likely the intense anger of these parties and the fervent media outcry against electoral “fraud” is a way to cover up the flagrant mistakes that these parties and their leaders committed. I also suspect that it is motivated by a desire to avoid what they should have done and should be doing, which is to introduce the type of radical reform that the NDP has put into effect, enabling it to stimulate the energies of its rank and file, broaden its bases of support and attract more youth, and enhance public awareness of the future to which the party seeks to steer the country by means of clearly designed, tangibly measurable and assessable programmes.

In another article in Al-Ahram, “Shark hunting,” I discussed the state of the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood. My subject in this article is the legitimate parties, which are also the object of my sorrow, for their task was to enable the Egyptian political system to stand on its feet with a government and opposition and a majority and a minority in parliament. Among these, the Wafd Party enjoys a special status, by virtue of its place in history, its financial and media resources (especially after El-Sayed El-Badawi assumed its helm), and its political moderation and liberal intellectual background. My feelings for the Wafd are perhaps influenced by a personal inclination towards the historically liberal tradition of the Wafd, not to mention by a number of good and dear friends in it. However, the unavoidable fact is that the party has suffered a steady decline since its promising re-emergence in the early 1980s. In the parliamentary elections of 1984, it obtained 50 seats in the People’s Assembly, the highest number ever since the revival of political party plurality in the mid-1970s. Yet this success was less the product of its own activities and energies as it was the result of having allied with the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood. Although the alliance enabled the Wafd to secure more seats than any other opposition party, it nevertheless precipitated sharp discord inside the party due to the vast ideological gap between the party and their ally. The Wafd believes in the modern civil state, which is at odds with Muslim Brotherhood ideology that blends religion with the state. The alliance subsequently ruptured as a result of this difference, but the Wafd has had to pay a heavy price for having raised a huge question mark over its commitment to its historical principles. In 1987, the Wafd won 36 seats. It then boycotted the 1990 elections, which also cost it heavily for in the 1995 elections it only won six seats. Since then, its fortunes have remained unchanged. In 2000 in won seven seats, in 2005 six, and in 2010 six. In other words, the Wafd fared the same in the last parliamentary elections as it did in the three previous ones.

Perhaps the party could have broken free from this trend and made a real comeback in the People’s Assembly had it not been for fluidity in allegiances to the party, even among its top members. For example, Mona Makram Ebeid, who had served as the chairperson of the Wafd’s Foreign Relations Committee, was a party member for nine years under the chairmanship of Fouad Serag Eddin. However, in 1990 she was resigned from her post and then, after falling out with the party consensus, she left the party in order to obtain a seat in the 1990-1995 People’s Assembly as one of 10 presidential appointees. In November 2004, no longer among the list of possible appointees to the People’s Assembly, she forged a new path for herself beneath the banner of Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party. She was elected as its secretary general and then took over as Al-Ghad chief following the arrest of its leader, Ayman Nour. Yet in May 2005 she resigned from her position and the party in order to rejoin the Wafd, which fielded her for the seat for women’s quota in the Qalyoubiya constituency, even though she had always run for the Shubra constituency in Cairo.

Such vacillating between parties and positions is hardly the best way to win over many voters, especially when a candidate is hard put to recall the names of the towns and villages that he or she plans to represent in parliament. But this type of thing actually occurred in races against other candidates who were practiced in familiarising themselves with the social and economic makeup of the constituencies they were fielding themselves in. These candidates were equipped with the results of opinion surveys that had been conducted in their constituencies street by street, and they were armed with detailed platforms for action on the national level and even more detailed platforms for the local level.

One major mistake the Wafd leadership made was to fill its ranks with the names of luminaries who had had no direct or even indirect connection with the party beforehand. And it did this, moreover, with precipitous haste. Within a day of tendering her resignation as secretary-general and member of the Democratic Front Party, Margaret Azer signed up with the Wafd. This was no earlier than November this year against the backdrop of sharp discord between the Front’s founder and president, Osama El-Ghazali Harb, and the reformist camp that had been led by Secretary-General Azer. Then there was that drive the Wafd Party initiated to recruit film stars, football heroes and intellectual celebrities who had little interest in the party’s principles and in politics in general, or the mechanisms of reaching out to the masses. It is perhaps commonly known that Samira Ahmed had hinted to the NDP that she would like to be nominated as one of its candidates. Upon receiving a politely worded refusal informing her that the NDP used democratic means to select its candidates by means of preliminary elections, public opinion polls and the NDP’s electoral college (procedures no other political party in Egypt has ever used before), this excellent and widely admired actress turned to the Wafd Party. The Wafd snatched her up and fielded her in a constituency totally remote from her place of residence and social activity. We should add that her political career did not extend beyond the roles she performed so well in the films she starred in. So precipitate was the party that it announced that it was fielding 222 candidates in the elections. This was its way of demonstrating its widespread influence and organisational efficiency. When the polls opened in November it suddenly turned out that this venerable party was fielding 186 candidates.

There are a number of reasons why the Wafd and the other civil parties performed so poorly in the recent People’s Assembly elections. First, they were not well prepared for the campaigns. They should have familiarised themselves with the conditions and circumstances in the constituencies they were going to contest. Towards this end, they could have used surveys and opinion polls, for example, as the NDP had done, which would have, at the very least, helped them assess the prospects of their candidates. This problem was compounded by the fact that some of the candidates were not from the constituencies they were fielded in. This factor was undoubtedly instrumental in the outcome in some of the constituencies, to which testifies the case of Mounir Fakhri Abdel Nour who ran in Girga whereas one would have thought his party would have fielded him the constituency he represented and knew so well, namely El-Waily.

A second major reason is the deep rifts and tensions that have swept these parties, and the Wafd in particular as a consequence of its lack of a charismatic leader capable of maintaining a minimal level of cohesion and harmony between the various factions and trends in the party. El Sayed El-Badawi’s victory over former party chief Mahmoud Abaza in the Wafd Party’s leadership elections in May 2010, for example, failed to alleviate internal discord. Fighting quickly erupted again between the Badawi and Abaza camps over the amendment to the party’s bylaws that Badawi advocated out of the belief that the reforms introduced in 2006 were insufficient.

Third, as I have noted above, the parties proved unable to appreciate the difference between celebrity status, such as that enjoyed by Samira Ahmed or the talented football player and media personality Taher Abu Zeid, and the ability to serve a particular constituency. This problem was reflected in the results of the polls in those constituencies.

Fourth, the civil parties lacked an ability to discriminate between the local and regional dimensions of the elections, which is to say they lacked an awareness of the need to address the problems and concerns and socio-economic makeup particular to this constituency or that. The private and independent media and Arab broadcasting and television stations at home and abroad helped disseminate a distorted understanding of what it takes to mount an effective campaign. So opposition candidates had great presence on evening programmes in which they spoke eloquently on the problems of corruption, rising prices and Egypt’s missing regional role. They assumed that this would inevitably win them overwhelming popularity in the electoral districts, whereas what they should have been asking themselves is whether the schools, hospitals and infrastructure in these areas were better than they had been five years ago and what they, as candidates, could do to improve conditions for the actual people they planned to represent.

While this is the last word I have to say about the recent parliamentary elections, it is certainly not my final word on political reform, a process that will require all the parties, including the NDP and even the Muslim Brotherhood, to take a good look at themselves. But if such a process of review and introspection is to be of any use, we must summon a great amount of courage so that we can begin to think outside the familiar boxes in Egyptian politics. That is a subject that will give us plenty to speak about for a long time to come.


Search Keywords:
Short link: