Egypt elections: Some aren't running, some are boycotting, and this is why

Hana Afifi , Monday 19 Oct 2015

parliamentary election
An Egyptian woman casts her vote during the first round of the parliamentary election, in the Boulaq El Dakrour district of Giza, near Cairo, Egypt (AP)

"It is invitation-only," states Zyad Elelaimy. He sees a political landscape where everyone's role is pre-determined, both for supporters and "opposition."

A 2011-2012 member of parliament, Elelaimy now believes the political atmosphere in Egypt hinders any political activity. He is not running for elections even though his party is. Some  political parties aren't running for elections either. But Elelaimy takes it further: he is boycotting the elections.

The non-running parties are relatively new, with a small number of members and limited resources.

The Freedom and Justice party excluded, the main parties that won party seats during the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections are participating – Al-Nour party, Al-Wafd party, the Free Egyptians, and the Egyptian Social Democratic party.

Additionally, there have not been widely organized campaigns to promote deserting the elections, even though a few days before voting started, some boycotting social media users shared symbolic electoral lists of martyrs and those imprisoned.

An infertile political atmosphere

Media defamation and crackdowns against opposition political parties led Elelaimy to take his boycott decision, even though his party is running on individual seats.

“It is an atmosphere that antagonises politics generally," says the newly-elected Higher Committee member at the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP). “There is no possibility for political work.”

Elelaimy also says there has been a lot of "opposite campaigning," including "direct insults against [opposition figures] in the media."

Another 2011 political figure, Mohamed Raouf Ghoneim, director of the Executive Committee of the Egyptian Bloc electoral list in the 2011-2012 parliamentary elections, and candidate of the 2015 Sahwet Misr (Egypt Awakening), chose to resign a few days before the electoral list withdrew from the elections altogether.

Ghoneim felt there has been a general trend that portrays critics of the regime as standing against the country and against stability.

"The opposition is constantly demonised and described as agents and traitors," Ghoneim says.

Added to defamation, the portrayal of political parties in the media has angered some.

Elelaimy says that the media constantly presents parties as weak.

Others disagree with the assessment of an unfavourable atmosphere for political work. They think political life only starts with the inauguration of a parliament, or that current political opposition parties are ineffective.

Mahmoud El-Alaily, Higher Committee member of the Free Egyptians Party which runs on Fi Hob Masr (For the Love of Egypt) electoral list, says the main role of the parties is to legislate and monitor visions and strategies for reform according to each party's political orientation, not to play the role of "pressure groups."

"Political life starts with the parliament. It is where the citizen starts to see parties in action while performing their main work," El-Alaily says.

Researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies Yosri Azabawi says the upcoming elections will not be based on pro- and anti-regime forces. "The opposition will be born from the parliament," he says.

Azabawi describes the current opposition as a "domesticated opposition," an opposition that only opposed policies, "not an effective opposition."

Elelaimy says political parties are weak because there has not been a chance for them, or for an opposition, to work actively for 60 years. "You are only allowed to be part of the regime," he says.

The once member of parliament as part of the Egyptian Bloc list, which won 33 out of 332 seats for electoral lists three years ago, describes the current political atmosphere as "closed" due to killings and arrests of protesters, in addition to defamation and negative media portrayals.

“Personally, I’m not ready to run for candidacy and have my supporters be sentenced to 15 years in jail for holding election campaigns, or be killed,” Eleimy says. "This whole atmosphere does not make elections."

A protest law was passed in November 2013 banning unauthorised protests and group meetings.

"I'm one of the people who are against boycotting. I don't see it as a weapon, but this only applies when you have a chance to run.

"Participation is important when there is a new goal. You participate to offer an alternative or you say that the regime is a tyrant.

"You will not get a chance to offer an alternative because you will be arrested if you decide to run, and the other thing is to say the regime is tyrant — and the people know it.

"In conclusion, it is not worth that people get arrested."

But Azabawi does not think security limitations are the problem for opposition parties. "The problem is in the parties' work," he says.

"Where are their candidates?" Azabawi asks, saying that the parties who are not participating in the elections have a limited number of supporters because they do not have the ability to organise themselves effectively and to have a moderate discourse that would attract people.

The political parties who decided not to participate talk about the closed political atmosphere as a motive for their non-participation, some also adding their lack of resources.

The parties who are not participating in the elections are 2011-2012 MP Amr Hamzawy's Masr El-Horreyya (Freedom Egypt), the leftist El-Eish wel-Horeya (Bread and Freedom) which is still being established, and former presidential candidate and former Muslim Brotherhood leader Abdel-Moneim Abol-Fotouh's Masr El-Qaweya (Strong Egypt).

"The atmosphere in the country incites against any democratic and political choice," explains Elham Eidarous, member of the political committee at Bread and Freedom, a stance reiterated by Freedom Egypt and Strong Egypt statements on not participating.

Freedom Egypt and Bread and Freedom add their limited resources as a reason, too. Eidarous says Bread and Freedom is still an emerging party that prioritises "small battles" rather than elections, and Freedom Egypt state their lack of money and organisation as a reason for non-participation.

"I am boycotting because normally one goes to the elections when there are elections. In my opinion, there are no elections,” Elelaimy says, hinting at a political atmosphere that he sees as denuded of political competition.

In Azabawi’s opinion, "All parties now support [President Abdel-Fattah] El-Sisi.

Ineed, it seems to many that the parliament will have one voice with many supporters: 2,200 candidates are ex-National Democratic Party (NDP) members, out of a total of 5,420 who were accepted to run on individual seats. Each is powerful in his constituency.

No-opposition parliament

Thus it seems that parliament will lack a strong opposition, manifested by the comeback of thousands of old regime candidates who are influential through their own networks. This also indicates the way many people might vote — not so much politically, as pragmatically.

"I am boycotting the whole operation," says Elelaimy.

Elelaimy had contested at a time where seculars and Islamists were in a fierce competition in the post-revolution phase. The times were different. Now, former NDP members are fiercely running against each other, in addition to an Islamist Salafist minority and a few opposition candidates.

"It is a backgammon table where roles are drawn: who will play the government and who will play the opposition," Elelaimy says, explaining that the executive power controls the process through "constituencies drawn for specific people" and through rules that benefit the wealthy candidates. He says the fact that the elections date was announced at short notice after they were postponed allowed only the rich to work on their campaigns.

Also, the fact that a large number of former NDP figures are running suggests that tribal patterns of voting will dominate, in contrast with voting on principles.

Azabawi says all constituencies will oppose businessmen from the now-dissolved NDP to the few new secular forces.

But ex-NDP members have the money, media support and family network relations; hence supporters who will cast non-political votes, asserts Azabawi.

Former regime MP Sayed Gohar is running in Giza governorate, as well as Ahmed Mortada Mansour, son of the controversial figure Mortada Mansour, in the same constituency. Also businesswoman Sahar Talaat Mostafa, sister of old regime businessman Hisham Talaat Mostafa, is running in Alexandria, to name but a few of the old regime candidates. In addition, the Egyptian Front Coalition is closely allied to the former Mubarak regime.

The Free Egyptians' El-Alaily does not think the participation of ex-NDP members should lead to a boycott. "Experience will show how people will vote. We are in a period of democratisation. It is not the end; it is a step in the democratic experience," says El-Alaily.

Ghoneim was going to run on Sahwet Misr list but withdrew. "It would have been a battle, fighting windmills without capacities; in vain," he says.

He thinks the upcoming parliament will consist 90 percent of the presidents’ men (Mubarak and El-Sisi) and 10 percent others, to make it seem like there is an opposition.

Ghoneim was threatened. A Facebook comment on a post he wrote read, “Beware of those faces. They’re trying to destroy the state.” “We will take the necessary actions,” replied another man.

Two days later, the Sahwet Misr candidate took the decision to withdraw.

"It is an atmosphere of threats, lies, defamation, accusations, abuse of power," Ghoneim adds. “There is a hidden willingness to smash the democratic political current.”

But why would the regime want only one voice in the parliament?

"Because they think this is the right way to do it; to pretend we are all aligned against the nation’s enemy," Ghoneim states.

In 2011, the political vote was added to the tradition of tribal votes that used to dominate the political scene prior to 2011.

"Now, it is back to being only through money and familial interest networks. This will show a lot in the turnout. In my opinion, it will be close to being around seven percent," says Elelaimy.

Ghoneim believes the people who will vote according to personal interests or family networks (the tribal vote), in addition to those who will vote against specific candidates, will participate mainly in governorates other than Cairo.

As for the people who will vote politically, those who think the country is going in the right direction will probably feel their vote is not necessary, Ghoneim says.

"Others, many of which are young people, think it is all a farce, no longer believe in democracy and think it is not worth participating because they feel that everything is controlled," Ghoneim says, adding that they participated in the 30 June protests that led to the overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, and that they did not think the former regime would come back.

“We know that there are no elections, so what is important is what comes after the elections: building an alternative," Elelaimy says, on a more positive tone.

Active boycotting

There has not been a widespread boycotting campaign, but the boycotters believe there is more to it than calling for abandoning polling stations.

"Boycotting does not mean staying at home. It means preparing to offer alternatives," Elelaimy says, echoed by Ghoneim who says, "You can boycott the elections actively." 

"Boycotting aims at taking away legitimacy from an entity being formed,” Elelaimy says. He adds that it might not happen because there are candidates who call themselves "opposition" and because almost all parties are participating. "They are forced to [participate]," Elelaimy says.

As many as 84 political parties out of around 100 registered parties are participating, according to a study published by Al-Ahram in September.

"You cannot be a part of such a trick, but at the same time it is important to create your alternatives. You cannot just tell people to boycott, not to participate; [you need to show that you] have a long-term plan through which [you can] create opportunities," Elelaimy says.

Elelaimy refers to "alternatives" and active ways of boycotting. He mentions creating networks between people, training the youth on political awareness, "to undertake with people their small battles, to achieve small victories with them," he says.

Ghoneim suggests leading a campaign through articles or discussions, showing the reasons why they are not participating, adding that it is an opportunity to highlight the "injustice and failures of the regime in the past two years," mentioning that the revolutionaries are in prison and former regime figures are free, and their family members running for candidacy.

Pictures of the jailed and martyrs have been circulating on social media in symbolic campaigns to elect them.

“Active boycotting would be to seize the opportunity of the elections season to get the message across,” Ghoneim says. "The boycott wins if you shed the light on why people are not going."

Elelaimy was preparing for a youth political awareness training he was about to lead at the ESDP headquarters. But why work on creating “alternatives” if he sees the political atmosphere "closed?"

Elelaimy responds assertively" "You are preparing your alternatives, so that if someone gets rational in this country and there are elections one day, you will be there for sure; and if no one gets rational, an explosion will happen.

“Because this atmosphere only leads to an explosion, which would be worse than our worst nightmares."

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