Registration for Egypt's parliamentary polls opens Sunday; Brotherhood absent

Gamal Essam El-Din , Saturday 7 Feb 2015

(Photo: Reuters)

Preparations for Egypt's long-delayed parliamentary elections will shift into high gear this week. The Higher Election Committee (HEC) announced that candidates seeking to stand can register for ten days between 8 and 17 February.

Committee head Ayman Abbas said registration will begin Sunday at 9am and end at 5pm, except on 17 February, when the window to register will close early at 2pm.

Abbas, who is also chairman of Cairo's Appeal Court, indicated that the poll will be held in two rounds, beginning on 21-22 March and ending on 6-7 May. The country's new parliament, the third in five years, could hold its first opening session at the end of May or early June.

Political analysts expect that a record number of candidates will be able to stand in the polls, even if the 87-year old Muslim Brotherhood group and its Islamist allies will not be part of the process.

The Brotherhood, which has been an active player in most of Egypt's parliamentary elections since the mid-1980s, has come under tough security crackdown, with hundreds of its leading officials and activists detained or forced to flee the country.

The Brotherhood's isolation started in July 2013 when president Mohamed Morsi was ousted from office after mass protests against his rule. Six months after Morsi was deposed from office, the Brotherhood was designated a terrorist group by the government.

The country's new constitution, passed in January, 2014, also targeted the Brotherhood, imposing a ban on the formation of political parties with a religious background.

In a study prepared for Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in 2012, political analyst and activist Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr concluded that the Brotherhood, founded by Hassan Al-Banna in 1928, begun joining Egypt's parliamentary life since 1984 – or just three years after former ousted president Hosni Mubarak came to office in 1981.

"From the mid-1980s and until 2005," said Shukr's study, "the number of  Muslim Brotherhood's candidates had fluctuated  between 6 percent and 10 percent of the total."

After the 2011 revolution against Mubarak, Brotherhood became a dominant player in Egyptian politics.

"This was clear in 2012's parliamentary polls; not only their candidates dramatically increased to account for around 30-40 per cent of the total number of candidates, but also they were also able to win 42.7 per cent of the total contested seats (498)," said Shukr's study.

Ammar Ali Hassan, an expert on political Islam movements, says that Muslim Brotherhood will not be a participant in Egypt's coming  parliamentary polls for the first time in 35 years.

"With the exception of a 10-year optional absence from the polls between 1990 and 2000, the group had always seen parliamentary membership as a main tool for infiltrating the country's political life and advancing its Islamist agenda," Hassan told Ahram Online.

Hassan does not agree that the Brotherhood could push some of "its sleeping cells" to stand in the polls and penetrate parliament. "This is quite difficult, if not an impossibility, given the current harsh clampdown on the group's leading officials, not to mention that even if some of these hypothetical sleeping cells were able to win seats, they would be quickly exposed and detained," said Ammar.

President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has said in media interviews that "if Brotherhood's members were able to find their way into the coming parliament, they would be expelled by the Egyptian people."

Hassan indicates that after long years of a security crackdown under the rule of former president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and the last years of former president Anwar Al-Sadat, the Brotherhood took the strategic decision to infiltrate Egyptian politics from inside – in terms of joining parliament.

"They reached an agreement with the Mubarak regime that they would help restore stability after Sadat's assassination in exchange for giving them a green light to join parliament and have a say in politics," said Hassan.

In 1984 and 1987, the Brotherhood joined two electoral coalitions: the first with the liberal Wafd and the second with the Islamist Labour (Amal) party led by Ibrahim Shukri.

"Their number of seats in parliament increased from just six in 1984 to 73 in 1987, but the 1984 and 1987 were short-lived, with the High Constitutional Court ruling them unconstitutional in 1987 and 1990 on grounds that their election laws discriminated against independents," said Hassan.

Al-Sayed Yassin, the former director of the Al-Ahram Centre, concluded in a study that "the Muslim Brotherhood decided to participate in political and parliamentary life since the mid-1980s primarily because they saw parliament as an indispensable venue for advancing their Islamist agenda rather than because they believed in any kind of liberal democracy or the multi-party system."

"This is also in spite of the fact that the group's founder Hassan Al-Banna had always condemned the formation of political parties as a violation of Islam," said Yassin.

Yassin's study, conducted in 1990, shows that Muslim Brotherhood focused most of their parliamentary debates in the second half of the 1980s on raising Islamist issues such as the necessity of applying Islamic sharia and attacking the country's secular elite.

In 1990, the Brotherhood, alongside most secular political forces, opted to boycott the polls in protest at the adoption of the individual candidacy system.

In 2000, however, the group returned to political life, making a strong showing in that year's parliamentary elections. "Without joining any electoral alliances, the Brotherhood was able to win 17 seats (or 5 percent) of the total as independents," said Hassan.

Hassan argues that it is High Constitutional Court's order in June 2000, three months ahead of the polls, that parliamentary polls had to be completely placed under judicial supervision, which paved the way for the group to win seats.

"The High Constitutional Court was the court that helped the Brotherhood to rejoin parliament, and  it was also the court which the  group brought under one-month siege and tried  its best to annihilate during its one year in rule," said Hassan.

On top of the group's victorious candidates in 2000 was Mohamed Morsi.

In 2005, the Brotherhood achieved a landslide victory, with its candidates winning an unprecedented 88 seats (or 20 percent). The Brotherhood's success in 2005 turned into a drama in 2010 when Mubarak's son and heir apparent Gamal led the manipulation of parliamentary polls at that year to strip the group – and the opposition in general - of winning any seats.

"At that time Mubarak and his son concluded that the group's big success in 2005 had struck a chord with the Americans and that they were being prepared to take office and  as a result they had moved quickly to obliterate it completely from political life in 2010," said Hassan.

While Muslim Brotherhood candidates will not be lining up when registration opens Sunday, most political parties said they are keen to field candidates in all of Egypt.

Hossam Al-Khouli, a leading official with the Wafd Party, told Ahram Online that "when the Brotherhood and most of Egypt's secular opposition decided to withdraw from 2010's polls, this was an expression of solidarity against the Mubarak regime's rigging of the polls that year."

"But in the coming polls, Egypt's political parties have changed course to stand in solidarity against the Brotherhood and its participation in political and parliamentary life," said Al-Khouli.

Al-Khouli does not agree that the absence of the Brotherhood will not make the coming polls competitive.  "By contrast," Al-Khouli said, "the competition will be tougher because there will be different political factions with different ideologies vying against each other, not to mention the Islamist Nour Party will also be part of the race," said Al-Khouli.

There are hundreds of candidates existing electoral coalitions are seeking to field in party-based and independent seats. Not to mention that hundreds of purely independent candidates and others aiming to stand on lists being prepared by public figures are expected to join the process.

Al-Khouli said the Egyptian Wafd coalition – including five political parties - will field candidates across Egypt. "We will field more than 400 candidates," said Al-Khouli.

Egypt's coming parliament – the House of Representatives – will be comprised of 567 seats, with 420 independents and 120 party-based MPs. As many as 27 MPs will be appointed by the president.

The Egyptian Front – another electoral coalition including former official from Mubarak's defunct ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) – also said it will field more than 400 candidates.

A surprise came on 4 February when Kamal Al-Ganzouri, a former Mubarak-era prime minister, decided to withdraw from the race. Sameh Seif Al-Yazal, a former intelligence officer and chairman of the Al-Gomhouria Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, announced on Wednesday that  most of the public figures who first sought to be on Al-Ganzouri's list have opted to form their own list.

"The new list will be called ‘in Egypt's love’ and will include a number of high-profile figures who have never been symbols of the Mubarak regime," Al-Yazal said.

In a meeting with President El-Sisi last month, secular political parties attacked Al-Ganzouri, complaining that "a Mubarak-era official" should not be involved in any way in the electoral process. El-Sisi stressed that Al-Ganzouri was acting on his own and that the government would be neutral, never taking sides with any electoral coalition.

The Salafist Nour Party also said it will field candidates across Egypt.

Most of the liberal and leftist revolutionary forces which are antagonistic to the former regimes of Hosni Mubarak and Muslim Brotherhood said they are coordinating with political activist Abdel-Gelil Mostafa. Under the title "the Reawakening of Egypt", Mostafa is preparing lists of candidates that support the ideals of 25 January and of what many Egyptians consider to be a second revolution, 30 June 2013.

Shukr's study shows that the total number of candidates in Egypt's parliamentary elections since the mid-1980s have ranged between 3,500 and 4,000.

The 2011-2012 election, which adopted a mix of individual candidacy and party candidates, saw the number of candidates soaring up to 10,251. "The number of independent candidates in that election reached 6,000, while the party-based ones stood at around 4,200," said Shukr's study.

Hassan believes that the number of candidates in the coming polls will be higher, given the fact that two thirds of seats are allocated to independents.

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