Ismailya: cash versus services

Dina Ezzat in Ismailya, Thursday 25 Nov 2010

When it comes to voting in the upcoming legislative elections, in some districts it’s a matter who pays most

Ibrahim Abdel-Tawwab is a veteran of three Egyptian-Israeli wars. From the June War in 1967 through the 1968-71 War of Attrition until the October War in 1973, Abdel-Tawwab, a resident of Ismailya (Suez Canal), was at the forefront of Egyptian troops. 

“I never hesitated to defend my country, but now I feel that my country has forgotten about me. Nobody is there for me now that I have become old, and with hardly any economic means,” says Abdel-Tawwab bitterly. 

After his military service, Abdel-Tawwab was given a small maintenance job with one of the public service facilities in Ismailya. In the 1970s and until the early 1990s, he managed to make ends meet with a modest salary, supporting a family of seven. Prices were soaring, and he supplemented his income with additional work.  

Today, Abdel-Tawwab lives on a meagre retirement pension that he can no longer beef up. “I cannot work anymore and nobody cares about me. It is as if I have not fought these wars. It is as if I am forgotten,” he says. 

Abdel-Tawwab is not planning to vote in the next Sunday's elections. “Why should I? What difference does it make? If I vote for this or that candidate would I get my rights?” he inquires. He answers his own question: I would get “nothing”. 

Two of Abdel-Tawwab’s daughters are planning to vote, however. Zeinab and Fatema, who are no longer interested in hearing their father’s war anecdotes, are going to vote for Mahmoud Othman, the National Democratic Party (NDP) candidate for the 'first district of Ismailya' constituency. 

Why Othman? Money donations that provide some relief for otherwise tight budgets.  

“He is generous. He gives good money, before and after elections. Better something than nothing,” says Zeinab. For this economically deprived family, LE100 ($17)  per vote before the elections and another LE100 after elections make a big difference. 

Abdel-Tawwab’s daughters are not exceptions. Many resident of the first district of Ismailya say they will vote for Othman, whose financial generosity seems uncontested. 

All know Othman is rich man. Some know him as the son of the affluent construction tycoon Othman Ahmed Othman, who “gave a lot for Ismailya.” Others know him as the son-in-law of late President Anwar Sadat. Hardly anyone knows the name of the party he represents, or the platform he is running on. 

“The regular party?” guesses Darwish, who makes his living from making aluminium windows in a small workshop that he owns. “The party of the government, of the president … that party, they call it the socialist party, or was it the socialist union?” 

Darwish is not the only one who confuses the ruling NDP, chaired by President Hosni Mubarak and previously by the late President Anwar El-Sadat, with its forefather, the Arab Socialist Union, established as a platform by late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the early 1960s and later dissolved by Sadat the 1970s to allow for the gradual introduction of a multi-party political system.

But according to Sabri Khalfallah, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who is running against Othman, those who support Othman because he pays them cannot win him the seat. “I ran against him in 2005 and it was my first attempt at parliamentary elections, and I won,” says Khalfallah. 

Aware of the financial edge that Othman could exercise in a constituency beaten by poverty, soaring prices and dilapidated services, Khalfallah is still confident that he can beat Othman. “It is true that we refrain from handing out cash to our voters, but we work on expanding the community’s network of social services, and our voters know that we will continue to serve them whether we are elected to parliament or not,” says Khalfallah. 

The other advantage Khalfallah may have is the alleged conflict within the NDP over who would run against him. As early as mid-October, Othman, who was eventually elected by the NDP, was already hanging up his electoral posters. However, he was not the only NDP candidate doing so. Hammad Moussa, another businessman, also began his campaign. And in Ismailya there are indeed many Moussa sympathisers who were willing to stand not only against Khalfallah but also against Othman. 

Conflicts within the NDP over which candidates should run in the 444 contested districts are nothing new. In the 2005 parliamentary elections, many party members chose to defy the will of the party leadership and to run as independents. When the votes were finally tallied, the NDP had acquired no more than 37 per cent of the total number of contested seats, while the Muslim Brotherhood had gained 20 per cent. At the time, the NDP had to reintegrate the defiant winners to secure a safe majority. 

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