Tensions escalate in advance of Egypt's upcoming parliamentary polls

Salma Shukrallah , Thursday 28 Feb 2013

While presidency promises 'free and fair' legislative polls, Egypt's opposition says country's legal and political framework lacks the conditions necessary for transparent elections

Founder of the Constitution Party Mohamed ElBaradei, President Mohamed Morsi, Chairman of Nour Party Younes Makhion

With the country's second post-revolution parliamentary polls around the corner, Egyptian opposition parties are stepping up their opposition to what they see as Egypt's "undemocratic" electoral setting, arguing that the current legal and political environment is not conducive to free and fair elections.

On Tuesday, the National Salvation Front (NSF) opposition umbrella group – which includes the liberal Dostour, Wafd and Egyptian Social Democratic parties, among others – declared plans to boycott the polls. The Salafist Nour Party, for its part, said it would participate in elections if certain conditions – which the party presented to the presidency in a Tuesday session of 'national dialogue' – were met.

Liberals and leftists, along with the Nour Party, have also widely condemned a new law regulating parliamentary polls. The Nour Party garnered the second highest number of parliamentary seats after Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood in 2011 parliamentary polls.

"The electoral law is unfair; it hinders the chances of many political parties to compete fairly," Shabaan Abdel-Alim, member of the Nour Party's high council, said at a Monday conference.

Mohamed Hanafi Abul-Einein, head of the Wafd Party's parliamentary bloc, went so far as to declare last week that he planned to launch a hunger strike inside the parliament building to protest the "unfair" distribution of electoral districts as laid down in the recently revised electoral law.

The High Constitutional Court (HCC) had earlier referred its findings on the revised electoral law to the Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament, currently endowed with legislative powers) in which it deemed ten articles of the law unconstitutional, including that which divides electoral districts.

Less than 48 hours after the HCC sent its recommendations, however, the Shura Council announced it had amended the law to meet the HCC's concerns. The article concerning electoral districts, however, remained unchanged.

Speaking to Ahram Online, the Wafd Party's Sherif Taher explained the opposition's objections to the article regulating electoral districts. He said that the districts containing large numbers of voters who favoured opposition parties had been divided and joined to others in which most voters favoured the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), thus diffusing opposition votes.

Another concern frequently voiced by the opposition concerns what many term the 'Brotherhoodisation' of the state – a phenomenon that could, arguably, also affect the electoral process.

"Many officials involved in supervising elections, including the ministers of defence and interior and the prosecutor-general, are known to be close to the Brotherhood," Constitution Party Secretary-General Emad Abu-Ghazi said in a recent interview with Ahram Online.

Also speaking to Ahram Online, Nour Party spokesman Ashraf Thabet said that his party, too, had reservations regarding the appointment of government employees to assist judges in overseeing the polls.

"The ministers mandated with appointing these employees are also close to the Brotherhood," said Thabet. "There must be a different mechanism for selecting them."

The Nour Party, in coordination with the NSF, recently launched an initiative calling for the formation of a 'national unity' government including Egypt's diverse political factions.

At Tuesday's national dialogue session, Nour Party head Younis Makhioun criticised Morsi's decision to set a date for elections without consulting other political forces and without considering his party's initiative for ending the current state of political polarisation. Makhioun also accused the Muslim Brotherhood of attempting to "monopolise" state institutions.

Makhioun went on to call on the presidency to postpone the upcoming polls and refer the draft elections law to the HCC so as to avoid any future court rulings against the elected assembly's constitutionality.

The Nour Party's Thabet expressed similar fears that parliament's incoming lower house might once again be dissolved – as happened to Egypt's first post-revolution People's Assembly – and that "more state money will be squandered."

Thabet and the Constitution Party's Abu-Ghazi both also voiced concern that state institutions would be employed to suppress the opposition.

"The presidency must guarantee that elections are safe and peaceful...opposition lives must be protected," Thabet said, referring to recent police violence against anti-government protesters. "We don't want another bloodbath like what we've seen recently."

Abu-Ghazi expressed similar anxieties.

"The issue isn't just the elections law; the general atmosphere since 25 January [the Egyptian revolution's second anniversary] is undemocratic," he said. "The way authorities treat those arrested using torture as a systematic tool; the targeting of activists and the use of rape against them; and crackdowns on labour."

Since 25 January, rights groups and activists have reported several violations against opposition protesters. These include "politically motivated" detentions, the detention of minors, torture and rape, allegedly committed by the interior ministry.

Former MP Amr Hamzawy summed up the opposition's objections in a statement last week. "The political, constitutional and legal regulations are unfair and, in practice, contradict democratic practice, as human rights are being violated." He, too, complained of the alleged "Brotherhoodisation" of the state.

Although the NSF has decided to boycott the polls while the Nour Party has decided to participate, all opposition groupings have issued the same demands: an electoral law that satisfies different political forces, a 'national unity' government to supervise the electoral process, and the replacement of the current Morsi-appointed prosecutor-general in keeping with Egypt's new constitution (i.e., one selected by Egypt's Supreme Judicial Council and endorsed by the president).

In response, FJP Chairman Saad El-Katatni recently slammed the opposition NSF for continuing to demand the delay of parliamentary polls and the formation of a new government.

President Morsi, meanwhile, has affirmed that the electoral law was sent back to the HCC for revision following his approval of it. He has also said the upcoming polls would be "free and fair," stressing that they would be organised by Egypt's Supreme Elections Commission and supervised by judicial representatives and international monitors.

The police and the army would also help secure the electoral process, the president added, saying that at least 50 civil society organisations – from Egypt and abroad – had requested permission to observe the polls, including the UN, the EU and the US-based Carter Centre.

Cairo University political science professor Tarek Fahmy, for his part, told Ahram Online that, as political polarisation increases – both between the Brotherhood and the NSF and between the Brotherhood and everyone else – the presidency should have provided assurances aimed at ending the crisis.

"The two sides don't trust each other," he said. "For that reason, the presidency and the Brotherhood should have given assurances to the opposition, but they didn't."

Meanwhile, Fahmy added, "international pressures" were being brought to bear on the issue. He speculates that US President Barack Obama had already discussed possible concessions to Egypt's opposition with President Morsi, noting that John Kerry, the new US secretary of state, was expected to do the same during his scheduled visit to Egypt next week.

Fahmy went on, however, to express the belief that such moves would only lead to "cosmetic changes" by the presidency that would fail to ease the opposition's concerns. "I heard they might replace four or five government ministers," he said.

He went on to assert that the Nour Party represented the FJP's main electoral rival – hence Morsi's recent dismissal of his Nour-affiliated presidential advisor.

The NSF, on the other hand, will continue to pursue its long-term strategy of blaming the Islamist-controlled parliament and presidency for all the nation's woes, Fahmy said.

This situation, Fahmy predicts, will eventually result in the creation of unrecognised state institutions and laws that are never applied – leading Egypt to become what he describes as a "failed state."

As it currently stands, parliamentary elections are set to begin on 22 April. They will go on for a two-month period and be held over four stages.

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