Damietta gears up for polls despite ongoing crises

Nada El-Kouny, Sunday 27 Nov 2011

Factory dispute and political crisis promise to further complicate parliamentary polling in Egypt's coastal governorate of Damietta

Damietta graffitti
reads, "Hosni Mubarak left his palace and his dogs still rule Egypt, 6 April Movement", with a poster of Wasat party candidate, Essam Sultan (Photo: Nada El-Kouny)

On the eve of Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliamentary polls, the streets of Damietta are filled with banners and posters for the various candidates. Those most in evidence are those of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Salafist Al-Nour Party and the centrist-Islamist Al-Wasat Party. The three parties are expected to take the lead in elections, in which 12 of parliament’s 498 seats are allotted to Damiettans.  

Notably, Damietta, located on the north coast, has been engulfed by protests over the past month, resulting in the closure by protesters of its main port and nearby roads. Local residents have been protesting construction of a fertilizer plant owned by the Canadian MOPKO company that they believe could pose a danger to public health.

On 13 November, violent clashes took place between protesters and central security forces that resulted in one death and 11 injuries. The dispute, however, was temporarily resolved after a Cabinet decision to halt construction of the controversial plant.

In the midst of the crisis, the governorate has been gearing up for parliamentary polls. Damietta is one of the nine governorates to be included in the first round of elections, slated to kick off on Monday.

Hatem El-Bayaa, a local candidate for the “Revolution Continues electoral coalition, said the factory dispute had become a pivotal electoral issue, with candidates’ positions on the matter representing a primary factor in his or her electoral success.

Bayaa, for one, believes the dispute will hurt his electoral chances. “Core issues, like the constitution and legislation, have been overshadowed by the debate over the fertilizer factory,” he said.

This sentiment was echoed by Shady El-Tawargy, a Karama Party member who is running on the independent candidate list. Candidates who have expressed support for the anti-factory protests, El-Tawargy said, have been accused of exploiting the situation to garner popular support, “while those who remained silent, such as myself, were accused of being passive or of standing in the way of a solution that benefited the protesters.”

El-Tawargy and Bayaa were both staunch supporters of the movement against the factory in 2008, yet both now believe that the renewal of the dispute earlier this month is of a different nature than the initial movement three years ago.

“Those who have resorted to blocking the roads, many of which don’t even lead to the factory, weren’t here at the beginning and don’t understand the background of the dispute,” El-Tawargy said. “By blocking roads and closing off parts of the city, they ended up losing the support of large portions of the population.”

One of the political figures to have recently risen to prominence is Essam Sultan, Al-Wasat Party candidate for Damietta. Several local residents point to the significant role played by Sultan in resolving the factory crisis. Along with a group of “wise men,” including prominent engineer and politician Mamdouh Hamza, Sultan held talks with protesters in an attempt to get them to end their sit in.

On 18 November and on 25 November, the Al-Wasat Party organised a conference attended by thousands in the city’s central Shahabeya Square, which Sultan used to emphasise his role in resolving the dispute and criticise his electoral rivals in the Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. The FJP, for its part, a main contender for the polls in Damietta, organised a conference three days earlier that was attended by some 5,000 people.

El-Bayaa noted the carnivalesque character of the conferences held by the Karama Party, which served to make Sultan come across as an independent candidate rather than as a party member. The FJP's campaigning, meanwhile, has been much less glamorous, said El-Bayaa, noting that the party was "working on a much more grassroots level, going door-to-door, visiting schools and talking to people."

Electoral challenges

Several observers complained that the protests had had an adverse effect on the electoral process. “It made campaigning in different cities and villages very difficult, as we couldn’t give appointments for meetings, since – given the blocked roads – we were unsure whether we would be able to make it or not,” El-Bayaa said.

Problems faced by candidates in the cities are even worse for those in the governorates for several reasons, be they financial, logistical or geographical.

El-Bayaa explained how the Damietta governorate is more than double the size of Cairo in size but is divided into only two electoral districts. This makes it nearly impossible to cover the vast amount of space, which includes approximately one hundred villages, in such a short space of time. 

El-Tawargy voiced similar sentiments, saying upcoming elections would fail to represent the country’s post-revolutionary political forces. Most new parties, he noted, had only began campaigning some three weeks ago.      

What’s more, in light of the recent clashes between Tahrir Square protesters and security forces, several people have pondered boycotting the vote. El-Bayaa, for his part, believes this would be a mistake, since by boycotting elections the revolutionary youth stands to lose support among the people and would not be represented at all in post-elections Egypt.      

Local reactions

Ayman, a Damietta hotel clerk, expressed his fears regarding the upcoming polls. One of the biggest issues for him was the media’s failure to adequately inform the voting public about details of the elections. He believes this is an intentional act by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) aimed at keeping the public in the dark about the polls.

He does not buy the argument, however, that the factory crisis was instigated by remnants of the former regime or the SCAF.

Two retired Damietta craftsmen, for their part, stressed that elections must be conducted in a secure environment.

“We have now reached the point at which we can say that what we were facing before was better,” said one of them.

“We want to feel the effects of the revolution; the change that the revolution was supposed to produce,” the second man chimed in.  

Two girls, Farida and Mariam, both of whom claim to be undecided voters, participated in a highly energized march organised by the April 6 Youth Movement in support of the 18 November protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Both girls are part of an initiative they call “Street Tweet,” an awareness campaign aimed at ensuring that voters’ voices are counted.

Mariam described how impressed she was with Damietta residents’ apparent high levels of political awareness. “In one of the low-income areas here we were surprised to find a frail old man who was able to perfectly explain the difference between the electoral and independent lists,” Farida stressed.

Ammar Radwan, an activist involved in the anti-factory protests, predicted that, despite recent unrest, elections would take place as planned “because the SCAF doesn’t want the people returning to Tahrir Square.”

Radwan does not know what to make of the current situation in Tahrir, being torn between the stance of his party, the FJP, which has stopped short of endorsing the Tahrir Square demonstrations, and the protesters. This did not stop him, however, from organising a demonstration in Damietta in support of the protesters – in which some 500 people took part – on 20 November.

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