NDP may get more than it bargained for

Hani Shukrallah , Saturday 27 Nov 2010

Tomorrow's elections feature a unique experiment in "political engineering". It is unlikely to work

As Egyptian voters head for the polls tomorrow, the big question on the minds of election watchers both inside the country and outside it will be how “free and fair” the election is going to be. I might as well confess to having very little interest in the answer to that particular standard question. Not because it does not bear asking but rather because, in the Egyptian context, it has become extremely dull.

The question is made tedious not just by sheer repetitiveness, but because the very nature of the electoral process in the country renders the answer, whatever it might be, largely insignificant.

Let’s examine some of the salient features of our electoral nature. Take first the fact that the great majority of Egyptian citizens are simply not interested. I’ve been in the habit of conducting informal polls of friends; relatives and colleagues to get a sense of how many of them have ever voted or, indeed, have taken the trouble to register to vote. The real figure nation-wide is probably greater than the 1-2% I invariably get for my ad hoc polls, but I don’t expect by very much. At any event, the 2005 election saw a turnout of around 25%, according to the official figure, and 10-12% according to the estimates of civil rights election monitors.

Which seems to bring us to another salient feature of Egyptian elections. Most of those who do actually turn out to vote have no interest in politics at all. Indeed, Egyptian election watchers are often working under a huge delusion, which is that elections in this country are about political choice.This is an extension of yet another pervasive delusion, which is the perception of the Egyptian parliament as a political space, a site for making, conducting and debating politics. Not true. Our parliament is more chamber of commerce than legislature, a site for conducting business rather than politics.

Our MPs, by and large, are either dozing or absent when public policy is being debated (Parliament Speaker, and de facto NDP whip, Mr. Fathi Sorour, is often seen haranguing the ruling party MPs for their laxity in tones evocative of a teacher rebuking errant students and, according to studies, a substantial percentage of members never open their mouths during the full 5-year term of the house). These same members show a great deal of vitality and forbearance, however, when thronging around cabinet ministers to hand them little slips of paper requesting government favors of one sort or another.

Parliament in this country is first and foremost about patronage. The ruling party is, in fact, little more than a massive patronage network, while parliament is the principal, if by no means the only, instrument of operationalizing this network. Dignitaries of various sorts and sizes, from billionaire business tycoons in Armani (or Seville Row) suits to headmen in traditional (English wool) Kaftans, act as intermediaries between a gigantic, heartless, inefficient and characteristically brutal state machinery and the populace. Little wonder then that the intermediaries would demand and expect their “cut”.

Members of the Egyptian political and intellectual elite regularly bemoan the political ignorance of the masses, but it is actually these “ignorant” masses that possess a keen sense of how the system operates. When they complain that their MP has done nothing for them and is in it for “himself”, they are fully aware of what they mean, which is that that particular MP has put the concerns of his own “cut” over and above those of his intermediary role; this, a common complaint of a common, inherently systemic malaise.

It is only from such a perspective that we could begin to unravel such uniquely Egyptian electoral phenomena as the frenzied scramble for parliamentary seats within that giant patronage network called the NDP, and it is only with reference to this very nature of the ruling party that we could grasp the bizarre manifestation of that party running against itself, both officially (by running more than one candidate for the same seat in 145 constituencies), and unofficially, with thousands of renegade members running as independents against the official party ticket.

It is also within such an overall perspective that we can begin to understand the tribal character that seems to predominate the elections in a country that hardly has any real tribes. Clan, or tribal identity, however manufactured, provides a crucial vehicle for the establishment and maintaining of patronage ties. By sharing a tribal identity with your elected MP you have first claim to his patronage, in return for which he is able to draw on your electoral and other forms of support, including the beating up of rivals. This also helps explain the seemingly incomprehensible ferocity and violence that accompanies a great many NDP versus NDP electoral battles. The single death that has already taken place in this electoral campaign has been in the context of a violent confrontation between the “tribal” supporters of two competing ruling party candidates. Possibly more are to come over the coming week, and until the run-off elections (a week from tomorrow) are finalized.

We need to be clear about this. The greater part of the electoral battle is about which patrons are to be picked by which collections of real and would-be clients. This is true even in the case of much of the opposition, particularly the Wafd Party, which has its own bag of local and national dignitaries, whose fortunes are possibly better this time around than in previous elections, now that the public perception is that the NDP leadership is looking with fairly benevolent eyes towards its old rival.

What politics are to be watched in these elections are those constituted for all practical purposes by the challenge of the Muslim Brotherhood. There is a great deal of irony here, since the Brotherhood is much more an ideological than a political group. But be that as it may, indications are that the government is fully determined to cut the Brotherhood’s share in parliament drastically down to size. The unprecedented 88 seats the Brotherhood held in the outgoing parliament are to be no more.

How far is the government willing to go to achieve this, and by what means, remains to be seen. But the use of force is already justified by the “outlawed” status of the group. Indeed, the penal code is laden with articles that would make it lawful for the government to arrest, and jail for up to 15 years every single proven member of the “outlawed” organization. The selective use of force by the government against the Brotherhood is inscribed into the familiar “outlawed but tolerated” designation that journalists like to pin on the group. This gives the government almost full discretion in allotting or withholding doses of “tolerance” and repression.

Over 1000 Brotherhood members have been arrested already in the course of the campaign, and expectations are that tomorrow’s polling will witness violent confrontations between group supporters and the police, especially in the once cosmopolitan Alexandria, now the country’s major base of support for the Brotherhood.

Beginning tomorrow and by the end of the week, the composition of the parliament that presumably will take us to the middle of the decade will have become known. (Parliaments, naturally, can be dissolved before the end of their term). Indications are the ruling party will succeed in drastically reducing the Brotherhood’s share of parliamentary seats (10-15 is the figure being whispered, including by Brotherhood sources).

And while this may be easy to predict, there is an interesting aspect to these elections which is much more difficult to foresee, let alone bet on. And this lies in what I have come to call the NDP’s experiment in “political engineering”. For not only does the NDP leadership want to bring the Brotherhood down, there is very strong evidence that they would also like to see other opposition groups, particularly the Wafd Party, come up (40-50 seats in the figure being whispered on this front).  

An overwhelming parliamentary majority for the NDP simply would not look “nice”, either at home or abroad; it would appear as a substantial step back in the promised process of political reform launched by the government and the ruling party in 2005, mainly through constitutional amendments allowing for multi-candidate presidential elections. Furthermore, whatever purpose the Brotherhood’s “scary” 88 seats had served, is now redundant.

At the time, we might recall, George Bush Jr. and his neo-cons had made a royal mess of the Iraq they sought to “liberate” and “democratize”, and fell upon the idea of “democratizing” Egypt instead. The heat was on, and whether by accident or design, a Hamas win in Palestine, followed a few months later by the Brotherhood winning an unprecedented share of the Egyptian parliament, was reason enough for both Washington and the European Union to review the wisdom of pushing for political reform in the Arab world, particularly among friendly countries.

Needless to say, Obama – I believe wisely – has adopted a much more realistic approach to this issue, and so have the Europeans. American pressure has always been a “kiss of death” to the cause of democracy in our region.

And while the Brotherhood’s “bogyman” aspect, for whatever it was worth, is no longer useful, developments within the Wafd Party, have been very encouraging, from a government perspective. The new Wafd leader, El-Sayed El-Badawy, a self-made business tycoon who made his fortune in the lucrative pharmaceutical industry (especially, Viagra, as rumor would have it), is widely believed to have strong ties with influential state bodies. Soon after he took over the party leadership, he bought the daily Al-Dustour, the most vociferously anti-government daily newspaper in the country, led by the flamboyant editor and writer, Ibrahim Issa. Soon after buying the paper, El-Badawy fired Issa and his editorial team, effectively ending the newspaper.

Will it work? That, in my view, is the most interesting question posed by the 2010 elections. The problem is that whatever the NDP leadership wishes might be, its own membership is quite capable of subverting it. In the 2005 elections, only about a third of the official NDP candidates won their seats, the rest of the ruling party’s parliamentary majority was made up by renegade members who ran against the party ticket, only to rejoin after the elections.

So if the NDP dignitaries, in their frenzied scramble for the power and business opportunities offered by winning a parliamentary seat are willing to defeat their own party’s electoral slate, is it at all realistic to expect them to respect their leadership’s wishes for another party?

If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t bet on the NDP’s experiment in “political engineering” meeting with any great success. The ruling party might well find itself saddled with a parliamentary majority considerably greater than its leadership would have wished.

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