As Egypt draws close to parliamentary elections, the country’s political scene is rife with activity. Yet amid increased restrictions on political and press freedom, and widespread suspicions that some opposition parties have struck deals with the current regime, the populous has largely resigned itself to a very predictable election outcome: Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) will once again retain its grip on the Egypt’s People’s Assembly.
At the outset it was evident that liberalizing electoral procedures, as happened in the last elections, was off the table this time around as constitutional amendments made in 2007 virtually placed electoral supervision in the regime’s lap. In 2005, Egypt’s parliamentary elections witnessed an unprecedented level of freedom. While still practicing repressive measures—the norm in Egyptian politics—the regime allowed a limited opening up of electoral channels that enabled the regime’s main opponent, the Muslim Brotherhood, to gain significant ground in the People’s Assembly, winning close to 20% of the seats contested.
It seems at present that this uncustomary freedom wasn’t to set standards; rather, it was a response to regional and international pressures that have waned since then. This view is reinforced by the recent mounting suppression of political (and sometimes public) freedoms.
Calls for boycotting the elections were echoed persistently as the only means to fight the brunt of repression. The rationale is simple: if enough oppositional forces join a boycott, an NDP victory—the expected outcome—would be deemed illegitimate. Among those who called for boycott were the Democratic Front Party, al-Ghad party, and most importantly, the National Association for Change, a political movement created by prominent activists, among them intellectuals and politicians, in order to push for democratic reform.
The National Association for Change is promoting the candidacy of Mohammed el-Baradei—former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner—for the 2011 presidential elections, the stage for which will be set by this month’s parliamentary elections. El-Baradei voiced his concern about the integrity of the upcoming elections and rallied some oppositional forces to support calls for boycott, meeting with the Muslim Brotherhood in the process. The Muslim Brotherhood’s announcement that it intends to contest 30% of seats this season constituted a major blow to the bloc opting for boycott.
Muslim Brotherhood media spokesman, Essam al-Arian asserts in an interview with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that “comprehensive reform begins with constitutional and political reform, which requires participation in the general elections and an active presence in the formal political institutions.” While the Muslim Brotherhood is an officially outlawed party and its candidates must contest the elections as independents, the party still views these elections as a chance to mobilize and engage with the public.
Other oppositional forces will also be participating in the elections. Two coalitions were formed accordingly. The first is the Coalition of the Egyptian Opposition Parties (CEOP), encompassing three main opposition parties—the Wafd, Tagammu’ and Nasserist parties—while the second consists of ten small parties with no current representation in parliament, save al-Ghad Party, which has one member.
Added to the participation of the opposition are accusations of secret deals between factions of the opposition and the NDP. Political analyst, Amr Hashem Rabie, talking to al-Ahram Weekly, expressed suspicions that such a deal was struck between the Wafd and the NDP for seats in the People’s Assembly at the expense of the Muslim Brotherhood. Such suspicions were discussed in more detail in a report by al-Masry al-Youm, one of Egypt’s widely distributed newspapers.
In an atmosphere where effective opposition is marred by wide-scale participation and suspected deals between the opposition and the ruling party, calls for boycott were lost amidst a rush to secure parliamentary seats, and movements that stood against and outside of the system lost their momentum as a whole and were marginalized individually.
The focus of analysts and commentators in Egypt for the time being lies in following the strategies and tactics of a regime consolidating itself and determined to win at least a two-third majority (as in previous elections) and to further clamp down on any form of opposition.
Recent developments bare plenty of evidence of the NDP’s determination in this respect. Once such development was the dismissal of Ibrahim Eissa, editor-in-chief of al-Dostour newspaper. Although this move was officially chalked up to a change in the ownership of the publication to Wafd party chief, al-Sayyed al-Badawy, it is widely believed that Eissa was dismissed at the direction of the regime in order to suppress dissident voices and unfriendly coverage of events during this delicate period where dissent is most unwelcome. Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, describes such measures as an example of a “harsh and swift step to intimidate the press ahead of parliamentary elections in November.”
Media restriction such as this has become an important strategy in keeping unfavorable information regarding the electoral process at bay, and similar actions have been taken in other forms of media.
Ministry of Information restrictions placed on satellite channels require that they obtain licenses to air live events and share news with other media outlets, while the National Telecommunication Regulatory Authority has virtually cancelled text messaging news services. Finally, the Egyptian satellite, Nilesat, shut down four private channels and cancelled the controversial television show “Cairo Today.”
Political measures follow suit. Last month, Egyptian National Television rejected playing promotional ads for al-Wafd, and the Muslim Brotherhood was threatened by the High Elections Commission that any candidate using the Brotherhood’s slogan “Islam is the Solution” will not be allowed to run. The Brotherhood still challenges the regime, saying that it shall resort to judicial measures to prove its case against such a restriction.
The Brotherhood, the only real threat to the regime, has yet to prove itself capable of effectively mounting such a challenge. In the wake of the detainment of 70 members of its leadership by the regime last month, it seems like the Egyptian state is making its last preparations for a smooth round of elections.
Following the announcement of the candidates for the elections, which will take place on November 28th, news agencies noted the ease with which candidates of the NDP and the CEOP were processed by the state run elections commission and how independents, whether of the Muslim Brotherhood or not, were harassed by security.
Observers of the events preceding the elections are rarely surprised by them, and an air of surrender covers the landscape of Egyptian politics. A history of over 30 years in power propels the NDP and the current regime to the fore, and the public’s expectations are set. It is yet to be seen how the opposition will play their hand as the 2011 presidential elections appear on the horizon, but for the time being all meaningful political action is stalled as hopes for democracy diminish further in Egypt.