Sameh Makram Ebeid handed me his business card with the words, ‘I hope I get to use this again.’ Underneath his name it spelled out ‘Member of Parliament’. He took it back momentarily and penciled in an additional word in Arabic: ‘Dissolved’.
‘I don’t have the right to disagree with a court ruling. We were never MPs; this is what the court said. But I will run again for parliament and make a fight for my district.’
Ebeid is one of two elected Coptic parliamentarians, and won his seat from the Red Sea district under the banner of the Egyptian Bloc. The choice of the Red Sea was personal – he owns a home there and likes the region – but also political. Ebeid estimates 75% of governorate residents hail from Qena in Upper Egypt, which is his family home.
The choice of the Egyptian Bloc as a liberal coalition was natural, as Egyptian politics post-revolution evolved into a secular-Islamist confrontation.
The Bloc is a coalition consisting of the Free Egyptian Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and the Tagammu’ Party. Under Egyptian law, however, Ebeid does not have to belong to any of these parties. Though his official parliament membership papers list him as a member of the Bloc he ran with them as an independent candidate.
Perhaps this is fitting. Ebeid hails from the historic Egyptian family associated with the Wafd Party in opposition to British colonialism. Saad Zaghloul, a Muslim, and Makram Ebeid, a Copt and Ebeid’s ancestor, contributed to the founding of modern Egyptian politics along nationalist lines without any religious distinction. The party’s logo depicts both the Christian cross and the Muslim crescent.
‘The Wafd is the secular party of Egypt.’
Ebeid had previously served as the Wafd Party’s assistant secretary general and member of the political bureau, but resigned during the chairmanship of Sayyid el-Badawi, who won party elections in 2010.
‘He became very autocratic and wanted to run the party the way he wanted. He was vengeful against everyone who was there before him. He never represented the true Wafd Party which I belonged to.’
Ebeid’s major source of contention was Badawi’s cooperation with the Muslim Brotherhood. He brought on prominent Islamist Suad Salah, and sought to place her on the religion and human rights committee. Compromises such as these turned the Wafd, he said, into a typical ‘wishy-washy’ party.
After the revolution Badawi entered the Wafd into a coalition with the Brotherhood, though they withdrew at the last minute.
Badawi’s election was ‘clean’, states Ebeid, but like the parliamentary and presidential elections, this does not mean they were not manipulated.
‘The elections were not rigged but the road to the ballot was unfair; if you promise people heaven or buy their votes, this is not fair.’
Ebeid is critical of the electoral machinery of the Muslim Brotherhood which distributed food packages in poor areas before elections. Similarly, many Salafi sheikhs stated voting for Islamists was part of obeying God’s will.
Yet Ebeid testifies that in his election monitoring he did not discover fraud; certainly not in comparison to past elections. For this he puts no stock in the conspiracies which say Ahmed Shafiq was the actual winner of presidential elections over Mohamed Morsy.
‘As long as Shafiq did not contest the election, I have to accept it as correct.
‘If he knew the elections were rigged and he did not voice this, it is treason and he should be court-martialed.
‘There were 13,000 polling stations; did he not have this many volunteers to count the vote as the Brotherhood did?’
Even so, Ebeid took issue with the recent visit of Hillary Clinton to Egypt. His critique was not about clandestine US support for the Brotherhood, as many liberals and Copts advanced. On the contrary, in coming to Egypt the secretary of state was just doing her job.
‘I don’t see any reason why Clinton should not visit the president of Egypt; these are the true forces of Egypt. Did they push SCAF to accept Morsy? I don’t know and nobody knows. But it is actually her job and duty to come.
‘I think we should meet with the Americans and tell them what we think right to their face.’
As a politician Ebeid has the right to be frank. His criticism of Clinton, conversely, is in her conduct as a diplomat.
‘There has been a lack of tact on the part of Clinton and her team.’
The failure in tact concerned the nature of her visits to political forces. It was right for her to meet Morsy and the Brotherhood, Ebeid believed. It was right for her to meet with Salafis. It was right for her to meet with the military. But it was not right for her to meet with ‘Copts’.
‘You should not meet with the Copts as Copts, but as part of the liberal movement, as the third way between military and Islamist, and bring in non-Christians.
‘If you start segregating the country you’re making a big mistake.
‘She wanted to meet with individual politicians, but they were all Christians.’
For this reason, Ebeid believes it was correct for liberal and Coptic forces to boycott the meeting with Clinton. He himself did not receive an invitation, but he supported the decision of those who did.
As for the current political situation in Egypt, especially on President Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood, Ebeid is critical as well.
‘There is no such thing as the Freedom and Justice Party. They call themselves the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the real force.
‘So far I have not seen Morsy act as the president of Egypt. We have to see if he will elevate himself above parties to be the president of all Egypt. I hope he will do this.
‘The Brothers have a special agenda and we have a different agenda. If he is representing the Brotherhood then he is not my president, he’s the president of the Muslim Brotherhood. He should be the president of everyone.’
Though Morsy is not directly involved in the crucial issue of the constitution, Ebeid witnesses the Brotherhood special agenda here especially.
‘The constituent assembly [which will write the constitution] was a trick. It was agreed to be a 50-50 Islamist-secular split, but they did not go into the details about parties or people.
‘The Wasat Party and the Reform and Development Party of al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya are Islamist parties, are they not? They must be counted as part of the Islamists. But what the Brotherhood is saying is that we never said it, we said 50% for MB and Salafis. As the Americans say, the devil is in the details.’
Ebeid’s criticism is not just of the Brotherhood, but of the process itself.
‘The whole process was flawed. We should have gone through the list person by person; defining by position means nothing. We could stipulate the selection of a judge of a court, but if he is an Islamist this makes the difference.’
As media reports the progress the constituent assembly makes on the constitution, Ebeid prefers not to comment on details until he sees an official text. Yet he is not reticent to make his views known on certain issues.
‘The first three articles are most important as they define the identity of Egypt. What are we, a secular country or an Islamic country?
‘What does the word shura [‘consultative’, proposed by Islamists as part of the definition of the state] mean? It has been debated for the last fourteen centuries. Putting the word there is not just semantics, it means something.
‘As for the right of Christians and Jews to refer to their own sharia: What about non-believers, what if we have an Egyptian Buddhist?
‘We should have a presidential system for the first two terms, and then move into a semi-presidential like the French. We’re not ready for a semi-presidential system yet.’
Within the debate of these issues, Ebeid was careful never to assert, or even speculate, secret deal-making between political powers. The accusation that someone was an agent of America, for example, has been a political tactic for the last thirty or forty years, he stated. He wanted nothing to do with this pattern.
Yet there was one area where he opened the door just a little. It is the crucial error which resulted in the muddled transition Egypt is experiencing.
‘If there was a deal, the deal that harmed Egypt was made in March of last year in the national referendum. This reversed everything, putting parliament first, then president, then constitution.
‘Deal, negotiation, agreement, whatever; this is what destroyed the whole eighteen month process.
‘The whole thing is a series of errors, whether intentional errors or a lack of knowledge I’m not sure.’
Salafi politics has taken Egypt by storm. This has surprised many commentators who underestimated their base of thought and non-political nature. For others, it has been a validation of years of Salafi work in mosques and surrounding communities to preach Islam and help the poor.
As an aid to understanding this phenomenon, and in effort to understand it myself, this text will function as an inverted pyramid. It will start with broad strokes concerning the Salafi coalition in Egypt – the Nour Party, focus on one member in particular – the Asala Party, demonstrate their base in a typical neighborhood – Warraq, and then feature one member in particular – Essam al-Sharif. Appreciation is given for his help in gathering the story which follows.
For a historical background to Salafism in Egypt, click here for a previous post. Though lines overlap, Salafis can be distinguished from Muslim Brothers and Islamic revolutionaries based on methodology, rather than thought. All three groups desire some sort of an Islamic state in which sharia law is the basis of governance. After a history of struggle against the state, the Muslim Brotherhood foreswore violence and sought to transform society while seeking entrance into the political arena. Believing the Brotherhood to have betrayed the jihadist struggle, revolutionary groups such as al-Jama’a al-Islamiya continued to agitate against the state, seeking its overthrow.
Salafis, meanwhile, are understood to be quietist. They eschewed political participation, with some, perhaps many, declaring it to be heretical to Islamic law. At the same time their theology called for obedience to a Muslim ruler. Unlike many in the revolutionary groups, Salafis accepted the broad, liberal, and traditional interpretation of ‘Muslim ruler’, accepting Mubarak as having been given by God.
Therefore, while the state pounded revolutionary Islamic groups out of existence in the 1990s and early 2000s, and placed countless political obstacles and jail terms in the path of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak generally allowed Salafis free reign to propagate their religious interpretations. While strict limits were enforced, Salafi preaching proliferated in the mosques of lower class areas as well as on popular satellite television channels. Rumors are rife concerning extensive financial support from conservative Gulf nations, but the result was the emergence – below the attention of middle class society and politics – of an authentic Egyptian Salafi movement.
Conventional wisdom states given their unique situation in the Egyptian scene, Salafis did not join the revolution of January 25. By and large this is true; many of their leaders declared such activity as religiously haram. Yet many Salafis did participate. This is the testimony of Hani Fawzi, a political activist from Helwan and party leader for the Salafi Asala Party in Nasr City, Cairo. He joined the demonstrations on January 28, as did a few of his favored Salafi sheikhs, such as Nashat Ahmad, Hassan Abu al-Ishbal, Fawzi al-Sayyid, and lastly Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, who will be mentioned later.
Nevertheless, upon the success of the revolution and the opening of the political scene, most were surprised to see the enthusiastic participation of newly formed Salafi parties. This was accompanied by much internal discord. Some continued to criticize political participation, and those who formed parties witnessed several divisions and splits. In the end, two main groupings emerged.
The first and largest issued from Alexandria, understood to be the greatest base of Salafi strength. Leaders there created the Nour (Light) Party. Meanwhile in Cairo, the Asala (Origin) Party was formed. Other parties also emerged, but did not come to national prominence. Nour and Asala were not true rivals, however. One Salafi stated the reason to have more than one party was pragmatic. If any difficulties were encountered by one party – political, legal, administrative – the other one could assure representation.
Over the summer Egypt’s political powers negotiated alliances as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party seized the place of initiative. They created the ‘Democratic Alliance’, seeking as broad a coalition as possible. The historic liberal party, the Wafd, joined them, as did the newly created Salafi entities. Newer liberal parties rejected the central place of the Brotherhood and doubted their democratic credentials. The Free Egyptians and the Social Democratic Party allied instead with the youth revolutionary parties, setting up a liberal vs. Islamist electoral battle.
Yet further splintering emerged. The revolutionary parties split from what became known as the Egyptian Bloc, largely over issues of representation and nomination of members. Meanwhile, the Wafd Party decided the Brotherhood-dominated Democratic Alliance did not fit with its liberal heritage, and decided to go it alone in elections.
The surprise came when the Salafis later split from the Brotherhood, although the reason is similar to that which dissolved the Egyptian Bloc. Egypt’s electoral system created a two-thirds ‘party list’ and a one-third ‘individual’ competition for seats. In the party list system, a slate of candidates would be presented, to be voted on as a whole. The number of candidates elected would correspond to the percentage of the vote captured by the list within a particular district. For individual seats, only one person could be nominated and receive support from the coalition.
In the Egyptian Bloc, youthful revolutionaries and established middle-class professionals vied for positioning at the top of the list, and for nomination in individual elections. When the youth felt they were being marginalized, they formed their own coalition. It should be mentioned additionally that leftist-liberal orientation played a role in their division, though it did not take down the alliance. The remaining Free Egyptian Party (right of center economically) and Social Democratic Party (left of center) held together in support of a liberal political system, and perhaps in opposition to Islamist trends.
The story is similar for the Democratic Alliance. The largely middle-class and politically established Muslim Brotherhood clashed with the lower-class and populist Salafis over representation in the coalition. It should be mentioned additionally that moderate-conservative orientation also played a role. Yet rather than this designation, it might be more true to label the conflict as pragmatic versus idealistic. In any case, the Salafi parties left and created a coalition under the name of their dominant partner, the Nour Party.
This coalition included the Reform and Development Party, created since the revolution by al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, the former Islamic revolutionaries. After being greatly weakened by the state, the group controversially foreswore violence in the late 1990s. Laboring internally over their identity and purpose, al-Jama’a maintained a base of support in Upper Egypt, and allied with the Salafis during the elections.
The other partner with Nour is the aforementioned Asala Party, to which the rest of this essay will turn. This largely geographical alliance – Alexandria, Cairo, Upper Egypt – gave the Salafis a national base of support, allowing each partner to draw from their positions of strength. The result has been a solid 25% of the national vote. The Muslim Brotherhood drew support from many Egyptians for its role as major opposition party to Mubarak, as well as a lack of alternatives, and not necessarily from its Islamist politics. Salafis, meanwhile, drew only from their base and their religious-identity based campaign strategy, suggesting their representation does indeed encompass one in four Egyptians.
Yet before moving on in complete acceptance of this fact, it is suspected by many the Salafis also received the benefit of official fraud. If this accusation is true, it does not necessarily imply their complicity. Rather, it is maintained the ‘old regime’ remnants in the state wish to prop up the Salafis for one of two reasons. First, given their political acquiescence to the stability of order, otherwise non-Salafi political apparatchiks and business interests believe they can rule through the Salafis and maintain a Mubarak-style regime. They would allow Salafis to institute a more conservative social order, but themselves exist outside of its reach. The assumed political naiveté of Salafis would also allow the same level of corruption in administration and policing.
The second reason proposed for state-sponsorship of the Salafis is that they are meant as a counter-balance to the Muslim Brotherhood. It is maintained the Brotherhood could not be denied leadership in the post-revolutionary order, but they are pragmatic enough to play political games. Mubarak scared the West by saying support me, or face the Brotherhood. Old regime members can now make back-door deals with the pro-business Brotherhood to say, support us, or face the Salafis. Meanwhile, to keep the Brotherhood honest, the old regime can threaten them with the populist Salafis, who can ‘out-Islam them’ if push comes to shove, especially if the state greases the wheels of low-level electoral fraud. Either way, it is a dangerous game, but many liberals believe it is being played, if only from sour grapes.
Shifting focus to the Asala Party in particular, it is interesting to note it was not the first Salafi Party formed in Cairo. This honor goes to the Fadila (Virtue) Party. According to reports, the co-founder of the Fadila Party, Khaled al-Said, had disagreements with elected chairman Adel Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, resulting in the parting of their ways. The latter then went on to found the Asala Party.
Afifi had been a general in the police force and the director of the Passports and Immigration Control section of the Interior Ministry. He is also noteworthy for being the brother of the celebrated Salafi television preacher Mohamed Abdel Maqsoud Afifi, who also served as a government chemist. His Egyptian ministry is based in Shubra, a neighborhood in the north of Cairo.
Afifi was elected president of the party, which he co-founded with Ehab Shiha, an engineer who owns a mid-level building company. Shiha is vice-president of the party, along with Mamdouh Ismail, a lawyer renowned for handing the defense of Islamist clients, especially from al-Jama’a al-Islamiya.
The Asala Party literature declares it to possess ‘a contemporary vision of original principles’. This vision consists of six founding principles which influence eight goals in particular.
Islamic sharia law is the principle source for legislation, which guarantees justice for all denominations of the people.
The national benefit will be promoted through the search for professionals of high capability and sincerity to work in government.
The Egyptian people have the right to personal freedom of expression, and the Egyptian citizens must have their respect and dignity protected.
The Egyptian people have the right to chose their representatives in both legislative councils and executive bodies.
Elected representatives are chosen by the people to express their viewpoints, not to be considered better than them.
The ruling authorities – president of the republic and the cabinet ministers – are employees who work for the good of the people, who have the right to question, hold accountable, and judge them if they perform poorly.
Intellectual, social, and moral development through purifying souls and the elevation of traditional values drawn from Islamic sharia law.
Complete economic renaissance in all sectors of the state resulting in an increase in GDP through ideal use of national resources.
Just distribution of wealth and lessening the class divisions to improve the social situation of the general Egyptian people.
Preserving the dignity of the Egyptian citizen, whether inside or outside of Egypt, without looking to his social position, as the simple citizen is the primary member of society.
Complete improvement in social services necessary for the public, including educational, health, and security.
Establishing the foundation of justice and equality between citizens in their rights and the rule of law, through implementing Article Two of the constitution to ensure the regulations of Islamic sharia are the true and veritable primary source of legislation.
Crafting strong relations with neighboring countries, especially of the Nile Basin to preserve the interests of Egypt both domestically and internationally.
The return of Egypt to her position of leadership in the region, in Africa, and among Islamic nations, as deserving of her history, civilization, and the potential of her great people.
The Asala Party then went about the work of building party infrastructure. They chose Essam al-Sharif as party secretary for Warraq, a neighborhood in north-west Cairo. Warraq is a mixed industrial-agricultural area, lower class, with Christians populating in general accordance to their national percentage. There are several churches, one of which is alleged to have received an appearance of the Virgin Mary in December 2009. The name of the area is derived from the Arabic for ‘maker of paper’. As such, it hosted papyrus manufacture from ancient days as well as the first modern printing press in Egypt. It is also well known for production of women’s Islamic dress.
During elections, Warraq constituted a district along with the neighboring areas of Awseem and Manashi. The district was allotted ten seats for party-list competition. The Muslim Brotherhood backed Freedom and Justice Party captured 40% of the vote, while the Nour Party alliance received 30%, capturing three seats. Two of these three – Adel Azayzi and Abu Khadra – are from the Nour Party proper, while the third – Nazzar Ghurab – represented the Reform and Development Party of al-Jama’a al-Islamiya. The Asala Party did not field a candidate in this district, but campaigned for its partners all the same.
The campaign for individual candidates followed national law to vote for one seat for ‘professionals’, and another for ‘workers/farmers’. This peculiarity is a holdover from Nasser-era elections designed to assure better representation for the working class in his socialist system. Over a hundred candidates campaigned, but only a few had enough prominence to secure victory.
One major issue for parties was the dominance of Mubarak’s National Party in all constituencies of Egypt. This did not concern the professionals’ seat, in which Mahmoud Amer of the Freedom and Justice Party defeated Emad al-Halabi from Nour in the run-off election. This was a friendly competition in which the two candidates shook hands after the final result was declared. On the street however, the FJP candidate received the vote of a Salafi partisan, angering some within Asala. Many commentators expect a replication in the years to come. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis are ideologically similar, yet competition often brings out the worst in men, even among friends.
Yet the problems of candidacy with the old regime National Party complicated the workers’/farmers’ election. Newer parties were under pressure not to nominate any Mubarak era figures, but this eliminated so many potential candidates. In the end, both the FJP and the Nour Party selected individuals, but their applications were rejected legally for not meeting worker/farmer qualifications. As such, Islamist forces failed to feature a candidate for this Warraq slot.
Even so, they represented a major voting constituency, desired by other candidates. In the initial election neither the FJP nor the Salafis endorsed a candidate. The run-off resulted in the easy victory of Mustafa Sulman, an independent candidate, over Yusuf Khalid of the Egyptian Bloc. Sharif explained both candidates had ties to the National Party, though neither occupied significant leadership. To play in politics under Mubarak meant getting your hands dirty in the party; Sharif believed Khalid’s hands were dirtier. Islamists threw their weight behind Sulman in the run-off, which was decisive.
One of the more prominent campaign tactics of the Nour Party coalition was widely criticized by other parties. Outside the party headquarters of Asala a pickup truck would arrive several times weekly, stocked with gas bottles. These are needed by the majority of residents as the state does not provide independent gas lines into each home. Due to a purported shortage in supply the black market drove up rates, yet the Asala Party sold each at the designated government price. It was assumed there was either money from the Gulf funding this program, or else government corruption to facilitate it.
Sharif explained there was indeed corruption, but that the Asala Party was combating it. The offices of the local governor would authorize certain people as agents, sell them bottles for 3LE ($0.50 US), and allow them to resell at 5LE ($0.80 US). Instead, due to shortages, bottles were being sold for as much as 20-25LE ($3.25 – $4 US). In many parts of Egypt there were protests over these shortages, with the poor bearing the brunt of others’ profit.
The Nour Party coalition went to the governor and threatened to bring him up on charges of corruption if this process did not cease. They then arranged directly with the agent at the point of loading, paying him his due price, and directing the pick-up truck to party neighborhoods in each district. There, to gathered crowds, party coordinators would sell the bottles at price, plus 1LE markup for transportation. According to Sharif, there was neither profit nor expense for the party. There was, however, great popular acclaim. When one recipient entered the party offices and asked who to vote for, Sharif stated (at least in the presence of the author), ‘Whoever you want.’ Upon insistence, he said the Nour Party is good. Asked about the Brotherhood, he said they were good also.
This program could have been done by any party, Sharif explained, but the success of the Salafis stems from their connection to the people. Sharif is a son of Warraq; he is a local businessman who owns a coffee bean shop. He is not wealthy, but is able to travel to Sudan on business to import supplies. Furthermore, he works for the Asala Party on a volunteer basis. He believes in his principles, and sacrifices for them.
As an example of sacrifice, connection to the people, but not fanaticism to the party, Sharif offered his intervention on behalf of his Christian neighbor. Shadia Bushra is a 45 year old widow, living in an apartment complex owned by her extended family. When her aunt decided to move to a more affluent quarter, she attempted to sell the building. Shadia, however, refused to leave. She was paying 10LE ($1.80 US) monthly rent for years, and a now grandfathered housing law dictated the freezing of the original rental contract. If Shadia moved she would have to find a new apartment at current market prices, which would overwhelm her and her three children. Shadia earned around 300LE ($55 US) per month working in a local nursery, and received a 120LE ($20 US) monthly stipend from the government as a widow.
Shadia’s aunt could have sold the building without forcing the move, but this would have resulted in a lower sale price, as the new owner would be legally obligated to honor the original rental agreement. Shadia, however, had long lost the original contract, and her aunt decided to take her to court.
Having been neighbors for many years, Sharif helped Shadia when the priest in the local church took the side of the wealthy relatives. He went with her multiple times to the court, and bore witness she was a long standing resident of the apartment. The judge ruled in her favor, and she is now the sole resident in an empty apartment building.
Shadia asked Sherif if he would have helped her had the litigant been a Muslim. Sherif answered he only became involved because she bore the side of right, and was acting on behalf of a neighbor. Shadia wound up voting for the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood, following the general word on the street. She gave no indication Sherif influenced her to vote in any direction.
Egypt is learning the ways of democracy, yet within a historic struggle for power. Part of the acclaim of Islamist parties is they represent a departure from the ways of corruption in the former regime, bound, as they are, by the moral strictures of Islam. Whether they will prove incorruptible is subject to much doubt, and though Sharif’s explanation of the gas bottle campaigning is reasonable, it also seems to skirt the line of the acceptable.
Yet Sharif displays a magnanimity and sincerity bearing well on his party. Its principles and goals may be another matter, requiring further analysis. Whether or not an open-minded, reasonable personality like Sharif is representative of his party is yet another question. To what degree are Salafis other-rejecting extremists, and to what degree are they simply portrayed this way in liberal propaganda, which has rarely descended to learn from or benefit the street?
Answers to these questions will require the wisdom of the years to come, yet requires immediate action in electoral decisions. Salafis are part and parcel of Egypt; their place is demanded in representation. How Egyptians decide – or are manipulated – is subject to debate; this small window into their world is offered simply as a means to understanding.
Egypt’s first free elections in over thirty years did not err on the side of simplicity. Even so, this did not deter massive national participation and excitement, as 54% of the nation lined up for hours on the street to cast their ballot. Many, however, admitted to having little knowledge about the political process, enabling accusations of fraud and voter manipulation. In this they mirrored many casual Western observers who valued the accomplishment of the elections, but were confused by the mind-boggling complications.
The results were simple: Islamists won a major victory, securing around 70% of the seats. The tale of this victory, and what it means for Egypt, is the subject of this recap.
Egyptian elections for the People’s Assembly were conducted in three stages over a period of nearly two months. Each of Egypt’s 27 governorates was then subdivided into electoral districts, according to population. Two-thirds of the seats were awarded by proportional representation according to votes cast for their party. The remaining third was chosen by individual ballot for the candidate alone. Of the total representatives chosen, fully one-half were required to be workers or farmers. Together, the People’s Assembly consists of 508 seats, 10 of which were appointed by the military council.
Confused? Naturally. The process did not result from consensus planning or a democratic heritage. Instead it was cut and pasted from a mishmash of Egyptian history through pressure and compromise between political parties and the military council.
The 50-50 division between workers/farmers and professional seats is a holdover from President Nasser. He stipulated a place for the common man in the People’s Assembly in accordance with his Arab nationalist and socialist policies, but in reality the designation was little more than an administrative token. The military council represents a continuation of his legacy, and insisted on keeping the division. Political parties did not raise significant objection.
There was loud protest, however, over the electoral system. The party list format groups candidates together under broad alliances. Citizens then cast one vote for their party of preference, which is awarded seats per district according to the total percentage won. If a district, for example, represents ten seats, every party must field ten candidates. Should the party capture 60% of the vote, its top six candidates would claim seats.
This was the system Egypt utilized for elections in the 1980s, before switching to an individual candidacy format more akin to politics in the United States. The winner was the first to capture 50%+1 of the ballots cast, requiring a run-off for the top two candidates, if necessary. Intentional or not, this allowed for simpler vote-rigging and intimidation of voters, allowing the National Democratic Party to win a sweeping (fraudulent) victory in 2010.
Fearful the remnants of the NDP would claim victory after the revolution through similar methods, political parties argued to return to a party list system. Through subsequent pressure on the military council the percentage of such party list candidates moved from one-third, to one-half, and finally to two-thirds. The military council refused to abandon individual candidacy altogether, leading to fears it would promote old regime fortunes in the election process.
These fears were also buttressed by their refusal to allow international observation of the elections. Instead the military council decreed the nation’s judges would supervise legitimacy, but this created a problem of logistics. In order to guarantee a judge at every ballot box, the elections were divided into three stages. Stage one took place in the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, and others, while stages two and three mixed between the governorates of the Delta and Upper Egypt.
In the end, the military council did allow limited international observation. Former US President Jimmy Carter was prominently involved through his Carter Center, with its longstanding work in democracy promotion. While noting irregularities, he ultimately judged the elections ‘acceptable’.
The military council further placated popular demand and issued a law to bar former members of the NDP from participating in elections. Though this law was struck down by the court, it proved to be unnecessary. A number of old regime parties acquired legal registration and ran in elections, but altogether secured only 3.5% of the seats.
The true competition centered on five parties/alliances, though initial efforts sought to maintain one national effort to unite all political forces. This hope quickly degenerated into a liberal-Islamist divide, as fears rose some wished to craft Egypt into a religious state.
Soon greater divisions emerged on both sides. The broad Democratic Alliance was led by the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood. It tried to position itself a religious but centrist force, keeping an alliance with the historically liberal Wafd Party. It faltered, however, as conservative Salafi Muslims split to form their own alliance, under the banner of the newly created Nour Party. Eventually, the Wafd also decided it could not align with the Muslim Brotherhood in good faith, and decided to go it alone.
On the liberal side, political parties from both the right and left of the economic spectrum formed the Egyptian Bloc, dedicated to the civil state. Yet the young revolutionaries felt marginalized, and split to form a left-leaning activist alliance named The Revolution Continues. A major factor in the dissolution of all alliances was the placement of candidates on the party list and assignment to favorable individual districts. The interests of party outweighed formation of a common front.
In the end this hurt the liberal far more than the Islamists, if indeed it was a factor at all. The Democratic Alliance headed by the FJP did slightly better than anticipated, winning 45% of the seats. The surprise of elections was the showing of the Islamist Bloc headed by the Salafi Nour Party. Assumed to be marginal and full of political novices, they captured a solid 25% of the People’s Assembly.
The liberal Egyptian Bloc fared decently in the first stage of elections due to concentrations of upper class and intellectual pockets in the big cities. Their appeal failed to materialize in the rest of the country, however, in the end receiving only 7% of the seats. The Wafd Party captured a slightly higher number, as their name recognition echoed through the rest of the nation winning the allegiance of most non-Islamist-inclined voters. Despite the popular appeal of the revolution, however, the Revolution Continues Alliance faltered miserably, winning only 2% of parliamentary representation.
Though the powers of the People’s Assembly remain undetermined, the military council has bequeathed it full legislative authority. This raises significant questions for the coming period. Will the Islamist forces align to move Egypt in the direction of a religious state? Will liberal forces find common ground with the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP to marginalize the Salafis? Will the FJP evolve into a new NDP with the blessing of the military council, to revive the former regime? Or, will they gradually continue the revolution in effort to send the military council back to their barracks?
Not much is clear except the existence of a popularly elected legislative body. This in itself is an achievement of the revolution.
note: This article is a bit dated but has been held until publication in the Maadi Messenger, a monthly magazine for the expatriate community in Cairo.
I took a stroll through our neighborhood this morning to see the early activity surrounding our four public schools hosting parliamentary elections. Polls opened at 8am, and I crossed the street, walked a block, and began to observe.
A few things stuck me immediately. First, a long line. Over 100 people were in cue, side by side. Second, they were all men. I thought this was peculiar. Third, the guard. About four or five soldiers manned the entrance to the school, while two or three policemen monitored traffic and paid general attention to the surroundings.
Fourth, the propaganda. Opposite the school were about twenty volunteers for the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, distinguished by their bright yellow hats with the party logo. Some were distributing leaflets, some seemed around just to establish presence. The main contribution, however, was to set up a table with two laptop computers, helping voters identify their polling station.
Some have complained about the odd distribution of voters through various districts, with family members in one home often in three different places. Still, the government has established a website in which one’s national ID number will provide the exact location for voting. The Muslim Brotherhood effort provides an uninformed voter which neighborhood school to visit. It also provides them with a leaflet for the party, on the back of which their volunteers write down the polling station info, to help with ease of access. Last Friday at church two laptops were set up in the courtyard to provide a similar service, without the leaflets.
Interestingly, the electricity to run the laptops was provided by the private school across the street, where our daughter attends kindergarten. Private schools do not serve as polling stations.
Leaving this location I walked down the street for about three blocks to visit a second school, which cleared up my confusion about gender participation. Actually, two schools here were back to back, both receiving only women voters. Two lines were formed, each having at least 200 people. I saw a few people from church, waiting their turn, optimistic and excited about this their first vote ever.
Returning back home I passed by the first school with the men, with the line just as long as when I left it. I noticed a fourth school around the corner, however, which also serviced male voters. Only about 50 were in line here, however.
Standing on the corner keeping observation there are two other minor events to relate. First, a campaign car for Mohamed Amara of the Salafi Nour (Light) Party drove by, with a prominent sticker of his mug shot on both back windows. This helped identify him as he stepped out, shook the hands of one of the Muslim Brotherhood volunteers, got back in his car, and drove away. To note, Amara is the lead local candidate on the Islamist Alliance for Egypt list, headed by the Nour Party, which is in competition with the Democratic Alliance, headed by the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party. Liberal and other parties are also in competition, of course.
Second, our elderly neighborhood gardener saw me standing around and motioned that I follow him away from the area. The presence of a foreigner, he stated, might concern and worry the people. In addition, there are police around in civilian clothes taking note, which he could see but I would be unaware of. Having seen enough anyway, it is best to follow the advice of a friendly Egyptian, so I left with him, as he was himself off to vote at a station three metro stops to the south. The Freedom and Justice Party helped him find his way.
Three final observations. First, though the Muslim Brotherhood volunteers were out in force, they were not the only ones. Many party representatives were distributing leaflets and information. I received information additionally from the moderate Islamist Wasat (Centrist) Party, the liberal Egyptian Bloc electoral alliance, and a couple independent candidates as well. I am not familiar with all campaign laws, but I have read that each of these propagandists are breaking the law forbidding party promotion at the polling stations 48 hours to the lead up of elections.
Second, given that in Egypt one’s religion can be outwardly identifiable, I can make some very rudimentary and cautious exit poll guesses. In the men’s line, about 20% of the people wore long robes, had heavy beards, or prominent prayer calluses on their foreheads. These are often signs of being a conservative Muslim, particularly of the Salafi trend. A beard and robe can be worn by any Muslim, of course, many of whom do not support political Islam. Many Brotherhood supporters, meanwhile, do not necessarily have distinctive dress, and many ordinary non-Islamist Egyptians may vote for the Freedom and Justice Party, given their longstanding role as an opposition party and the relative newness of other liberal entities.
As for the women, perhaps around 30% of those in line were non-veiled. This indicates in general that there are Coptic, or else Muslims willing to resist the cultural pressures to wear a head covering. This segment of society would be unlikely to vote Islamist, though some may. To note, only about 10% or less of the population is Coptic, and though I have no official estimates, non-veiled Muslim women appear to be a similar minority. On the other hand, wearing a veil is no necessary indicator of political affiliation. I saw only a handful of women wearing the niqab, which covers all but the slit over the eyes. This could be reflective of conservative tendency, but as in all the above deductions, caution is needed above all.
Third, everything concerning the vote seemed orderly and peaceful. Yesterday’s rains made the environment wet and muddy, but turnout was impressive and lines were respected – which is not always true in Egypt. Voters were let into the school a couple at a time, and everyone behind waited their turn. In our neighborhood at least, early signs are promising.
There may yet be surprises of many sorts, let alone in results. From what I understand, results from the individual election competitions will be announced on Wednesday, followed by runoff elections as needed. Results from the list-based competition, however, will wait until all three election stages are completed, geographically arranged across the country. Most pundits expect a plurality of votes for Islamist parties. Meanwhile some predict their victory will be overwhelming, while others think they will receive surprisingly little support. Now has begun the process to tell, for the first time in modern Egypt. May it be the first of many.