The Face of the Former NDP

Suleiman al-Hout (L), with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab. (via New Republic)
Suleiman al-Hout (L), with Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehlab. (via New Republic)

Much has been speculated about the coming Egyptian parliament being dominated by figures who used to belong to the National Democratic Party of former President Hosni Mubarak. Given the favor conveyed to the January 25 activists, this proposition scares many.

Perhaps it should. The understanding of the old parliamentary system was that it was a non-ideological patronage network, living off corruption while extending government, business, and other services. It certainly was neither clean nor efficient.

But it was human. Unfortunately, few carry the stories of such figures beyond their ugly caricature. Fortunately, this article from New Republic does, profiling Suleiman al-Hout.

In 2007, Suleiman al-Hout had a problem. Local officials in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia refused to license the food-cart from which he sold kebda, or fried liver, a common Egyptian street food. At first he asked a relative who sat on Ismailia’s local council to intercede on his behalf, but to no avail. So Hout took matters into his own hands. He walked into the local headquarters of then-President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) with one simple question: “How can I vote for you?”

Within two years, Hout was a card-carrying NDP activist with excellent government and business connections, which he put to good use by “solving problems” for others. He frequently acted as an intermediary between local businessmen and the poor, between his neighbors and the electricity ministry, and, of course, between food-cart owners and the registration bureau. If your mother-in-law needed special medical care, he could get you into the top government-run hospital. If you had a problem at a nearby police station, he knew the officers. If there was a street fight, his “men”about 30–40 toughs, depending on the eveningtook care of it. And if street combatants didn’t accept his intervention? Well, that never happened. “They know that if they don’t respect me, I’ll take it personally,” he darkly boasts.

The author, Eric Trager, compares Hout to a different fruit cart vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian who launched the Arab Spring when he set himself on fire to protest inability to obtain a license. But the question is fair: Whose reaction was superior?

Trager continues to chronicle Hout’s political activity during the revolution and throughout the period of Brotherhood rule. It is insightful and comical, a precious insight to how life was actually lived on the streets during this time, far from the rhetoric issued by both sides.

But Hout himself allows Trager to conclude with the common ‘ugly caricature’ that so infuriates many Egyptians, and certainly those who desire a transparent, non-patronage system:

But four months after Sisi’s inauguration, Hout feels let down. “I was among the first to call for Sisi to run for president,” he told me. “And I still haven’t made my money back yet. I have no job, no position, and it makes me angry. … He didn’t give us our rights.”

By “rights,” Hout means a high-level governmental appointment, such as serving as an assistant to a minister or governor. Hout was sure that this would be his reward for mobilizing his patronage network to support Sisi, since this is the way things have historically worked in Ismailia. “I deserve it!” Hout, who has a high school education, insisted. “I served this country. I am an eyewitness against the Brotherhood in two [court] cases. And I returned that vehicle to the police, which costs 450,000 Egyptian pounds.”

Instead, Hout is living off of the local businessmen who fund his patronage network, and growing more frustrated by the day. “[Sisi’s] chance is, maximum, one month,” Hout told me. “If he doesn’t give us our rights, it’s thank you, goodbye. … If I don’t take my rights, I will be very angry and you never know what my reaction might be.”

In lieu of a governmental appointment, Hout intends to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections. “I think I deserve to go [to parliament], and I wish to go,” he told me. “But it depends on the arrangements.” Hout explained that he’s still waiting for businessmen to back his campaign. “A businessman will pay, and I’ll be his face in the parliament,” Hout said. “This is normal.”

And apparently, this is normal Egyptian politics. It is also human.

Reform is necessary, and entrenched inertia is no excuse to refuse it. But have patience, and be sympathetic. This is life on the streets.


On How to Draw Electoral Districts

If this seems like a boring title, read on. This article from Foreign Policy sheds much light on how Egyptian politics works, or at least used to work, and may again:

The attempt to restore the Mubarak-era way of doing business reflects the nature of the coalition that backed Morsy’s removal in July. The most critical opposition to Morsy’s rule outside Cairo came from the large families and tribes in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt, which comprised the Mubarak regime’s base and benefitted from its clientelist approach to politics.

“These traditional powers are the critical mass of voters,” Abdullah Kamal, a journalist and onetime official in Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party (NDP), told me. These clans, he continued, “had sympathy” for Mubarak, voted for Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik in the 2012 presidential elections, and would likely back Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi if he runs for president.

For decades, these clans wielded substantial political influence. They were empowered by the Mubarak regime’s use of relatively small electoral districts, which allowed them to mobilize their family members and local supporters to win elections. And since Egypt’s parliament was largely a mechanism for distributing state resources, the clans typically used their electoral victories to deliver resources back to their districts and thereby entrench their local support. Following the 2011 uprising, however, the new electoral system entailed much wider electoral districts that diluted these traditional powers’ support. Meanwhile the Islamist parties rode their internal unity to overwhelming, nationwide victories.

While the details for Egypt’s next parliamentary elections will be determined by the government, it is widely anticipated that the next system will feature smaller districts that will re-empower the old tribal networks. Influential players within the Egyptian state are pushing for a system that would shrink electoral districts considerably.

This is likely common knowledge to those who have followed Egypt for years, but it paints a very different picture than the argument issued after the revolution. Newer, non-Islamist parties complained about the large districts because they lacked the organizing power necessary to campaign across the whole area, as well as the social base of their competition and its charitable networks. What may have been meant is that they didn’t have the time to recruit and organize these stalwart power bases of old National Democratic Party support.

That could be a very unfair accusation. But the powers that drew the electoral districts – and I would have to research more to remember who did so (was it the Brotherhood-dominated Parliament or a state appointed electoral commission?) – made what could have been a revolutionary decision to break these ‘feloul’ power brokers, and it worked out very well for Islamists.

Gerrymandering. Politics is the same the world over, isn’t it? Alright, forgive me if it was still a little boring.


Thuggery: Inside Testimonies

One of the disturbing aspects of Egyptian politics pre-revolution has been the use of paid thugs to intimidate and disturb the democratic process. Violence had been a recurring feature; counter-thugs were sometimes hired to defend ballot boxes, even as others were used to ensure manipulation.

Thugs also feature prominently in the life of Upper Egyptian tribal relations. An underclass exists within each tribe which will do the dirty work requested by more prominent members. This was one aspect of the murders in Nag Hamadi last year, when six Christians and a Muslim police guard were gunned down exiting Christmas Eve mass. Some say there were political forces at work here also; others allege it was a revenge killing for illicit sexual relations between a Christian man and a Muslim girl. Regardless, it was a well known thug who was convicted and sentenced to death. Did he operate under orders? It is not known, but thugs usually act only under behest – there is no money otherwise.

Certainly poverty plays a role in allowing this underclass to exist; so does the failure to extend fully the rule of law. Will the practice continue post-revolution? It was certainly employed during the ‘Battle of the Camel’ at Tahrir Square at the height of the demonstrations.

The Egyptian newspaper al-Masry al-Youm (English edition) published a very informative interview with two thugs who were involved in those events. The first, actually, was a volunteer on the pro-Mubarak side, but had the wisdom to withdraw before implicating himself. The second claims he along with many others was paid by a local politician to scatter the demonstrators and remove them from the square. He gives an account of the unexpected resolve they encountered, and how quickly he fled once met with resistance. The article can be accessed here.

While these testimonies can be taken at face value, there needs to be care taken that ‘thuggery’ not become the accusation in vogue. When sectarian violence engulfed a Christian neighborhood in Cairo, some blamed it on thugs hired by the now discredited security forces in order to stoke tensions and resist the revolution. This is entirely possible. Or, it could be an effort to preserve the revolution notion, true in its essence, that Muslims and Christians have been at peace during these times.

Others, particularly democratic activists, are accusing the Egyptian military of thuggery. Demonstrations, while allowed on the whole, have at times been broken up by thugs, who have then been arrested by military personnel. Some claim that these ‘thugs’ have been demonstrators themselves, labeled as such to preserve a now known narrative in which the army protects the right of protest. Meanwhile, the arrested complain of torture in military custody. This story has been reported here on CNN.

Is there any credibility to these reports? Or are they invented in the service of competing interests in this transition period? Is the army discredited in order to speed a return to civilian rule and democratic elections, through early elections in which Mubarak’s old National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood may make gains? Or is thuggery blamed on old regime security forces and political apparatchiks in order to extend military rule, so that new liberal political parties can coalesce and win power later?

Will there be thuggery during the March 19 referendum?

Old habits die hard. It may be that the purity of the revolution may transform Egyptian politics. Or, will the newly politicized population become infected by a longstanding virus? Will they adopt its tactics, or fall away disillusioned? Instead, may they have the strength to do what is right and build credible institutions of transparent democracy, even if the results move against their interests. Even if this is their will, does the power exist to make it happen?

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Fruits of the Revolution, A Democratic Referendum – Rejected?

On March 19 Egypt is slated to enjoy its first free election in decades. Following the resignation of President Mubarak the Supreme Council for Military Affairs appointed a committee to draft amendments to the Constitution, according to the demands of the people. The proposed amendments will be put to a nationwide vote in only three days. Yet many of the voices which led the revolution are calling for a ‘no’ vote to be cast. Why would this be?

Many of the amendments reflect exactly the demands made during the protests. Term limits are proposed, allowing an elected president two terms of four years each. Furthermore, there are stipulations putting supervision of elections under the purview of the judiciary – a generally well respected institution whose rulings were routinely ignored by the executive branch. Additionally, the restrictive rules determining eligibility for a candidate for president have been loosened considerably, allowing for greater opposition and independent opportunities. These and other proposals will go a long way to curbing the power of the president, which is in line completely with the demands of the people.

Yet a ‘no’ vote has been urged by many of those who struggled for these changes. Incidentally, the referendum does not allow consideration of individual amendments; the proposal must be accepted or rejected wholesale. Among those rejecting are the traditional opposition parties – Wafd, Tagammu, and Nasserist – who have often been understood to provide window dressing support for the democratic posture of the Mubarak regime. Yet the more dynamic and loosely related youth coalitions which led the revolution have also come down against the changes. So have independent candidates for president, such as Mohamed el-Baradei and Amr Moussa.

Noteworthy in the discussion are those groups which have publically called for a ‘yes’ vote. These are led by the remnants of the discredited National Democratic Party, which governed Egypt during the entire tenure of Mubarak, and the Muslim Brotherhood, their officially banned yet primary opposition. Strange bedfellows are par for the course in politics – what brings these forces together?

While there is a lawsuit pending to dissolve the NDP altogether, there is no necessary reason why it could not reform itself and participate actively in the new Egypt. The NDP was less an ideological grouping than an association of opportunism – it was the best and easiest way to advance in politics. As such, it attracted many who craved privilege and access to facilitated business opportunity. Yet this fancy phrase for corruption should not be leveled at all its members, many of which are understood to have sought the reform of the party from within. Can new leadership purge its dead weight? Or is the ‘dead weight’ still in charge, waiting out the reforms until its network of connections and nationwide organizational structure is free to rule the day through democratic means? After all, politics and money go hand in hand; even a reformed NDP would be well versed in both.

The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, faces internal challenges. It has formed an official political party – named Freedom and Justice – but suffers a fissure between its old guard and youth. The former was cautious during the revolution and negotiated with Vice-President Suleiman when he called for ‘dialogue’ with the forces on the street. The youth rejected this along with their Tahrir Square compatriots. Meanwhile, a breakaway moderate Islamist party from the 90s – Wasat – has also been granted political license, and it is possible other trends will separate from the Muslim Brotherhood proper. Even so, the Brotherhood maintains the best organized political structure of all opposition parties, and stands to make gains in the coming democracy.

These gains seem to factor in to the movement for a ‘no’ vote. It is not purely pragmatic, however, as technical reasons are issued about why certain amendments are flawed. The major argument for ‘no’ however is not with the amendments themselves, but with the resulting Constitution.

Following the resignation of Mubarak the military council suspended the Constitution and dissolved Parliament. If a ‘yes’ vote succeeds, this will result in the reactivation of the Constitution, which was rejected by all as a flawed document designed to cement the powers of the executive branch, and president in particular. While the amendments go far, many state they do not go far enough. The revolution discredited the entire ruling system, including the Constitution; these voices believe an entirely new charter should be drafted through national consensus. These amendments, they say, were crafted behind closed doors by members appointed by the military. Though better representing society than anything in the previous regime, they do not reflect the creative, free voice of the people.

The second step following a ‘yes’ vote would be the holding of parliamentary elections. Though an exact timetable has not been promised – and even if delineated might yet be changed – these elections could be as early as June. Some voices call for presidential elections to be held first, but this does not appear to be the desire of the military council. It can be rightfully argued that a president without a legislature could become a new dictator, and at the least would have a powerful hand to guide the supposedly democratic transition.

Yet the ‘no’ party contests this timeline, stating that early legislative elections would lead to great gains by the NDP and Muslim Brotherhood, as the free and nascent political movements will not have had time to canvas nationwide. Many of these favor the formation of a temporary presidential council, composed of both civilian and military figures, to guide the nation until civil society can accommodate all candidate parties. Added to their concern is the understanding, if not promise, that the new government will indeed craft a new Constitution. While this is desired, if a legislature dominated by former regime members and the Brotherhood has a leading role, liberal forces fear what may develop.

In any scenario, neither the Constitutional amendments nor the military are clear about the next steps. All that is known is that the referendum will be held on March 19. Many oppositional parties desire greater clarity, but they do celebrate the opportunity at hand. Rather than calling for a boycott, they urge wide participation – for a vote of ‘no’. Operating under a newfound freedom, they hope that practices such as these will lead to a deepening of the democratic impulse. Even so, their fears are more than whispers, but the decision, at long last, rests in the hands of the Egyptian people.