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Sameh Makram Ebeid: On the Wafd, Hillary Clinton, and Current Conspiracies

Sameh Makram Ebeid

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.’

 

 

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Understanding Egypt’s Elections

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.

The Set-Up

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 Parties

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.

The Results

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.

The Stakes

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.

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