Egypt's post-democratic elections: political meaning beyond the menu of manipulation

Egypt's recent elections went very much as expected. This, however, doesn't mean they were insignificant.

Egypt’s elections on November 28 and December 5, 2010 were not about democratic political competition. In this sense, elections for its House of Representatives (Maglis al-Sha'b) went as expected: polls were marred by massive fraud and there was no illusion that other parties would pose a significant threat to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was widely expected to engineer a strong reduction in the Muslim Brotherhood's presence, while allowing the share of other opposition groups to rise in order to provide at least a fig-leaf of pluralist politics in Egypt. But in the end, the NDP won 420 seats (81.1%), NDP 'independents' won 53 (10.2%, for an NDP total of 91.3%), the Wafd won 6 (1.1%), Tagammu' 5 (0.9%), non-affiliated Independents won 15 seats (2.9%), while Al-Ghad, the Social Justice Party, the Democratic Generation Party, the Democratic Peace Party and the Muslim Brotherhood 'independents' (formerly holding 88 seats) all won 1 seat or 0.2% each.

This, however, does not mean that the elections were meaningless; quite the contrary. Firstly, because they put on display the techniques of political control so-called façade democracies use to strip democratic institutions of any significance. Indeed, the full gamut of skullduggery on display at polling stations across the country undermines the notion that 'liberalised autocracies' have some sorts of democratic elements behind their façades. Secondly, the twin blows of videos documenting polling station fraud and the resignation of three High Electoral Commission (HEC) judges following massive election-day corruption remove even the fig-leaf of democratic legitimacy the regime claimed by holding elections. Thirdly, the elections are significant because the NDP's experiment in electoral engineering failed: it failed to provide the regime with a veneer of democratic legitimacy, it failed to resolve internal factionalism and impose party discipline, and the withdrawal of most parties after the first round of voting suggests that this time most opposition parties – though not necessarily their MPs – have refused the regime's offer to act as mere sparring partners. Finally, these elections reveal the fault lines running through Egyptian politics and the deep alienation parties' 'bases' feel from their leaderships.

Election control in a 'hybrid regime'

The techniques the NDP adopted to control the electoral outcome fall into roughly four categories: first, prevent independent monitors from supervising the vote; second, prevent independent media from covering or discussing the elections; third, the use of violence to prevent voting; and fourth, the outright falsification of electoral results.

In 2005, the marginally greater liberality of elections allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to gain 88 seats as 'independents', a figure which would have been higher had there not been a progressive – and progressively bloodier – crackdown by security forces in the second and third electoral rounds. This year the NDP decided to prevent election monitors from even detecting widespread fraud and violence. The HEC, for example, which is supposed to provide independent judicial oversight but is entirely appointed by the Ministry of the Interior, says it authorised 6,000 Egyptian monitors (but no foreign observers). The Egyptian Alliance for Monitoring Elections, a coalition of 123 NGOs which applied for over 12,000 permits, says that 48 hours before the vote it had received no more than 69 authorisations. Some inexperienced organisations found all their applications accepted, while the principal monitoring organisations received their licenses close to midnight before election day and for far-flung places impossible to reach by the start of polling. Either way, reports quickly flooded in of monitors and non-NDP party representatives not being allowed into polling stations.

Furthermore, independent media were prevented as much as possible from witnessing the elections first hand. Both local and international media were harassed in various ways to dissuade them from covering the elections. Perhaps the regime's most bold-faced move was to pull twelve satellite channels off air: using vaguely-worded legislation which bans 'incitement to religious hatred', the government blocked channels which included controversial Salafi programming, but whose real target was suspected to be popular news talk shows such as Al-Qahira Al-Youm.

The international media were treated with no less contempt. BBC Arabic was prevented from running a pre-election debate, while Information Minister al-Fiqqi called for an investigation into US-sponsored Al-Hurra TV for allegedly breaking a ban on political broadcasts the day before the election for airing a programme featuring Gameela Ismaeel, an opposition candidate in Cairo's Qasr al-Nil district, alongside the NDP's Madeeha Khetab.

Foreign media were also largely prevented from accessing polling stations, as were independent Egyptian journalists. In Arish, Sinai's largest constituency and a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, foreign media were prevented from entering polling stations despite holding official Ministry of Communications permits. An Arish Press Office spokesperson reported having received orders not to allow journalists not affiliated with the NDP inside the polling stations.

From Suez to Alexandria, from Cairo to Aswan, journalists and monitors were harassed and detained, and their equipment was often seized or recordings erased. In the most high-profile case, Joe Stork, Director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East bureau, was temporarily detained in the key battleground of Alexandria's Ramle district.

On election day, virtually only NDP representatives were allowed in polling stations. In Shubra, for example, Al-Masry Al-Youm live streaming showed the stalled situation outside the polling station, where access had been barred to voters. In some cases, such as the districts of Nasr City and Dokki, as well as in Alexandria, polling stations failed to open on time, were suddenly temporarily closed, or shut early. Accredited representatives were often denied access. Ahmed El-Barmawy, April 6 Movement member, was arrested and severely beaten in Mansoura while monitoring the elections. In Cairo, Brotherhood spokesperson Mohamed Saeed told Al-Masry Al-Youm that “200 delegates were prevented by plainclothes police from accessing 30 polling stations in Dokki and Agouza”.

Aside from controlling who accesses and reports on voting procedures, violence of various kinds is another staple of Egyptian elections. The run-up to the elections saw further waves of arrests of Brotherhood activists, estimated at around 1,300, and the sadly equally predictable systematic reports of police brutality. In some cases, things turned really nasty on election day. There were reports of police dispersing voters outside polling stations with tear gas in Abu Sekkeen, and in Mahalla there were reports of assaults against Brotherhood members, and police charges on demonstrators. In Alexandria's Ramle district hired thugs appear to have murdered a prep school student, and in the Mattariya district in Cairo, Amr Sayyed Abu Amr, son of an independent candidate, died after being stabbed on Saturday while hanging up a leaflet supporting his father. In all, about 16 deaths have been reported so far.

The worst clashes were witnessed in Suez, Shubra, Mahalla and Alexandria. In the Sinai towns of Suez and Sheikh Zuwayed incidents escalated, with chants against Mubarak, a school burnt down and gun battles between candidates' supporters. Demonstrations in Suez outside the gubernatorial premises mounted throughout the day, with reports of 3-4,000 protesters laying siege to the building. Independent candidate Refaat El-Basyouni was stabbed in Daqahliya. Confrontations were not limited to government crackdowns: in Cairo's Abdeen district, not far from the Presidential palace, brawling broke out between supporters of Brotherhood candidate Gamal Hanafi and those of his Tagammu' counterpart, Hussein Ashraf Amin, with similar scenes in Kafr El-Dawwar. Fighting was also reported between supporters of competing NDP candidates, particularly during run-offs.

Another staple of Egyptian elections is the full gamut of vote-fixing techniques. There was outright vote-buying, with prices varying between LE20 (US$3.50) and LE500 (US$86): an Ahram Online reporter personally witnessed NDP Candidate Hesham Khalil paying LE20 per vote in Sayeda Zeinab, a popular area in Cairo city centre, and in Shubra prices went up as the queues to vote got longer, with another Ahram Online reporter witnessing Wafd candidate Rami Lakah paying LE100 (US$17) per vote, and a photograph capturing Minister for Military Production Sayed Meshaal in Helwan handing out banknotes to voters on polling day. In some constituencies, monitors reported NDP officials distributing meat to voters.

Stuffing ballot boxes was also prominent. In a Kafr El-Sheikh polling station security forces themselves broke in to manipulate ballots. Videos have surfaced capturing polling station staff falsifying ballots (e.g. this in Sharqeya’s Belbes district).

 

Understanding Egypt's Elections

For those who follow Egyptian politics, all this was entirely predictable, as were the disingenuous statements of disappointment put out by various Western government agencies, such as the US State Department. The EU only managed a strongly-worded statement by the head of its Parliament while Council and Commission have thus far felt unable to produce even tokenistic condemnation. In this context, glimmers of either internal democratization or external support for it are mirages.

There were, however, several elements in the election process worth noting. One novelty of the electoral battle was the government's use of cyber-attacks. Well in advance of the polls, the government signaled it would target ICTs being used for political activism with the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority's (NTRA) requirement to monitor the content of news sent via SMS messaging, and its insistence that media organizations planning to provide SMS services obtain permits to do so. The Supreme Administrative Court overturned NTRA's regulation before the elections, ruling that these restrictions hamper freedom of expression in violation of the Constitution, but the signal was clear enough, and in any case was appealed by the government through the courts (which formally have no jurisdiction over the matter) to delay countermanding them. Furthermore, on election day several web sites of election monitors and major opposition groups were rendered unavailable either for the entire day, or temporarily.

Another novelty in this year's election was the introduction of women's quotas. While this was designed as a step to improve women's chances of political representation, some commentators have argued that this would merely be another way of diluting the Muslim Brotherhood's presence.

But perhaps the three most significant elements in these elections are: turnout levels, the power struggle within the NDP, and the self-inflicted damage to the opposition's – and particularly the Muslim Brotherhood's – credibility.

The single most significant result of the electoral process in terms of assessing its democratic credibility is the voter turnout. Although it has never been particularly high – unsurprising, given the range of tactics government forces have used to dissuade voting – participation probably touched new lows this year. No official figures exist for the previous 2005 poll because the government refuses to collect official data, but government estimates put turnout at around 25%, while opposition sources put it closer to 5% with international observers splitting the difference at around 15-20%. Any of these figures is worryingly low in the best of circumstances, and Egypt's elections certainly aren't run in those. This year High Elections Commission member Ahmed Shawqi said turnout has been “average” – which, at best, means about 20%, although through the HEC the government insists on 27%. Other observers were rather more sceptical. Human Rights Watch director Tom Malinowski concluded that “looking at the period leading up to the elections and including what we have seen today, it’s worse than 2005”. Although the authors' own visits to polling stations are obviously statistically insignificant, turnout on the ground certainly appeared very meagre.

The second important element which transpires from these elections is that the power struggle within the NDP is far from resolved. The internal contest between the 'old guard' and Gamal Mubarak's new generation of businessmen-politicians often forced the NDP to field two sets of candidates. In fact, in some places, the NDP even fielded one or two additional 'independent' candidates, for a total of over 800 candidates in 508 constituencies. The run-off competitions often saw competing NDP candidates jostle for elections, with many of the same dirty tactics being turned on their party colleagues. While the outcome of the contest between these two factions may not count for much come next year's presidential elections, should Husni Mubarak even decide not to stand again, NDP candidates if anything fought this one even harder, making the campaign even bloodier, and inter alia posing a serious obstacle to the NDP's objective of a enabling a passable opposition presence in parliament.

In order to reach this objective the NDP needed a complicit counterpart within the opposition prepared to play the role of sparring partner to the NDP's heavyweight parliamentary presence. However, after a first round of elections in which the NDP managed to 'win' over 90% of available seats, the Muslim Brotherhood, which had 88 'independents' in the outgoing parliament, and the Wafd, as well as several smaller parties, decided to boycott the elections and withdrew their candidates. That the regime's offers are tempting is evident enough from the deep splits the boycott caused in the Tagammu' and later in the Wafd itself. In Tagammu', currently with 5 MPs, parts of the general secretariat including the Secretary General himself wished to continue to take part in the elections. But other parts of the leadership and vast swathes of the party's membership wanted to withdraw party candidates from elections believed by now to be beyond farcical, leading the membership to push for the Secretary General's resignation. In the Wafd, although the party itself decided to withdraw and thus boycott the elections, two out of six of its 'elected' members are trying to stay in the new parliament. This has prompted the party leadership to threaten them with expulsion. Finally, elected Brotherhood 'independent' Magdy Ashour (Al-Nozha) has so far refused to withdraw, and is likely to be expelled.

The irony is that jumping to the defence of both Tagammu' and Wafd 'splitters' has been the High Electoral Commission and the NDP itself, producing the unedifying spectacle of party members resorting to the support of a regime they themselves call undemocratic in order to thwart internal party democracy. There were even frequent reports that after the first round resulted in a projected NDP majority of over 95%, state security forces themselves sometimes worked to get opposition candidates elected or prevent them from withdrawing (in Ashour's case, apparently against his will). In any case, these deep splits demonstrate not only the temptation of collaborating with the regime, particularly for businessmen-politicians, and the frailty of the regime's pluralistic 'cover', but also the deep rift between party leaderships and their members, even in once-respected left-wing parties such as Tagammu'.

The final element to emerge from these elections is the Muslim Brotherhood's largely self-inflicted loss of credibility. The day after the first round of elections, both the Brotherhood and the Wafd announced their withdrawal from the electoral contest. The Brotherhood’s withdrawal just after the results of the first leg came in, however, was easily stigmatized as the reaction of sore losers. This has put the party in a politically far weaker position than the outright election boycott which had been championed only a few weeks earlier by Muhammad El-Baradei, when his star seemed in the ascendant. The withdrawal of the Brotherhood – as well as other parties – from this proposed boycott was a key element allowing the regime to isolate El-Baradei.

It also has to be emphasised that the Brotherhood presented only 130 candidates. Even with all of them elected, the Brotherhood would only hold 25% of parliamentary seats, well short of the 34% that would deny the NDP the required majority for constitutional change – let alone a majority. Given the dire weakness of other opposition forces, it was therefore clear that the Brotherhood never even intended to challenge for government. The perception of the Brotherhood's weakness was compounded by its failure to seriously protest the crackdown, save sporadically on election day itself and in a few isolated protests in university campuses, outside of which, there were no significant demonstrations in either Cairo or Alexandria.

Parts of the Brotherhood’s base are uncomfortable with this retreat, with some voices questioning the leadership's strategy. Meanwhile, Leftist groups are starting to wonder whether the tactical alliances with the Brotherhood which they have been debating because of the latter's numerical strength are in fact worthwhile. Indeed, some local activists suggest that the Brotherhood either does not have the strength of support it claims, or that it is unwilling to draw on it in the hope that compromise and compliance with the regime may bring them benefits.

But parties across the political spectrum lost credibility during the campaign. Despite early signs of the crackdown to come, El-Baradei's early call for a boycott was publicly lauded but privately never seriously entertained by opposition parties – Brotherhood included. While participating in such obviously rigged elections presents an undeniable dilemma, the ambiguity – some would say hypocrisy – as well as the disunity with which parties handled the decision greatly weakened their position. It also made it easier for the NDP to lambast parties' denunciation of fraud as “lame justifications” for their withdrawal, slamming the boycott as a fig-leaf for defeat. The same disunity was on display during the boycott itself: major parties adhered, but like the Wafd and the Tagammu', they were deeply split. At least one of the Wafd's candidates-elect, for example, has said that he will not withdraw despite his party's boycott; while at the time of writing, the Tagammu' is deeply split on the issue, with the Executive Board refusing to withdraw, and the membership taking over local branches across the country in protest. Such splits are exacerbated by the lack of internal democracy in most parties, which facilitates co-option by the regime, with the result that, just as political allies abandon lone Wafdists and Tagammu' leaders who would defy the boycott, supposed political enemies in the NDP run to their rescue.

Unfortunately, while parties temporarily banded together for the boycott, they seem to have quickly lost such unity of intents, and are now responding with exactly the same ambiguity to El-Baradei's call to boycott the upcoming 2011 Presidential elections.

Conclusion

Egypt's recent elections provide important confirmation of several trends which have been evident over the past few years.

The conduct of the elections provides yet further proof that the NDP has no intention of allowing any degree of significant political liberalisation. Aside from cosmetic measures such as the women's quota, the NDP has broadened its range of interventions and intensified their scope, extending them to both 'social media' and foreign journalists.

Moreover, the result of the elections also confirms how weak, divided and unable to impose internal discipline the NDP actually is. Significantly, this lack of internal unity undermines its ability to manipulate electoral results, in turn making it impossible to maintain that democratic fig-leaf necessary in its public relations with Western governments.

This in turn suggests that whatever strategies Western governments and international organisations have been pursuing to facilitate Egypt's democratization – strengthening civil society, rule of law, state capacity or developmental projects – have been half-hearted in their scope or misplaced in their intent, since their apparent effect in their current guise has been to simply reinforce the Egyptian regime.

Most worryingly for Egyptians, however, the West's muted reactions to the elections' evidently extensive corruption suggest that Egyptians can expect little support from Western governments for their own democratic dreams.

About the authors

Gennaro Gervasio is a Lecturer in Middle East Politics and History at the British University in Egypt. Follow him on Twitter @masritali

Andrea Teti is Director of the Centre for Global Security and Governance at the University of Aberdeen and Senior Fellow at the Brussels-based European Centre for International Affairs. Follow him on Twitter @a_teti.