Why did the Ghad Party decide to boycott the [November 2010] parliamentary elections? What were the motivations of the parties that opted to participate?

When the Ghad Party was established in 2004, the general assembly convened and voted that the party would participate in all elections: municipal and parliamentary elections, and even elections for PTAs. Even the party’s bylaws include articles pertaining to the party’s participation in presidential elections and the fact the president should leave office if another candidate wins. The bylaws discussed these issues at a time when the Egyptian constitution did not allow for presidential elections. This means that the Ghad Party is principally a party of elections, but the experience of 2005 has forced it to reconsider. We entered the 2005 elections with seven candidates in the People’s Assembly and Ayman Nour, the candidate who won the second largest number of votes in the 2005 presidential election. We exited the elections (in which we had 125 candidates) with no party, no newspaper, no members of parliament, and Ayman Nour in prison. In the 2005-2010 period, I think the political process deteriorated quite a bit.  There was the attempt to control judges during the constitutional amendments’ process in 2007, and the attempt to bring down the Ghad Party in 2008. The rulings in favor of the Ghad Party were not implemented, and an expelled member of the party took over its leadership. These measures undoubtedly proved that the regime wants to choose both the ruler and the opposition. There was a written script, and system of reward and punishment for those who follow and those who dissent. Those who dissent will lose their party, their newspaper, and their members of parliament because no one is allowed to deviate from the script.

In looking at elections, we first need to recognize that elections are only a small part of the political process. At the same time, however, elections constitute a very important part of the political process because they document the results of political interaction. But without a political process with clear rules, then there is no level playing field. In the absence of a level playing field, one team is tied down while another plays freely, exploiting government resources and getting around the law.

All this indicates that there is no real competition. The political process revolves around competition, and elections revolve around the outcome of this competition. And we do not have a political process to begin with. Despite this, we have moved forward with the National Association for Change, and even other parties, parties that we consider under government influence. We presented a series of demands to ensure—albeit to a limited degree—the integrity of the electoral process. The government refused all these demands. The Ghad Party then presented some other demands two months ago but it seems that the time for these demands to be met has already passed. But had the regime responded to some of our demands, set out a timeline for their implementation, and postponed others, we would have put a lot of effort into convincing our partners in the National Association for Change and other opposition parties to participate in the elections. But the regime also refused. Instead, the regime lives in denial, asserting that the Egyptian elections are a model for integrity. Thus I believe that the natural reaction is to boycott; the demands we made were ordinary. I also think that the regime made a mistake because there can be no fair elections in the absence of a political process. If the regime had agreed to these demands, even 100 percent free and fair elections—elections with 50,000 domestic observers and 50,000 international observers—would not represent voter preferences because there is no political process to begin with. The regime thus refused to meet our demands despite the absence of a political process and the fact that parties and election observers have very little time to prepare. In this context, I think it is natural for us to refuse to participate in this farce. The National Association for Change now has a principled commitment to the redrawing of the political playing field and the establishment of new rules of the game. We will not take part in this farce.

 As for the parties that have decided to participate, there are other motivations for their decisions. Some want to be able to meet the constitutional requirements for participating in presidential elections, regardless of whether or not they decide to participate. Other parties are under the regime’s control and are participating despite the fact that they know that the results are a foregone conclusion. Some shameful deals have already been uncovered and documented in every district. Even after this, these parties are not embarrassed to align themselves with the government. Truthfully, there are other parties that have legitimate reasons for participating, including the fact that parliamentary immunity can afford members a better legal status, helping them avoid arrest. We understand that and we do not want to appear to characterize those who participate as traitors and those who boycott as nationalists. We understand that there are several reasons for participating, but I would like to point out that these reasons are tactical. But I do not believe that there are disagreements among Egyptians. I want to add that Egyptians have boycotted parliamentary and presidential elections for 40 years at the rate of 90 percent. The government still maintains 6.5 million employees just for the purpose of using them as a voting bloc. It knows that it is being unfair to them because there is no work for them, and because 6.5 million government employees is an inappropriate number for a country with a population of 80 million. But the government shamefully utilizes their presence as a voting bloc, and this is an abuse of power. The Egyptian public thus has boycotted elections and we joined it, announcing that we refuse to play this game unless there are rules.

What were the discussions inside opposition parties regarding participation in the elections?

Opposition parties are ultimately made up of people. I will start with the Ghad Party. When we presented the idea of boycott, there was a sizable group within the party that opposed the idea, to the point that some of them resigned. Some returned, given that this was a spur of the moment decision at the time.

Some were really upset because they felt as though they had been preparing themselves for participation since 2005. This is natural; they are human beings with legitimate political ambitions. They want to run in elections and some of them feel that they have a chance to win. Some know that they do not have a chance to win but do not want to disappoint those who have supported them. Imagine a political leader somewhere who does not want to disappoint those who supported him and his party for years and who believe that he can express their demands.

Certainly I understand that there was a great deal of anger in parties that decided to boycott. I want to say that we have a number of young members who have resigned for good because they were supposed to monitor elections, either in districts or in the media. They were angry because they had been training for years to monitor elections. The truth is that there was a great deal of depression. But there was discussion in five or six different meetings of the politbureau, and in the end everyone agreed that the strategic choice was boycott.

Notably, our party understands if some of them want to run as independents. As a party, we want to send the message that we have an institutional policy of boycott. Some members who insist on participating can participate as independents and we wish them luck. As a matter of fact, however, the entire political scene needs to be revisited.
At the same time, opposition parties that have decided to participate have internal currents that are calling for boycott. The Wafd Party, for instance, was opposed to hereditary succession despite the fact that it was officially not participating [in anti-inheritance movements]. And with the formation of the National Association for Change, there was a large group supporting the initiative and trying to form a national consensus around some demands or some individuals for a transitional period during which the political scene would be rebuilt, allowing for future competition between parties.

We first need a consensus around the political playing field; competition can come later. The Wafd Party general secretariat and youth had been strongly campaigning for boycotting the elections so that there could be a unified position for the opposition. We had a placed a lot of hope in this initiative; 44 percent supported boycotting, while 56 percent voted for participating. This demonstrates that the Wafd Party is not a monolithic group and that the party’s chairman and secretary general are not the sole decision-makers. There is a current within the Wafd Party, and I think that the young and middle-aged members will have a role to play in the Wafd, Tagammu’, and other parties in the coming period.

There are large currents within the Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood that are calling for boycott. Some argue that boycotting is a sign of weakness. I will give a simple example. Gamal Heshmat—a popular [Muslim Brotherhood] member of parliament, one who has distinguished intellectual views, a capacity to win, and an organizational force capable of protecting his ballot boxes—had a surprise competitor, an academic and a politician, in the 2005 parliamentary elections. With government backing and electoral bribes, the competitor only received 5,000-6,000 votes, while Heshmat received 25,000. The opposite results were announced despite the fact that everyone knew the truth.

Boycotting then is not weakness. Boycotting is a form of protesting against fraud and a political game with no rules. There is a large current that sees the fraud, the government’s insistence on driving the Muslim Brotherhood out of this  People’s Assembly, and its attempts to make deals with other parties to replace the Brotherhood. These are despicable deals that will put these parties in a position that is difficult to escape, regardless of the number of votes they receive. There is in fact a fundamental deficiency in the system, a deficiency that we noticed in 2005—namely the fact that results announced when votes are counted are different than those announced by the electoral commission. There is a disconnect—such that judges are not allowed to announce results from inside counting stations. This means that there is no way to compare the results at counting to the final elections results, even if elections were 100 percent free and fair. This means that all results are not true. There is a fundamental deficiency that makes having an electoral process and not having it one and the same. This deficiency also casts doubts on the legitimacy of anyone who occupies a position of power, be it the president or someone in a local district. As long as there is a disconnect between the polling stations and the final elections results, having an electoral process and not having it are the same.  

What are the difficulties faced by parties participating in elections, as well as those boycotting? How will the parliamentary elections affect the presidential election next year?

Opposition candidates and National Democratic Party candidates enter the electoral race with a predetermined outcome. This was shown in the [June 2010] Shura Council elections. In the Giza district, the Nation Democratic Party candidate was defeated by the government-supported Ghad Party candidate. The reports indicated that 7,000 voters participated while the Ghad Party candidate—who was not even from the district—received 119,000 votes. This is a miracle; how can candidate who is not from the National Democratic Party receive 119,000 votes when there are only 7,000 voters? National Democratic Party and opposition candidates thus enter electoral battles with predetermined outcomes.

The parties that decided to participate are running in elections whose outcomes are predetermined, regardless of anything, even the counting of votes. This is the case because there is a fundamental deficiency in the electoral process; election results are reversed in some cases and those who want to complain after the fact can do so.

Participating parties thus face a tough challenge. Results might change at the last minute. Even parties that think they have deals might find that the regime makes new deals at the last minute. I wish them luck. Because we want there to be change—albeit small—in these parliaments. But the truth is that parliaments do not have a role. Bills are submitted over the telephone. Parliaments cannot constitutionally remove confidence from the government. Opposition parties thus face the challenge that they are entering elections with predetermined results, and the challenge of dealing with internal anger when they are surprised that the promises that had been given are not kept. Participating parties also face a problem of history. At the time that opposition parties should unite behind a consensus to rebuild the political field, some currents (and here I distinguish between individuals and their tactical needs versus institutional boycott) will find that they should have joined those who call for a rebuilding of the political field. This will cause some pressure as some of these participating parties will find that they will face difficulties in the future when they are on the wrong side of history and the memory of the Egyptian public. This will be a tough situation.

The parties and movements that will not participate will also face a lot of difficulties. First, there is the idea of amending the constitution and that is one of the demands that we have called for to open the door for candidacy in the presidential election. These parties will be technically and practically unable to participate in the presidential election. Second, these parties will not have the chance to interact with the public during this period and will be unable to capitalize on the opportunity to present an electoral program and form cadres that can acquire training in the electoral process and manage electoral campaigns. All of these are losses.

On the strategic level, however, there are five potential presidential candidates: President Mubarak; Gamal Mubarak; Omar Soliman; Mohammed ElBaradei; Ayman Nour; and Hamdeen Sabahi. The latter three are from outside the regime and do not have the right to nominate themselves. ElBaradei does not belong to any political party and announced that he will not run until there is a chance for all Egyptians to participate according to objective standards—standards that are reasonable and not impossible. We understand the need to come up with reasonable conditions for presidential candidacy. But when a candidate with the stature of ElBaradei—with international experience and popular acceptance demonstrated by thousands of signatures and supporters— cannot meet these conditions, I say (and I am from a party that has another candidate) that there is a fundamental flaw in these conditions.

ElBaradei then cannot run for president. Hamdeen Sabahi from the Karama Party—the status of which has been under review for 12 years—will also be unable to run. Ayman Nour was dragged into a lawsuit and will not enter presidential elections after he was defeated in parliamentary elections and imprisoned the following month. He was imprisoned for three years and is now facing legal obstacles preventing him from running for president.

Thus the three candidates that emerged out of the people are technically excluded from the presidential race. Arguments to the effect that participation in parliamentary elections will enhance the chances of the opposition [in the presidential election] are illogical. We have to look at the situation realistically and not theoretically. Realistically, opposition candidates that present themselves on the scene today do not have the right to run for president in 2011.

The final challenge facing opposition parties is that they need to come up with an alternative for the Egyptian opposition—an alternative parliament, a shadow government, or a committee to put forth a new constitution and present it to the people. The National Association for Change proved that it is capable of organizing on the streets and collecting thousands of signatures on its own. The Muslim Brotherhood is still a part of the National Association for Change, but the National Association for Change is capable of organizing campaigns on its own.

It is possible for us to use this popular endorsement of the National Association for Change, a kind of endorsement that has not taken place since the days of Saad Za’loul in 1919. This endorsement could be used for several purposes in the future, including presenting a new alternative constitution to the people—a constitution that would be discussed openly even by members of the regime or the ruling party. Thus the opposition is taking positive steps, not only boycotting the elections. We are looking to what happens the day after the elections and how we can affect change, which we promised to the people and are demanding ourselves.

Doesn’t the lack of unity within the opposition undermine its ability to press the government?

Let me stop at the term “opposition.” Experience has proven that there is more than one type of opposition. First, there is the opposition that is needed to manage the political process but is not intended to be the product of politics. In Egypt, results are set first and then there is the political process that produces these results. For example, there is a committee called the Political Parties Committee whose president is the National Democratic Party Secretary General and whose members are from the Ministry of Interior. The committee is thus controlled by the regime; it grants permission to parties that it deems appropriate and denies it to those it deems inappropriate. This is done according to a written script. The regime assumes that each player is willing to play the role assigned to him in the script; if a player refuses to play that role, he is excluded from the regime’s play. This is what we have seen regarding the handling of parties seeking permission.

When the Ghad Party started talking about change, Ayman Nour was thrown into jail, the party’s license was revoked, and the party’s newspaper was closed. Members financing party operations were pressed to stop funding the party. Party headquarters were torched on November 6 [2010] following the announcement of the results of the American presidential elections, while the world was busy celebrating Obama’s election. But the fire took place in daylight in the middle of downtown Cairo, in Talaat Harb Square, not an obscure side street. The fire could have caused deaths and spread to neighboring apartment buildings.

Finally, I would like to say that there are different types of opposition. There is a type of opposition that follows the mandated script and there is a type of opposition that deviates from the script. It is natural that the Egyptian opposition would be divided because the opposition that follows the script is operating within permissible boundaries. Even within such parties, however, there are leaders under lot of pressure. But there are also currents within these parties that are attempting to push their parties to join the opposition currents that do not take part in the script.

I do not want to get into issues of nationalism and treason. The coalition comprised of four opposition parties (Wafd, Tagammu’, Nasserist, Democratic Front) presented a list of demands to guarantee the integrity of the elections—similar to that of the National Coalition for Change—but when these demands were rejected, these parties still decided to participate. The only exception was the Democratic Front party, which argued that the regime’s refusal to grant the coalition’s demands left the party no choice but to boycott. The Democratic Front realized that it would lose legitimacy in the future if it did not take a principled position and carry through with its initial threat to boycott if its demands were not met. The party also realized that participation would send a message that ignoring simple conditions guaranteeing the integrity of the elections would have no consequences.

Arab Reform Bulletin Editor Michele Dunne conducted this interview in Washington, D.C. on October 21, 2010. Dina Bishara translated the interview from Arabic.