Egyptians will head to the polls for both parliamentary and presidential elections over the next 18 months. With election activity already heating up and opposition calls for political reform, insiders and outsiders are wondering if the elections will be a genuine chance for change or a process that will reinforce the status quo. 

In a new video Q&A, Amr Hamzawy details Egypt’s upcoming elections, the strength of the ruling establishment and opposition, and the country’s changing status in the Middle East. “Egypt’s role in the region is falling as perceptions grow that the former power is preoccupied with its own domestic affairs,” says Hamzawy. The elections—and how democratic they are in practice—will furhter impact Egypt’s influence in the Middle East. 

 

What is the schedule of the upcoming elections? Is there real hope that a stronger democracy will emerge?

For the parliamentary elections, there will be partial elections for the upper chamber, the shura council, in June 2010. In October 2010, there will be elections for the People’s Assembly, the lower chamber—these are the real parliamentary elections.  

Once the parliamentary elections are conducted in 2010, more will be known about the composition of the People’s Assembly, opposition representation, and government makeup. The People’s Assembly election is going to be a scene setter for the presidential elections in fall 2011. 

Egypt’s upcoming elections— both parliamentary in 2010 and presidential in 2011—do represent a chance to improve pluralism and get better opposition participation and representation in parliament. Elections, however, are not going to make Egypt a democracy, simply because the government remains the gate keeper—the ruling establishment decides who participates and who does not. 

This is going to continue. There are no signs for this to end anytime soon or based on the election results in 2010 or 2011. 

What are the major campaign issues?

There are four major issues—democratic reform, economic development, national security, and Egypt’s role in the Middle East—that will shape the debate approaching the parliamentary and presidential elections. Egypt still faces economic and social conditions which are not acceptable to the majority of Egyptians. This includes poverty, unemployment rates, and deteriorating economic growth rates. 

For national security, a fundamental concern is what happens in Gaza. How will the country manage the national security situation in Gaza? And what is Egypt’s role in the Middle East and what’s the competition between Egypt and Iran, Egypt and Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and what does Egypt stand for regionally? This is a country that used to lead the Arab world and has gradually degenerated from a leader into an important, significant actor—and has lost even part of that. This is a big issue on everyone’s mind. 

What are the key questions heading into the parliamentary elections?

Approaching the parliamentary elections there are crucial questions to keep in mind. One, is the government going to allow international and domestic election monitors? So far there has been no positive practice from the government based on the elections in 2005 and 2007.  

Second, is the opposition going to be able to coordinate and field joint candidates? Is there going to be an opposition that can cross the gaps between candidates—religious and nonreligious and formal and informal—in a way that bridges divides and levels a stronger challenge to the government and National Democratic Party (NDP) candidates. 

Third, how will the judiciary supervise the parliamentary elections? The constitution was amended to remove judicial supervision to a great extent and the details of what will happen in practice represent a big question. 

Finally, what are the techniques or instruments that the Egyptian government will utilize and depend on to get the result it has enjoyed in previous decades? To keep the NDP majority, are they going to rely on ruling out the opposition candidates before election day or are they going to depend on election manipulation—rigging—on election day? All those techniques have been used systematically in the past and the question is whether they are going to be used in 2010. 

Who are the likely candidates for the presidential contest scheduled for 2011?

The presidential elections are likely going to be conducted by the current constitutional framework, which makes it possible for party candidates from both the ruling National Democratic Party or opposition parties—even if they do not have representation in parliament—to nominate candidates for the presidential elections. The constitutional framework makes it very difficult for independents—such as ElBaradei—to run. 

If this constitutional framework continues to be the binding framework for the elections in 2011, this will mean that there will be a plurality of party candidates, including a leading candidate from the ruling National Democratic Party and a plurality of opposition candidates. But none of them can level a serious challenge to the regime’s candidate, President Mubarak or anyone else. 

Should the constitutional framework change—and there are demands for the constitutional framework to change—and should it be easier for independents to run, there is a great possibility that Mohamed ElBaradei will run and maybe a candidate from the strongest opposition movement in the country, which is the Muslim Brotherhood. 

What are the key questions heading into the presidential election?

Approaching the presidential elections, there is a different set of questions to analyze. Who is going to be able to run? Will it only be party candidates or will independents also be able to run in the election? A related question is whether the constitutional framework will be amended. Is Mohamed ElBaradei going to make it or not? Is Ayman Nour going to make it or not? Nour was sentenced to jail for a couple of years and whether he can run or not is an issue that is uncertain at the moment. 

Similar to the parliamentary elections, will there be international monitoring and observation and will there be judicial supervision? Finally—this is the greatest question—who is going to be the ruling establishment’s candidate? Will it be President Mubarak, Gamal Mubarak, or someone else? 

How long is Hosni Mubarak likely to rule? Is Gamal Mubarak his heir apparent?

President Mubarak has been ruling Egypt since 1981. He is in his fifth term, which ends in 2011. Before his illness in the spring of 2010, it was widely expected—in Egypt and outside the country—that he was going to run for a sixth term. With his illness, his absence for a couple of weeks from Egyptian politics, and popular doubts about his health condition, it’s a legitimate question whether President Mubarak will run. I wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s a big question mark that exists. 

President Mubarak’s son, Gamal, has been groomed for a long time—for nearly ten years—to succeed Hosni Mubarak and rule Egypt. It was thought that he would be elected in seemingly democratic and multi-candidate presidential elections, similar to those that were held in 2005. Despite being groomed for a long time, he has failed to gain popular acceptance—his popularity rates remain consistently low. 

Gamal has also failed to prove himself as a potential leader and someone who can govern Egypt, which is not an easy country to govern in not an easy region. He has failed to prove himself and therefore, the possibility of Gamal becoming the government’s candidate for the presidential ballot will stay there, but there is a big question mark. 

So, there remains a possibility that someone else from the ruling establishment will run. It could be the current prime minister, or a military figure, keeping the military establishment’s control over the presidency, which has been the case since 1952. None of these issues should be ruled out until the end of 2010, as different dynamics continue to unfold in Egypt. 

How strong is the opposition in Egypt?

Egypt’s opposition has remained divided since 2005. There remains an ideological divide between religious-based oppositions—the Muslim Brotherhood—and secular opposition parties, including liberal, leftist, and networks of activists. 

The opposition is also divided across a second layer, which is formal versus informal opposition. Many of the established opposition parties, which have by in large become less relevant for Egyptian politics, have bought into the government’s game of restricted pluralism and have come to be a sort of domesticated opposition. And there are informal movements or groupings, such as the National Movement for Change, established by Mohamed ElBaradei. 

The dynamism of Egyptian politics is primarily related to informal activism and informal opposition networks. The greatest hindrance these groups and leaders are facing is a constitutional framework that does not allow them to become more active, does not allow them to quickly form a party, and does not allow them to run in parliamentary elections or contest the presidential election. In spite of their vibrant nature and dynamism, they are faced with a set of restrictions that makes them less relevant for Egyptian politics. 

How has the return of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, impacted politics in Egypt?

Mohamed ElBaradei’s return to Egypt has changed Egyptian political dynamics in two significant ways. One, he gives the opposition—formal and informal—a consensus candidate that they can rally around. 

Second, Dr. ElBaradei restarted the debate in Egypt about how to amend the constitution and how to introduce significant political reforms. He is helping to keep the government accountable for what happened domestically in Egypt between 2005 and 2010. ElBaradei reminds Egyptians of Mubarak’s promises to lift the state of emergency and make it easier for political parties to participate. So he has pushed Egyptians into a more concentrated debate on democracy than was the case in 2008 and 2009. 

What is Egypt’s role in the Middle East? Will upcoming elections influence Egypt’s regional power?

Egypt’s role in the Middle East has been facing growing challenges from competing states, including Turkey, Iran, and even small states such as Qatar. Egypt’s role in mediating between Fatah and Hamas, stabilizing Sudan, and pushing for Arab–Israeli conciliation has been challenged and confronted by other states in the region. 

Egypt’s role in the region has been reduced because there is a growing perception that Egypt is preoccupied with its own domestic affairs and it is in a moment of domestic uncertainty that means it cannot project enough power regionally to perform the proactive role of a big country. So, Egypt’s domestic politics and political dynamics are in a moment of uncertainty and this negatively impacts Egypt’s regional role. 

Should the elections result in a more pluralist political dynamic and more forward-looking and confident Egyptian polity, they are going to positively impact Egypt’s regional role. Egypt currently lacks a vision that it can communicate to the region. It’s not enough for Egypt to say it’s for peace, it must add domestic moderation, human rights, and democracy. It’s not easy to stand for peace in the region, but it’s not convincing to stand for peace while you are harassing opposition activists domestically.