The parliamentary elections of 29 November 2010 mark the beginning of a long electoral season. The ruling National Democratic Party, or the government’s party as it is known to Egyptians, continues to use the state apparatus to ensure its electoral success. By implementing internal structural reform the NDP appears on its way to maintain its two-thirds majority in the People’s Assembly.
As a result of the present electoral conditions, opposition groups disagree on the merits of participating in the 2010 elections, in contrast to their previously unified stance on the need to participate in the 2005 parliamentary elections. Competing calls by the opposition to both boycott and participate in the elections reveals the challenges inherent in the model of constrained political reform that has governed Egyptian politics in recent years.
The Ghad Party, National Democratic Front Party and the National Association for Change have decided to boycott the elections in protest of the NDP’s refusal to meet the opposition’s demands for measures guaranteeing transparency during the upcoming elections. Such measures include cleaning up voter registries, halting the harassment of opposition candidates, ensuring the functioning of the electoral commission, guaranteeing the presence of its representatives in polling stations, and allowing local and international monitors to perform their jobs freely. These demands spring from the opposition’s expectation—informed by their experiences in the 2008 local elections and in the June 2010 Shura Council elections—that the regime is intent on limiting the competitiveness of the 2010 parliamentary elections.
On the other hand, the Wafd Party and the Muslim Brotherhood—the most organized and capable opposition groups in Egypt—have decided to participate, as have Tagammu’ and a few smaller parties. In fact, recent statements by members of the Brotherhood Guidance Bureau indicate that the Brotherhood will attempt to field as many as 200 candidates.
Despite their concerns about the transparency of the electoral process and a prior agreement with those boycotting the elections, the Wafd and the Brotherhood leaderships have justified their decision to participate on four grounds. First, they argue that boycotting would exclude opposition parties and movements from the core of political life, namely electoral competition and parliamentary participation. Second, it would weaken the opposition’s popular presence and organizational capacity by depriving it of the opportunity for direct interaction with voters and rejuvenation of party cadres involved in electoral campaigns. Third, boycotting runs the risk of allowing the NDP full reign over the elections. And finally, by participating the opposition can document electoral transgressions and demonstrate to the domestic and international audience the regime’s failure to ensure the transparency of the elections, thereby dispelling myths of democratic legitimacy.
The boycott-participation divide speaks to the fundamental challenges and limited opportunities that the opposition has faced during Mubarak’s presidency. On the one hand, the regime maintains a stranglehold on electoral competition to ensure the NDP’s hegemony over legislative bodies, but on the other hand it gives the opposition the opportunity for limited political participation through elections and parliamentary activity.
The parliamentary elections of 2010 are swirling also with the debate on international election monitoring. Despite requests by the Obama administration and several non-governmental organizations to allow international monitors to ensure legitimate elections, NDP leaders have thus far refused. They claim the presence of international monitors would violate national sovereignty and enable foreigners to interfere in Egypt’s internal affairs.
The Egyptian opposition is shifting its stance, however, regarding the question of international monitoring, showing that the idea is gaining steam. Opposition parties and movements that once rejected international monitoring are now debating whether this rejection is justified. The Muslim Brotherhood has reversed the stance it took on the eve of the 2005 parliamentary elections, with several of its leaders openly calling for international observers since last year. These statements stress that international monitoring is not perceived as interference in Egyptian affairs, but rather is understood as a necessity due to prevalent electoral fraud constantly perpetuated by the regime and its security apparatus.
Joining the Brotherhood in welcoming international monitoring are the Ghad Party, the Democratic Front Party, some non-partisan opposition movements such as the National Association for Change, and all of the nongovernmental organizations engaged in the domestic monitoring process, such as the Egyptian Alliance for Monitoring the People’s Assembly Elections (an umbrella organization of some 120 NGOs). In October 2009, the leaders of Ghad and the Democratic Front, as well as members of the Egyptians Against Fraud movement and other figures like the head of the Brotherhood parliamentary bloc Sa’ad Al-Katatni, all signed a document calling for international election observers. The petition went on to ask international rights groups, the EU, the African Union and the Arab League to urge the Egyptian government to allow international observers into Egypt to oversee the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.
“The media, judiciary and rights organizations have all contributed to documenting the grave violations seen in the presidential and legislative elections in 2005, then in the constitutional amendment referendum in March 2007, the Shura Council elections in June 2007, and the local elections in April 2008,” argued the signatories as they justified their request for international monitoring. “In blatant defiance of an independent judiciary and the rule of law, the government as a matter of course ignored hundreds of judicial rulings voiding the elections in a number of electoral districts. The Egyptian authorities still deny the right to form political parties, obscure the legitimacy of several political forces, and impede civil society from independently observing the elections,” they added.
The National Association for Change, meanwhile, in the third article of its “Together, We Will Change” petition—which has garnered the support of 115,664 Egyptian citizens to date on the association’s website—the group demands that local and international civil society organizations monitor the elections.
Even opposition groups that have announced their opposition to international monitoring are finding that position difficult to maintain in the face of recent electoral practices. Speaking to this tension, Tagammu’, the most important leftist party in Egypt, rejected international monitoring as an intervention in Egyptian affairs in a statement by its leader Rifa’at Al-Saeed. However, the party’s deputy secretary-general, Hussein Abdel-Razeq, announced his cautious support for such monitoring due to the recurring fraud in past elections. The same contradiction was evident within the Kifaya movement, which has openly acknowledged internal disagreement over the question of monitoring. Kifaya’s former coordinator George Ishaq was one of the signatories of the October 2009 document, whereas other leaders such as the current coordinator Abdel Halim Qandil remain opposed to monitoring.
In the Wafd Party, although leaders such as Chairman Sayyid Al-Badawi and Secretary General Monir Fakhri Abdel Nour are united in their opposition to international monitoring, the party is working hard to convince the Egyptian public of the wisdom of its stance in favor of election monitors. To counter their leaders claims, they have argued that Al-Badawi and Abdel Nour did not justify their rejection of international monitoring on the grounds that it would constitute interference in domestic affairs. Rather, they explained, their position was that it would be impractical for a handful of international monitors to cover a country the size of Egypt (which has 40,000 polling places) and expressed concern that the monitors’ work would consequently be restricted to the major cities, with the countryside likely to be neglected.
This type of backtracking may be confounding, but what is certain is that although Wafd is using logistical difficulties as a pretext to reject international monitoring, it is actually as split on the issue as Tagammu’ and Kifaya are. This trend clearly shows the growing tendency within opposition movements, as well as a broad sector of the Egyptian public, to favor international monitoring as a safeguard against electoral fraud. More importantly, these developments greatly reduce the credibility of claims by regime supporters that the Egyptian public is dead set against the idea of international monitoring, and make it much more difficult to convince the international community that observers would not be welcomed in Egypt.
The 2010 parliamentary elections will both renew the tension between the ruling National Democratic Party and the opposition groups, and intensify the controversy in Egypt about international election monitoring. As such, the elections should be watched closely. With the country anticipating a period of presidential succession, the parliamentary elections are worth following since at this crucial juncture, the elections offer a valuable opportunity to understand the regime’s preferences as to how to strike a balance between the objective of power preservation and the growing popular demand for democratic reform.