-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - November 2010
The cramped alleys of Kirdasa don’t lend themselves to easy vehicular passage; with a carpet of broken and dusty rocks below and a tangle of casually-strung electricity cables above, even donkey carts find it tricky to negotiate the town’s narrow twists and turns. But that hasn’t stopped Abdel Salaam Bashandi’s campaign bus – a bright-red pickup truck adorned with giant posters and a creaking sound system – from plunging precariously into the warren.
‘Islam is the solution – wake up and vote on November 28!’ blares the loudspeaker as hundreds of well-wishers crowd at their doorways to shake hands with Bashandi, a bespectacled book publisher in his early 50s. “We have great, great hopes of this poll,” grins the Muslim Brotherhood candidate amidst the commotion. “Of course this isn’t about winning the seat. The regime won’t allow such a thing, that’s to be expected.”
Welcome to the bizarre world of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, where thousands of candidates from dozens of parties are competing for hundreds of parliamentary seats – all safe in the knowledge that their campaigning will have virtually no impact on the final result. “No one thinks parliamentary elections in Egypt are democratic or even semi-democratic,” says Mona El-Ghobashy, a political scientist specialising in Egyptian affairs. “The elections do not determine who governs. They are not free and fair. They install a parliament with no power to check the president … And citizens know that elections are rigged, with polling places often blocked off by baton-wielding police, so few of them vote.”
Yet despite the blatant fraud accompanying what is theoretically one of the largest democratic exercises in the Middle East, these elections still matter deeply to a plethora of political forces – from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), who are guaranteed to emerge from the ballot with a landslide majority in parliament, to a wide range of opposition movements exploiting the poll to mobilise local support bases and raise their party’s profile.
For political observers within Egypt and beyond, Sunday’s vote promises something else too – a rare and valuable insight into the drama over who will succeed the country’s ill and ageing president, himself up for re-election next year.
Kirdasa, a palm-fringed suburb to the west of Cairo, offers a unique window onto the surreal dynamics of this poll. Once a rural village far-flung from the chaos of the capital, Cairo’s unstoppable urban sprawl has now enveloped the town completely; in recent years migration from the countryside has sent population levels soaring, making this electoral district one of the biggest – and most hotly-contested – in the country.
Every major party is running a candidate here, but few of Kirdasa’s residents have been enthused by the campaign. Although the area laps up to the edge of the 4,500-year-old Giza pyramids, it is this constituency's more modern neighbourhoods, and the contrast between them, that best explains why so many voters feel excluded from political life. Kirdasa's vast electoral district encompasses gated compounds for the rich alongside redbrick settlements for the poor, the type of neighbourhood where six in ten Cairenes now reside and a stark illustration of the yawning social chasm that has come to epitomise Mubarak's Egypt.
“Our circumstances don’t allow for politics; we’re living on the breadline,” claims Alaa Khalil, a 37 year-old welder and Kirdasa native. “The sons of Egypt are in crisis right now: food prices are spiralling, our incomes are going down, and we have almost no means with which to feed our kids. Elections may have some value for the ‘big sharks’, but not for us.”
Khalil’s cynicism is understandable. Kirdasa – the site of a deadly showdown between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military police and Islamist protestors back in 1965 – has long been marginalised from Egypt’s civil and political centre; viewed by the government as a potential opposition stronghold, no local has ever been allowed to become a security officer or hold any senior position within the state bureaucracy.
At the last parliamentary elections in 2005 Bashandi – who in common with other Muslim Brotherhood candidates is forced to run as an independent to circumvent a legal ban on religious parties – claims to have won a majority of 12,000 votes, a figure backed up by a number of independent sources; the authorities refused to accept the ballot count and instead declared his rival NDP candidate the winner. Later that evening riot police stormed the town, tear-gassing hundreds of angry youths protesting in the streets.
This time around few of Bashandi’s supporters believe he will get the chance to represent them in parliament, regardless of the final vote tally – five of them have already been detained by the security services, adding to the 1,200 Muslim Brotherhood activists arrested nationally in the run-up to these elections. In a damning 37-page report detailing a wide range of oppressive measures executed by the Egyptian government in recent weeks, Amnesty International concluded that “the pattern being established is one that is already familiar from previous elections, which were carried out amid, and marred by, serious human rights violations.”
It is this sort of political repression that led a host of prominent dissidents, including former UN nuclear weapons chief Mohamed ElBaradei, to call for a boycott of these elections – a call the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as a number of legally-sanctioned secular opposition parties who offer no real challenge to the political status quo, have chosen to ignore.
“What is happening right now is the actual rigging of the vote,” Saad el-Katatni, a prominent Brotherhood lawmaker, announced in a press conference this morning. “The regime is sending a message that there will be no election … [but] this is a political and constitutional struggle and the street is with the Brotherhood and we will not let them down.”
“In normal circumstances we are not allowed to give lectures or hold conferences; we’re deprived of all opportunities to promote our beliefs and connect with the community,” explains Bashandi, whose father was a Brotherhood founder in this area. “During election time, those opportunities sometimes arise, so to remove ourselves from that process altogether would be illogical.” Judging by the adulation he receives on the streets, Bashandi’s anti-corruption and pro-local services message is clearly finding an audience, despite widespread frustration at the inequities of the voting process.
But Sunday’s vote isn’t only a litmus test for Egypt’s opposition movements, as they seek to refine their divergent tactics in advance of the presidential ballot in 2011. It’s also a critical moment for the NDP, who in light of Mubarak’s waning health are beginning a search for his successor – the future leader of the biggest nation in the Arab World. Long considered to be the heir-apparent to his father, Mubarak’s son Gamal has recently been forced to publicly row back from suggestions that he might inherit power, as competing factions within the NDP clash over Egypt’s post-Mubarak future.
Those internecine struggles have put the ruling party into the strange position of running several official candidates for the same seat in some districts, including Kirdasa where two formal NDP candidates and one other NDP member are both lining up against Bashandi. Some disaffected elements of the local NDP are even throwing their weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood man, according to local sources.
“It’s impossible to separate the coming parliamentary elections from the 2011 presidential race,” says Bahey el-din Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “The NDP’s latest decision to have multiple candidates compete over single seats means the internal party battle has moved from ‘behind the scenes’ to the front lines of elections.”
And so Egypt will elect its parliament this week with a collective shrug from the majority of its population, whilst below the surface a series of developments help reshape the political trajectory of one of the west’s closest allies in the Middle East. For at least one voter in Kirdasa though, polling day cannot come too soon.
“This is my first election and I believe it could be free, it has to be free – the government tells us we live in a democracy so let them prove it,” says Sara Moustafa, a 19 year old student. “We have lived our entire lives under Mubarak and the NDP but Egypt is on the brink of something big over the next year. Times are changing; those at the top may think we are too young to have an opinion, but here we are. They’ll see.”
[The National Democratic Party were invited to comment on this article, but declined to respond.]
Egypt’s vibrant independent media sector has been dealt a series of blows in the run-up to this year’s parliamentary elections, with TV stations shut down, critical chatshows hauled off air, outspoken columnists and newspaper editors forced out of their jobs, and new regulations bringing mass SMS messaging and live broadcasts firmly under state control. Despite government assurances the freedom of expression will not be restricted as the country enters a year of intense political uncertainty, rights groups have lashed out at a ‘climate of terror’ created by the state, in which dissident voices are excluded from public debate. “At a time when the free flow of political information takes on heightened significance, the government is intent on controlling all sources of alternative knowledge,” warned prominent Egyptian blogger Baheyya last month.