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Egyptians are scheduled to vote for the lower house of parliament, or People’s Assembly, from Nov. 28 to Jan. 10.
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The Muslim Brotherhood, to be represented in the elections via the Freedom and Justice Party, is the most well-organized and well-funded political force in Egypt.
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There are widespread concerns about the security and fairness of the elections amid ongoing violence and political instability in Egypt.

Parliamentary Elections in Egypt: A Preview

Nine months after they ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians will begin going to the polls this month to choose a new parliament. The elections for the 508-member People’s Assembly are scheduled to take place in three stages, starting on Nov. 28 and ending in early January. How these elections unfold and their results will be a crucial indication of where Egypt is heading in coming years.

Transitioning to an Elected Government

Egypt’s parliament was dissolved in mid-February by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took control after President Mubarak had stepped down. The military council promised to hold free, safe and fair elections within six months. “We want the whole world to know that the elections will be characterized by transparency and freedom, and we urge all sectors in the country to avoid any violation against the safety and security of our country,” said Assistant Minister of Defense Mamdouh Shahin, a member of the council.

However, elections for the lower house of parliament, or People’s Assembly, were postponed a number of times. The military council finally announced in late September that elections would take place from Nov. 28 to Jan. 10 and consist of three stages, each stage including 9 of Egypt’s 27 governorates. Adding to concerns about the security and fairness of the elections, the ruling body has banned international election observers. “Our judges will supervise the whole process and we refuse any foreign interference in our internal affairs,” said Shahin.

These elections are meant to end decades of what was in effect a one-party system and lead to the drafting of a new Egyptian constitution. They are to be followed by elections for the upper house of parliament—the Shura Council—beginning in late January, and presidential elections in late 2012 or 2013.

Vying for Votes

Over 50 political parties have already declared their intention to participate in the elections and more are being established. These parties can be roughly divided into four categories: Islamist, leftist, liberal and revolutionary youth parties.

According to the polls and predictions of many pundits, the Islamist parties are set to become the dominant political bloc in Egypt’s parliament. First and foremost among them is the Freedom and Justice Party, which was set up in April as the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood is Egypt’s largest and most organized political force, having built a strong popular base by offering free social services to the poor. During the Mubarak era, it was allowed to operate insofar as the regime could present itself to Western governments as the only bulwark against the Brotherhood’s radicalism.

Although Freedom and Justice Party leaders had initially said they would contest only 30 percent of the seats in parliament, they recently announced that they would compete for more than half of the seats as part of an electoral alliance. The party calls for Islamic law to serve as the guiding principle for all political, social and economic issues.

In terms of foreign policy, the Freedom and Justice Party says the 1979 peace treaty with Israel should be “revised.” Its parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, opposes Israel’s existence as a matter of religious doctrine and has close ties with Hamas, an offshoot of the Brotherhood. Just last month, a Brotherhood delegation visited the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for the first time in celebration of the prisoner swap between Hamas and Israel. “We came to participate in the joy at the release of brothers. We are proud of them,” said deputy Brotherhood chief Goma Amin. “Resistance proved itself.”

In addition to the Freedom and Justice Party, Islamists are also represented in the al-Wasat party, a relatively moderate offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafist parties. Salafists are hardline fundamentalists, who follow a literal and puritanical version of Islam. Some have preached hatred against Egypt’s Coptic Christians and have engaged in violence, and Salafist parties undoubtedly want to push for an Islamic state. “We’re always going to believe the Islamic way of life is better than democracy,” said Mohammed Nour, the spokesman for the Salafist al-Nour party.

Leftist parties endorsing socialism and Arab nationalism, primarily inspired by Nasserite policies, have existed in Egypt for decades. Many of these parties, such as al-Tagammu, or the National Progressive Unionist Party, and the Democratic Arab Nasserite Party, once had strong support from the working class, professional unions and intellectuals. However, they have seen their popularity decline due to an outdated image and accusations of complicity with the Mubarak regime.

Liberal parties, which include al-Wafd, al-Ghad (Tomorrow) and the Democratic Front, advocate a strong private sector in the economy and stress Western values of freedom, equality and human rights. Al-Wafd is an old, established party, having repeatedly challenged Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) in parliamentary elections and traditionally drawing the support of Egypt’s business elites and Copts. Al-Ghad is headed by well-known lawyer Ayman Nour, who ran against Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections and was subsequently jailed for allegedly forging documents.

Despite the liberal orientation of these parties in social and economic matters, they share much of the foreign policy views of the more conservative and Islamist parties. In a recent interview, Nour called for a revision of the peace treaty with Israel. “For all intents and purposes, Camp David is over, because it is an old treaty and its terms must be improved in a way that will correspond with Egypt’s interests,” he said.

People who participated in the revolt against Mubarak have established a number of new youth parties. The most prominent among these is the liberal Free Egyptians Party, co-founded by Christian telecom mogul Naguib Sawiris. It supports free market policies, the separation of state and religion and other Western norms. Drawing on large financial resources and a well-oiled organization, the party claims to have recruited more than 100,000 members, including many prominent Egyptian figures.

Also polling well is al-Adl (Justice), a centrist party recently established by youth activists. The party has positioned itself between Islamists and liberals, arguing for a civil state but noting that there is no separation of religion from the state in Islam.

Independent candidates, who do not belong to any established party or are party members but decided to run independently, will also be competing in the elections. These include former members of Mubarak’s now disbanded NDP. Members of the NDP, some of whom retain political and economic clout, have also set up new political parties, such as al-Etihad (Unity) and the Egyptian Citizen Party.

A Test for Democracy

The proliferation of political parties and the complex multi-staged system have left many Egyptians confused and uncertain about the elections. The parties themselves have added to the confusion, repeatedly forming and dissolving alliances over the past few months.

The ones who stand to gain the most from this disarray are the well-organized Islamists. Indeed, polls have repeatedly indicated that the Freedom and Justice Party is poised to win the largest share of the vote. Whatever the results, Egypt’s parliamentary elections will be a test for an Arab world claiming to seek democracy but still in a state of significant turmoil.

This is the first part of a series of articles dealing with Egypt’s parliamentary elections. The next article will discuss in depth the various parties’ positions on foreign policy issues. BACK TO TOP