by the stormy present
Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 09:36:38 AM EST
Egyptians are going to the polls today for Shura Council elections. That's the upper house of parliament.
Whoop-de-doo. Can I go back to bed now?
For more than you ever wanted to know about Egyptian elections, including why they mean largely nothing and nobody bothers to vote, follow me past the jump...
OK, I said these were Shura Council elections. They're actually a-fraction-of-the-Shura-Council elections. There are 264 seats in the Shura Council, half of which are up for renewal every three years.
Notice how I said renewal, not election? Because technically, it's election and appointment. One-third of the seats in the Shura Council (that's 88) are appointed. So of the 264 seats, 176 are elected. So only 88 seats are actually being decided today, plus 44 appointed seats.
The Arabic name for the upper house is Maglis al-Shura, which means "Consultative Assembly." Until recently, it had zero power. Zip. None.
The constitutional amendments adopted in March (in a national referendum vote that was its own kind of absurd farce, but that's another diary) gave the Shura Council a few new ways to occupy its time (it now approves certain kinds of legislation), but it still isn't terribly important.
And yet hundreds of people are running. Some reports say there are 580 candidates for 88 seats, others say more than 600. I suspect there may be more candidates than voters.
The Candidates, and the Voter(s)
On the walls of shops downtown are glossy banners and posters bearing the photo and name of a male ruling-party candidate, who apparently hasn't been skipping any meals. The other candidate in the district is a woman, whose posters are less glossy and bear a blue-and-white sketch of her face, framed by a hijab.
Every candidate gets a symbol, not always one of their choosing. The female candidate downtown, whose name escapes me, has a handgun as her symbol. It's rather unfortunate. The little pistol on her posters is pointed right at her head. I find it rather alarming to look at.
Given that the upper house doesn't really do anything, I asked an Egyptian friend last week why people bother to run for the Shura Council. She said, very matter-of-factly, that people can earn a lot of money (a fortune, in fact) from corruption once they're in parliament, and they also crave the parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
The news reports are saying they're expecting maybe a 10 percent turnout. In most districts, I'd be surprised if it was that, honestly. (I do expect supporters of the 19 Muslim Brotherhood candidates to actully try to vote... although whether they'll be allowed to is another question.)
The vast majority of the candidates are either members of the ruling party (109 candidates from Hizb al-Watani ad-Dimoqrati, the National Democratic Party, or NDP) or are "independent" candidates who were members of the NDP the day before the election and will be members again the day after the results are announced.
A friend of mine is a political science professor at one of the local universities. He put it like this: "This is not like Britain, where if someone doesn't get his party's nomination, he doesn't run." No, everyone here runs anyway, and most of them are happily welcomed back into the fold once the election's over.
So a lot of the districts have five or six (or 10!) NDP members competing for the same two seats. And nobody else. And the NDP has so little grassroots support -- so little connection to the vast majority of Egyptians -- that its members honestly might as well be living in Paris or London rather than Cairo or Alexandria. Is it any wonder that nobody's very interested in voting?
And, honestly, very few people have even the remotest interest in participating in this farce.
Two years ago, during the People's Assembly election, I told my assistant that she was welcome to take a few hours off on election day in order to vote. She looked at me like I had lost my mind.
"I've never voted in my life," she said. "What's the point?"
Workers and professionals
One interesting feature of the Egyptian electoral system is the quota system. Half the seats in the lower house (Maglis al-Shaab, or People's Assembly) are reserved for officially designated workers and peasants. (I think this system was instituted by Nasser.) The other half are "professionals" or intellectuals/elites. The designation is made before you get on the ballot, so you either run as a worker or a professional.
I know more about the way this works for the lower house than for the Shura Council, so I'm not positive that the rules are the same for both, but I know the distinction persists. The blue-poster-gun-symbol lady running for Shura Council downtown is a worker's seat candidate.
It's considered easier to get elected as a worker, because there are fewer candidates in that category. Think about it -- you have to be a "peasant" who's rich enough to finance your own campaign in a country where outright, blatant vote-buying is standard practice. I mean seriously, people give TVs to voters, and hand out cash. I had someone offer to buy my vote two years ago, and I'm obviously not Egyptian.
So yes, parliament is for the rich (either rich before they get there, or rapidly richifying afterward) and there are far fewer candidates in the "workers" category. This means that many candidates who aren't even remotely workers or peasants are lying like crazy and bribing people when necessary to be designated as workers. When is a worker not a worker? When he's running for parliament.