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Another meaningless Egyptian election

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...

Shura Council

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.

Well, somebody recently said something about elections becoming an ET specialty, so here we go.  It's not European, but the EU gives Egypt lots of money (although not nearly as much as the US gives) and lots of trade and lots of tourists (like seriously, billions of European tourists every year, I'm not exaggerating), so I figured maybe you'd be interested.

(Weirdly, that external relations document I linked to only seems to work in Internet Explorer.  When I tried to open it in Firefox, it was just blank.  I wondered if maybe there was some kind of symbolism there, but apparently not, just bad code.)

So here's a question.  If you were an Egyptian, would you be voting today?

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 09:44:44 AM EST

  1. The links seem to work for me in Firefox.

  2. No, I probably wouldn't be voting.

  3. Your contribution is much appreciated, because I dare to hope I am right to say that a European forum should always be interested in events outside Europe.
by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 10:08:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks, Metatone.

I can't really decide whether I'd vote.  Part of me says it would be a waste of time and would only serve to legitimize a meaningless facade of a democratic process, but another part of me thinks I might at least go cast a spoiled or blank ballot if there weren't any credible choices in my district, to make a statement, however small.

One problem with that idea is that if there are very few ballots in the box (because of low turnout), then the odds are better that ruling-party thugs masquerading as party election agents will figure out who cast the spoiled ballots, and I might get a "visit" from them later.  So no, not a lot of incentive to take any political risks here.

As for the diary, I left a lot out, like the two secular opposition parties (the Nasserists and the main faction of the divided Wafd party) that are boycotting.  They say they're boycotting for political reasons, but the truth is that they just don't have the means to field any credible candidates.  That's sad, if you ask me.  They're two of the oldest and most (theoretically) venerable parties in the country.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 10:34:23 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Also, according to the papers this morning, there are 11 districts where the NDP candidates are unopposed and will win by default.
by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 10:36:16 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for this election diary!

If the vote is for a powerless assembly and I was amongst the "poors" of the country I'd probably get the money and vote. And use the money to migrate ASAP.

by Laurent GUERBY on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 01:48:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I admit it, I'm one of the elections nerds around here...I appreciate and enjoy just about anything on the subject. So...thanks!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 09:56:45 AM EST
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.

That's probably true of the French Assembly too.</snark>

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 10:40:45 AM EST
When is a worker not a worker?  When he's running for parliament.

Describes Western™ Socialist or Labour parties, too.

Can the last politician to go out the revolving door please turn the lights off?

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 10:45:36 AM EST
Yes, I'd vote without hesitation.

Given the constituency carve-up in the UK there are only 50,000 votes spread across 20 constituencies that are in any way meaningful. In every election I have voted I could have told you the result in my constituency/ward not just on the day I voted, but a decade beforehand. Many constituencies in the UK have been the exclusive fiefdoms of one party for 100 years.

So, why would I vote, when my contribution is patently meaningless ? The best answer I can give is that I remember the guy remonstrating with a tank advancing on Tianenmen Square. Not having a vote mattered to him so much he stood in front of that tank, with its big guns and machine guns trained on him and risked his life to try to persuade the men within not to go and break up the demonstration. Because not having a vote mattered so much to him.

I always vote. In memory of his valour. In honour of his bravery. In defence of an idea.

Dumb & sappy I know, but shit like that matters to me.

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 11:36:41 AM EST
That's a good point.
I too vote in a constituency that has been in one party's hands since the year dot. And I vote every time.

So maybe my answer above is wrong, and I would vote, but how much of this is cultural? I was brought up to believe that British Democracy was fairly worthwhile. Maybe if I'd grown up with a different perception around me, I'd be more sceptical about voting.

by Metatone (metatone [a|t] gmail (dot) com) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 12:00:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Normally I'd put taxi driver conversations in the open thread, but I figured since I've got an Egypt diary up tonight anyway...

Taxi Guy:  You speak really good Arabic!

(This is a lie, but one I get a lot; it's just polite.)

me:  No, just a little, really.

(This is followed by a minute or two of back-and-forth, yes you do, no really just a little, no it's very good, oh no but thank you, etc.)

TG:  How many years have you been living here?

me: Two.

TG:  Only two years? And already you speak like this? (Blah blah blah, more polite flattery about my Arabic, which really isn't that great.) So, do you like Egypt?

Me:  Yes, I love Egypt.

(This is also a polite lie, but it usually goes over better than "I like some things about it and some things about it drive me crazy," which would be the truth.)

TG:  You like it here?

Me:  Yes, it's a lovely country.

TG:  But... maybe you've seen some of the bad things about Egypt?

Me:  Well sure, but all countries have bad things.

TG:  Right.

Me:  Like in America -- the president!

TG:  (Laughs uproariously.)  Just like here!!!

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 03:12:18 PM EST
Thanks for this diary, stormy! It's really interesting to know how it is perceived by the citizens.

Well, if I was an Egyptian, I would run for a seat in the Majlis ash-Shura!

"Dieu se rit des hommes qui se plaignent des conséquences alors qu'ils en chérissent les causes" Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

by Melanchthon on Mon Jun 11th, 2007 at 07:32:45 PM EST
The second sentence can be understood in at least two ways... <evil grin>

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 09:08:42 AM EST
[ Parent ]
An update on how the voting went.  Or didn't go.

In any district where the Brotherhood had candidates, all the reports say voters were barred from entering polling stations.

Here's an account in a local paper, the English-language Daily Star:

At Mensheyat El-Qanater in Giza, independent candidate and Muslim Brotherhood member, El-Seid Saleh, said that he had difficulty getting inside the ballot himself with his family in order to vote.

The polling station was surrounded by anti-riot vehicles and security forces that completely blocked the rear entrance while restricting access via the front gate.

"They allowed us to pass the gate because news crews were [filming]," said one woman, "but inside the station they refused to let us vote, telling us that the elections were over."

Youssef Marouef was similarly angry, "I am a Christian, so I naturally don't belong to the Brotherhood, but they still refused to let me vote."

Marouef wanted to vote for an independent candidate not affiliated with the MB, Hosni Bedoui. "I felt that he may make a difference," he explained, "why hold elections if they won't let people vote?"

A similar account's at the end of this LA Times story.  And this story by the German press agency DPA, via Monsters & Critics, notes a different phenomenon:

In the Gamaliya constituency, which combines middle-class and lower middle-class neighbourhoods in central and eastern Cairo, one female voter told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa she went in the early morning to cast her vote and found polling station eerily empty.

'I went to the polling station where I voted for parliamentary elections in 2005, but my name was not on the electoral register,' she said.

'I went to two other nearby polling stations but my name was nowhere to be found,' she added. 'I eventually gave up, since I was going to put a blank ticket in the balloting box anyway.'

So "whether to vote" is clearly not entirely a matter of choice.  I suspect that lots of men with guns and clubs might be able to keep me from voting even if I was really determined.  (Although maybe not -- during the People's Assembly elections, voters in one district broke into polling stations to vote, using ladders to climb up to second-story windows after police sealed off the entrances.)  And if my name's been removed from the voter's roll, that would probably keep me from voting as well.

But the Washington Post notes that in NDP areas, even children could vote:

n Awseem, a dusty town north of Cairo that is a Brotherhood stronghold, security officers lined up behind chest-high plastic riot shields to block all entrances to a locked polling place. Officers clenching automatic rifles alongside a row of police wagons effectively sealed off another voting site.

Residents in other towns around Egypt on Monday complained of police turning them from the polls and occasionally beating them. One person was killed in election-related violence, the Associated Press reported.

In areas loyal to Mubarak's National Democratic Party, voters surged into polling sites. In Bortos, also north of Cairo, a girl of 15 said she cast a ballot for the NDP, and children who appeared much younger than the voting age of 18 waved fingers stained with the pink ink used to mark ballots and boasted that they had voted.

Sigh.  Democracy.

Good thing elections don't mean everything, eh?

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 09:01:47 AM EST
Oh, and I forgot to mention this story in the Christian Science Monitor, which is a laugh riot.

"We have a test coming up with the Shura Council elections. ... There is unprecedented freedom of expression in Egypt now," he said.

hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha... hee hee hee... whoooo...

I've seen very little coverage of this in the European press.  Which is probably what it deserves, but I still find it a little surprising.

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 09:10:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Ah - so elections are in fact quite meaningful. The choices are rather limited and somewhat dangerous; but there are definite choices to be made. It seems, though, that the choices and importance of the vote has nothing to do with the official process.

Maybe I should say that the process of casting one's vote is more important than the actual vote itself.

aspiring to genteel poverty

by edwin (eeeeeeee222222rrrrreeeeeaaaaadddddd@@@@yyyyaaaaaaa) on Tue Jun 12th, 2007 at 06:10:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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