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For Egyptians, electoral payback time
Egypt’s parliamentary elections have made manifest a truth long in the offing: the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has a formidable rival in the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the final round of elections is scheduled for the first week of December, the Brotherhood already has enough seats to nominate a presidential candidate in 2011. Observing the surprise with which some NDP members met
Saturday, December 3,2005 00:00
by Maria Golia, The Daily Star

Egypt’s parliamentary elections have made manifest a truth long in the offing: the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has a formidable rival in the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the final round of elections is scheduled for the first week of December, the Brotherhood already has enough seats to nominate a presidential candidate in 2011. Observing the surprise with which some NDP members met the Brotherhood’s success in mobilizing the vote, it’s hard not to say

"I told you so." The detachment with which the regime of President Hosni Mubarak has pursued its uninspired course, the disinterest it has shown in real people, their needs or possibilities, has finally been answered in kind. Members of the old and new guards of the ruling party are falling from the voters’ graces like autumn leaves.

The comeuppance may have been slow to materialize, but it will also take time to unfold. Many Egyptians may find the notion of an Islamic state unpalatable, but they’re accustomed to rooting for the underdog, since that’s what they are. The Muslim Brotherhood’s success may therefore win favor with the public in terms of deeper support in the same way it won votes, by being the only alternative with which Egyptians are somewhat personally acquainted. A vote for the Brotherhood is as much - or more - a vote against the NDP than for the slogan "Islam is the solution." Solution to what? Egypt has yet to realistically formulate its problems and understand them holistically, much less begin to solve them. The Brotherhood may be right. The magnitude of the difficulty begs divine intervention.

Dismayed by the violence characterizing the second round of elections, the National Campaign for Monitoring the Elections and the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, called on Mubarak himself "to announce his complete responsibility for the upcoming final round." This is na•ve, since matters are clearly out of hand, a fact which the NDP is obliged to admit, if only to justifiably shift the burden of blame for the violence from its own shoulders onto that of its multifarious opponents. Voting for individuals instead of party lists has made the parliamentary contests local, even tribal phenomena, subject to local personalities and conditions, feuds and loyalties. But these elections have focused unprecedented domestic and international scrutiny on Egypt’s badlands, and this is a good thing. Usually there’s no telling what’s going on "out there" in the provinces, which is precisely the problem and has been for decades.

Gamal Hamdan, an Egyptian geographer, once described Egypt as a "vast suburb of Cairo." Centralization and the phobia the elite seems to suffer with regards to its rural origins, have transformed a potentially robust Egypt into an atrophied body with Cairo its unwieldy head. The frame of reference for many decision-makers is fatally Cairo-centric, since this is the arena where the big swords are clashed, and of course, where the money is.

To say that the NDP is out of touch with the public is a gross understatement. The fact is the party often finds the public an embarrassment. Now it’s learning how well this contempt is matched by that of a canny people weary of the corner where they’ve been consistently pushed. The towns of Upper Egypt or the Delta are ravaged by neglect and self-doubt; potentially vibrant communities are aesthetically and productively strangling themselves. What is remarkable about these elections is that the brutality at the polls has not translated into greater, nationwide unrest. Egyptians should be commended for their fortitude and the NDP should count its lucky stars.

The Brotherhood’s success is neither a surprise nor a mystery; it has always been there when no one else was, in every mosque, community and factory throughout Egypt. Egyptians have long been accustomed to being essentially on their own when it comes to things like jobs and justice. Nevertheless it will be difficult for the NDP to disabuse itself of the illusion of paternal beneficence; many a party member is currently wondering how the public could be so cruel after all the NDP has done for them. But having suppressed legitimate critique and alternative leadership, held office beyond all reasonable limits and refused to be judged on the basis of performance, the ruling party has no one but itself to blame. The question is what is it going to do about it?

All is not lost. The NDP will maintain its parliamentary majority, but it’s not enough to secure Egypt’s future. The party realizes the Brotherhood has no program or earthly idea of how to heal Egypt’s wounds, and that Egypt needn’t follow the lead of Algeria or Iran. The nascent democratic process must be allowed to take its course. It’s time for the NDP to provide a viable alternative to the piecemeal copycat reform of which it is so overbearingly proud. What this country needs are national projects in which everyone participates, that everyone can understand, support and benefit from.

The party could start with simple things - cleaning house, for example, through a nationwide campaign to introduce new systems of garbage and industrial waste disposal. Trash and water supply - not ideology - are two of the daily concerns of average Egyptians, as the NDP would discover if only it took time to ask. The education system is another source of deep concern; it could and should be dismantled and reassembled, no matter how radical this may seem.

Students could help redesign their own schools, unemployed workmen and craftsmen enlisted to rebuild them, but this time with care and respect, not the gimcrack brick piles where children currently fret away the years. Seeing beautiful schools erected in communities throughout Egypt would bolster confidence, aside from being necessary.

Meanwhile the pundits could put their heads together and reassess their vision of reform and its priorities, taking into consideration people’s immediate needs, skill levels and the possibilities and constraints inherent in Egypt’s unique topography. Egypt is perfectly placed to be a pioneer in alternative energy harvesting and distribution. So what if it’s expensive at first? The oil is running out.

For Egypt to follow America’s lead in creating a technology-heavy, resource-exploitative industrial base when resources are limited and labor is in surplus is unimaginative and foolhardy. Alternative models exist and even Americans are investigating them. The agricultural knowledge accumulated by Egyptians for over a millennia could also be put to wiser use and the fellahin, or peasants, appreciated as vital collaborators. And why shouldn’t Egypt, with its immense hydrological expertise, not work closely with the Nile Basin countries on schemes to guarantee water throughout the region, instead of just defensively trying to hoard it? This in itself could be a project of a sufficiently grandiose nature to occupy the energies and capture the imaginations of several generations of Egyptians.

The point is that for the NDP to survive it needs a project, something meaningful of which everyone can be proud. But before that, the ruling party should acknowledge its shortcomings, not least having forgotten that the Egyptian people deserve better and are capable of worlds offering more than what has been allowed them. Only a people can build a nation.

 

Maria Golia is the author of a book on Cairo titled "City of Sand." She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR


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