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Political wastelands
Political wastelandsThe secular opposition is the biggest casualty of the parliamentary elections, writes Fatemah Farag The losses have been staggering: all the leading figures of the left-leaning Tagammu Party lost their seats, including political veteran and former Free Officer Khaled Mohieddin in Kafr Shukr in Qalyoubiya, long-standing MP for Port Said El-Badri Farghali and labo
Thursday, December 1,2005 00:00
by (Al-Ahram)

Political wastelands
The secular opposition is the biggest casualty of the parliamentary elections, writes Fatemah Farag

The losses have been staggering: all the leading figures of the left-leaning Tagammu Party lost their seats, including political veteran and former Free Officer Khaled Mohieddin in Kafr Shukr in Qalyoubiya, long-standing MP for Port Said El-Badri Farghali and labour representative Abul- Ezz El-Hariri, who failed to win in the Alexandria constituency of Karmouz. The Nasserites have yet to win a seat and only four members of the Wafd have been returned to parliament, leaving leading members such as Munir Fakhry Abdel-Nour out in the cold. The independent left is looking at a big fat zero.

These results come at a time when Kifaya has been shaking up the world of street politics for almost a year now, and when the opposition had taken the unprecedented step of coordinating beneath the banner of the newly-formed United National Front for Change (UNFC).

UNFC, a coalition of 11 political parties and groups, includes the liberal Wafd, the leftist Tagammu and Nasserist parties, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist Labour Party, frozen by the government several years ago. The Islamist Wasat (centre) and Nasserist Karama, two parties yet to win legal sanction, are also members, as are many informal political groups -- Kifaya, the Popular Campaign for Change (Freedom Now), the National Alliance for Reform and Change and the more staid National Coalition for Democratic Transformation.

Ahead of the elections the front announced a unified list which excluded the Muslim Brotherhood and fielded candidates in 180 constituencies -- 114 from the Wafd, 47 from Tagammu, 22 Nasserists, 13 from the Labour Party, eight from Karama, three from the Popular Campaign, two from the National Alliance and four independents.

According to Gamal Fahmy of Al-Karama, to understand the discrepancy between the activism of the past year and the performance of the secular opposition in the parliamentary elections you must first "realise that democracy is not born on the day of elections. There has been severe authoritarianism before, during and after the elections. No one can expect the day of voting to start producing results."

Secular opposition candidates found themselves caught between the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Obviously we did not expect such results," says Medhat El-Zahed, editor-in-chief of the party paper Al-Tagammu.

Along with many within the opposition, El-Zahed argues that their failure is in part a result of a deal brokered between the government and NDP on one side and the Brotherhood on the other.

"It is clear there was a deal. How else can you explain the fact that they ran under their own name which is illegal given the Brotherhood is outlawed."

The secular opposition points out they simply did not have the money to spend that would bring them into competition with NDP candidates, many independents and the Brotherhood.

Hussein Abdel-Razeq, Tagammu secretary- general, says "the Brotherhood as a group, and its candidates as individuals, were spending money left and right."

"In Karmouz," says El-Zahed, "votes were being sold for around LE50. In these times of extreme poverty people will take the money. After all, what has parliament ever done for them?"

As Fahmi points out, "the [electoral] process itself is corrupt. People whose votes have been bought have been subjected to a form of slavery. Add to that the fact that even the bare minimum of ground rules, such as making sure voters can reach the ballot box in one piece, have been flouted."

Al-Zahed believes "in most cases the electoral race was won by depicting Brotherhood candidates as representing the ’party of God’ and Tagammu candidates as representing the ’party of the devil’."

Such a view is not uncommon within a party that believes the Muslim Brotherhood targeted the constituencies of leading Tagammu figures as revenge for the stand of the party, and its leader Rifaat El-Said, against the Islamist opposition.

"The Brotherhood has many faces, one of which is pragmatism," explains Abdel-Razeq, "And even though their leadership announced before the elections they would not compete in UNFC and leading Tagammu constituencies we must recognise that ideologically they are diametrically opposed to the left." In the case of Khaled Mohieddin, he adds, "it feels as if they are taking revenge against the 1952 Revolution."

El-Zahed suggests that the only way to understand the failure of the secular opposition and the success of the MB is to consider the general climate. "When there was sectarian strife in Alexandria last month it was not just the constituency of Moharram Bek that was affected. The whole of Egypt has been swept by a wave of fundamentalism since."

El-Zahed finds the case of Kamal Khalil, an independent leftist candidate who ran in the Cairo constituency of Imbaba and failed, particularly poignant. "You can’t tell his religion from his name so when people took an interest in his programme they still found it necessary to go around asking about his religion."

"There is a political desert in which secular political groups and parties have been unable to develop. So when voters who are desperate to go to the polling stations do go they opt for the MB, who claim to represent religion. They are not giving their vote to the MB specifically, they are voting for God," argues Fahmi.

Yet the Tagammu -- along with other leftist candidates and activists -- coordinated with Brotherhood candidates and in some cases voted for them.

Abdel-Razeq dismisses such coordination as a matter of "electoral cooperation between candidates and not parties". Yet the fact is that the dominance of religious discourse, not to mention the fact that the MB stood out as the NDP’s main contender, pushed many within the secular opposition to ally themselves in various ways with the MB. And as Fahmi stresses, "the Brotherhood benefited from being the underdog. While I understand this and sympathise, I also argue that they do not have the right to sanction their political programme by using religion."

As the legal opposition parties attempt to come to terms with their losses, spokesperson for Kifaya George Ishaaq insists he is not in the least surprised by the results so far.

"We have nothing to do with the elections and announced two days before they began that we would not be running any candidates under our name." The reason behind the decision, Ishaaq continues, is that Kifaya never had any hope that the elections would be free.

"Democracy depends on a fair and transparent electoral process, an independent judiciary, an impartial government and the absence of emergency laws. Anything else is fake."

Now that the "weakness of political parties has been uncovered," he contends, "it is time for them to confront the regime, cross the red lines and join us on the streets."

It is a recommendation many are considering.

"We are paying the price for having remained confined within our party headquarters and papers," says El-Zahed. "Politics is not just about parliamentary elections and we need to take stock of what has happened and move on."

As far as the performance of the UNFC goes, Abdel-Razeq now argues that it would be a mistake to overestimate the importance of the unified list. "It all happened a few weeks before the elections which did not give us time to prepare. Political parties had already decided on their candidates and it [the Front] was a decision taken from above. There was no time to spread our resolve to party constituencies."

The future of the UNFC, as well as of the civic opposition, will become clearer after the third and final round of parliamentary elections.

If the tide has boded ill for secularism so far, according to Ishaaq "there is no better time to push forward."

"Turnout in urban areas was 10 per cent and in rural areas 25 per cent. That means there is a huge silent majority out there to be won. We [the secular opposition] must continue to fight for a modern, secular and democratic state. Those capable of convincing the silent majority will win in the end."

Fahmi argues in a similar vein: "I do not believe there is a secular opposition to speak of today. And yet the results of these elections do not represent the will of the people. There is a future for the secular opposition within a democratic environment that allows the normal and healthy growth of all political trends. The political wasteland we face today can’t last forever."

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