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Begging to differ
Begging to differ
Transparent ballot boxes, monitors, a flamboyant Muslim Brotherhood campaign: the parliamentary elections certainly feel different this time round. But are they really, asks Amira Howeidy For the past two weeks Cairo has been in the throes of election fever.
Thursday, November 10,2005 00:00
by Al-Ahram

Begging to differ
Transparent ballot boxes, monitors, a flamboyant Muslim Brotherhood campaign: the parliamentary elections certainly feel different this time round. But are they really, asks Amira Howeidy

For the past two weeks Cairo has been in the throes of election fever. The frenzy peaked on the eve of the first stage of the three-phased parliamentary elections which kicked off in eight governorates, including Cairo and Giza, yesterday.

"Islam is the solution" screamed an amplified voice emerging from a car touring the upper middle class district of Heliopolis -- site of the president’s residence -- on Tuesday evening.

And as banners, streamers, stickers, giant photographs of candidates, songs and noise filled the capital’s streets and skies in preparation for the vote something different seemed to be taking place in this city that never sleeps.

Pundits and politicians regulary refer to the political reawakening that has followed hopeless decades of stagnation during which the death of Egyptian politics was announced.

Many attribute the momentum that has resuscitated the political scene to the "ripples of democracy" created by President Hosni Mubarak’s sudden decision to amend the constitution to allow for multi-candidate presidential elections. The powerful rise of political dissent movements, manifested by Kifaya, and international pressure on Egypt to democratise have also played their part, or so we are told.

Certainly the elections look different. For the first time transparent ballot boxes will be used during the poll; thousands of trained monitors are to be granted access to voting stations; the "outlawed" Muslim Brotherhood has been allowed to campaign freely; a special parliament channel has been launched by state-run TV and an unprecedented array of recently-established independent and free newspapers are adding spice to the already hot elections.

Since the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution stipulates that a political party must control at least five per cent of parliamentary seats to field a presidential candidate, the parliament that emerges at the end of the long election process will effectively determine the candidates eligible to run in the next presidential elections. Independent candidates must obtain the backing of at least 250 elected members of the People’s Assembly, Shura Council and municipal councils in order to stand, an all but impossible task given the number of NDP supporters packing all three bodies.

Yet despite all the excitement surrounding the parliamentary elections observers expect few surprises when the final results are announced.

"Nothing is going to change," Counselor Yehia El-Refai, a respected ex-judge and honourary president of the Judges Club, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "This is a very immoral government and it will ensure the election does not produce results it does not want."

The long-promised political reforms, argues El-Refai, "are nothing more than a bundle of cosmetic changes. The essentials will remain the same. The National Democratic Party will not accept winning anything less than two-thirds of parliamentary seats."

Sceptics note that despite paying repeated lip- service to the cause of reform the NDP went ahead and fielded the usual, albeit controversial, group of influential figures. The frustration this caused among the opposition was encapsulated in a headline in Sunday’s independent Sawt Al-Umma : "Bringing down [parliament speaker Fathi] Surour, [NDP’s assistant secretary-general and State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Kamal] El-Shazli, [Chief of Presidential Staff Zakaria] Azmi and [Agriculture Minister Youssef] Wali is a national duty," announced the front- page banner.

The anti-NDP campaign raging in the independent press and the equally severe anti- Muslim Brotherhood stance of the state-run media have at least the virtue of identifying the two most powerful players on the political scene.

In the words of Ayman El-Sayyad, managing editor of the respected monthly magazine Weghat Nazar, "the climate has resulted in a sifting of political forces."

The NDP and the MB, he told the Weekly, "stand out as the two major political forces in Egypt today. The fear is the election results will not reflect this reality and the MB’s votes will be tampered with... The [10-party alliance] Opposition Front and the [anti-Mubarak] Kifaya movement have been hardly visible."

El-Refai agrees, arguing "the front was never a serious project to begin with."

However predictable the final composition of the 2005 parliament turns out to be, say observers, it is unlikely to end the dynamism that is infusing the political arena. In fact, once the dust settles the parliamentary elections could usher in a new phase of political activism, especially if the growing influence within the NDP of the president’s son Gamal revives the debate over what the opposition has dubbed the "inheritance of power".

"It will be very difficult for the authorities to control the political scene after [the elections]," says Rafik Habib, a seasoned political Coptic Evangelical writer. "The space acquired by the MB and other dissent movements will be hard to reduce, which is something the authorities will want to do."


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