Narrow Choice for Egyptians in Vote That's Supposed to Stabilizeby
Main Islamist group driven underground, hunted as terrorists
Secular, leftist groups cite pressure not to contest vote
The father, like two of his teenage sons, is on the run. The mother has been threatened with arrest if she ever leaves home. Their crime: belonging to the one-time power broker and now outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
This Egyptian family was once active in public life, sending a member to the parliament elected in 2011, the year Hosni Mubarak was toppled and the Brotherhood won the first in a series of ballot victories. Now, as Egypt embarks on its first legislative vote since then, they’re just hoping to survive after the group was pushed from power and branded a terrorist organization, a charge it has repeatedly denied.
The Brotherhood, one of Egypt’s strongest political movements throughout much of its 87-year history, isn’t alone in being driven to the margins: leftist and secular groups that played a part in the uprising of 2011 are nowhere to be seen. The impact has become visible. Turnout for the first day of balloting on Sunday was about 16 percent, state media reported, citing Prime Minister Sherif Ismail.
That figure, indicating lower voter participation than in previous elections, suggests the current polling may not bring the political stability army chief-turned-president Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi says is key to restoring investor confidence.
“The next parliament will not reflect the real forces in Egypt. It will only represent those who support the current regime,” said Samuel Tadros, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Hudson Institute. “A significant part of the population -- maybe 20 percent -- rejects the political formula in which this election is taking place. The parliament will just be a continuation of the status quo.”
El-Sisi has been urging citizens to vote, and the government gave public sector workers a half day off from work on Monday, in an apparent bid to encourage turnout on the final day of the current round of balloting in 14 governorates.
“I know it’s not going to bring any change,” said Ahmed Mahrous, 36, at a polling station in Giza outside Cairo. “But I came here to complete this whole transitional phase, and now if the government fails, then at least I did what I had to do.”
Foreigners who once held about $10 billion of domestic bonds fled in 2011, and haven’t returned. Currency reserves are less than half their 2010 levels, and would be even lower without life-support from Egypt’s Gulf backers, who now have problems of their own after the oil slump.
The main stock index is down 23 percent in dollar terms this year, more than twice the decline on the MSCI Emerging Market benchmark. Persistent violence has kept tourists away: Egypt expects 10 million visitors in 2015, a minor improvement from 2014 but well below 14 million in 2010. Foreign direct investment rose more than 50 percent to $6.4 billion in the fiscal year that ended in June, compared with an average of almost $10 billion in the four years preceding 2011.
Cycle of Violence
Violence deepened after the popular uprising and army intervention, led by El-Sisi, against the Brotherhood in 2013, beginning with the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi. Security forces broke up Islamist protests, killing hundreds and jailing thousands more. The group went underground and analysts say the crackdown is radicalizing elements in a movement that largely renounced violence under Mubarak.
“The Muslim Brotherhood protests in the street and turns a blind eye to violence to advance their agenda,” Tadros said. “The regime views the political problem as simply a security one.”
The family mentioned above, which asked for its identity to be withheld for fear of retaliation, says it’s subject to regular security harassment. The eldest son said dozens of masked soldiers storm their house at least once a month, damaging the main door and destroying the furniture. Fixing the door is tough, because handymen are too afraid to be associated with the family, he said.
To be sure, support for the Brotherhood may not be what it was: even before the surge in violence, the group alienated many Egyptians during its year in power under Mursi. Mass protests against him began less than six months into his term, after he issued a decree putting his decisions above the law. His administration was accused of harassing opponents in the judiciary and media.
“We don’t have reliable opinion polls in Egypt, but all anecdotal evidence point to a sharp decline in their popularity,” said Diaa Rashwan, head of the Cairo-based ِAl-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Islamist politics in general have lost their appeal, he said, because “when people look around for an example of Islamic rule, they will only find ISIS. And this is not a very appealing model.”
The Egyptian public aren’t being offered that model, or many other alternatives, in the vote that started on Saturday. A coalition called ‘Sahwet Misr’ or Egypt’s Awakening, including groups prominent in the uprising against Mubarak, pulled out, citing a “negative stance” from authorities over registering their candidates. The Strong Egypt Party, headed by former presidential candidate and Islamist politician Abdel-Moneim Aboul-Fotouh, has also boycotted the vote.
Candidates running under the name “For the Love of Egypt” are widely seen as the state-approved list, although El-Sisi has denied supporting any group. The coalition is led by a former intelligence general and includes many pro-government figures as well as the secular-leaning Wafd and Free Egyptians parties.
Eventually, says Rashwan, an opposition will emerge as lawmakers seek to be heard and push for a place in government. “This is Egypt’s first parliament after a tough period, it’s unrealistic to expect it to be like the House of Commons,” he said.
The election started over the weekend in 14 provinces, and a second and final round is set for November. Egyptians have headed to the polls at least seven times since 2011, and many are wondering whether voting again is even worth it.
“We’ve seen a failed parliament before and the people running now are largely wealthy individuals who are more likely in it for their own agenda and interests,” said Mohamed Shebl, a 41-year-old clerk and father of three. "We need to see real changes, not more people going into government to advance their business ties."
In the absence of a parliament -- a court order disbanded the Brotherhood-dominated assembly in 2012-- El-Sisi has been ruling by decree since his election last year, issuing dozens of laws in areas from investment to counter-terrorism.
By the end of 2015, Egypt will have an assembly with 596 deputies, the largest in its 150-year parliamentary history. But it’s not clear whether there’ll be any diminution of the president’s powers, at least at first.
“A parliament would, in theory, help stabilize the country by becoming a forum for the expression of contending interests,” Tadros said. But the government is working in the opposite direction, he said, to “create an artificial national consensus by stigmatizing debate.”