Considering the low expectations that Egyptians and other observers had of the country’s parliamentary elections (the two rounds took place on November 28 and December 5, 2010 respectively), it should perhaps be recognised as an achievement of sorts for the Mubarak regime.
Considering the low expectations that Egyptians and other observers had of the country’s parliamentary elections (the two rounds took place on November 28 and December 5, 2010 respectively), it should perhaps be recognised as an achievement of sorts for the Mubarak regime that the polls were characterised by levels of manipulation and blatant fraud that took even the most cynical of observers by surprise.
In the run-up to the elections, much attention was focused on whether or not the Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood), Egypt’s main Islamic movement and the largest and most credible opposition party in the country, would take part, as a number of minor opposition parties had decided to boycott the polls. Despite pressure from other parties, the Ikhwan decided to take part, perhaps because they felt they had more to lose by joining the boycott than they could gain from it (see Crescent International, December 2010).
But its participation was short-lived. Even before the polls, Ikhwan commentators had noted that the routine pre-election crackdown on the movement and its activists appeared even harsher than usual. The reason became clear when the results of the first round of elections were announced, showing that the Ikhwan had apparently failed to win a single seat despite having had 88 members in the previous parliament. The Wafd Party, the third largest party in the last parliament with five seats, apparently won only three in the first round this time. These results were despite a widespread sense that the NDP had declined in popularity in recent years and was likely to do badly in the elections.
At the same time, there quickly emerged ample evidence of massive ballot fraud and manipulation by the regime and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP); while no one had expected the polls to be clean, the blatant manner and extent to which the results were manipulated caused a huge shock. In particular, pictures and videos that people shot on their mobile phones, showing government officials, NDP members and supporters, and other unidentified people attacking opposition supporters, interfering with ballot boxes and preventing election monitors from doing their work resulted in widespread anger and spontaneous public protests.
Having initially declined to boycott the elections, therefore, the Ikhwan decided after the first round of elections to boycott the second, as it was clear that the regime had decided to exclude them from even a nominal presence in parliament.
The official final results, endorsed by the Higher Election Commission despite ample evidence of irregularities, showed that the NDP had won 420 seats, 90 more than in the previous parliament, giving it 81 percent of the 518 seats in Parliament. The Wafd Party, is now the largest opposition party, with just six seats, up from five in the last parliament, despite announcing that it would boycott the second round of polling. The even more minor opposition parties mainly held their positions with one or two seats each.
The only grouping to have lost seats, according to official results, was the Ikhwan, “losing’” 87 of the 88 seats they had in the previous parliament. Only one candidate associated with the Ikhwan — all Ikhwan candidates were officially independent, as the party remains officially banned — took part in the second round and was declared successful, giving the Ikhwan a single member in the new parliament. He was subsequently expelled from the party for ignoring the leadership’s instruction to withdraw from the second round. The Ikhwan are therefore no longer a parliamentary party, even unofficially.
While there remains widespread anger at the regime’s conduct, initial protests against the election results have already died down. In reality, the anger is not so much at the regime’s manipulation, which was expected and taken for granted, as for the arrogance and how blatantly it perpetrated the fraud. It was as though the regime felt it did not even have to pretend to conduct things properly, or to recognise the limits of its standing and the reality of popular opposition that the Ikhwan represented in the old parliament.
The Ikhwan, meanwhile, have to find a new role and strategy, having been put by the regime into precisely the position that they have decided not to adopt; that of opposing the government from outside official politics rather than within it. To date, they have largely reacted to events, and ridden the wave of public anger at the elections. The only major development has been the proposal by some deposed members of parliament, including Ikhwan members, to sit as an alternative, parallel parliament in order to focus attention on the illegitimacy of the official parliament.
The Ikhwan leadership, however, has not decided whether to join such an initiative; again, as with the issue of the election boycott, they have to decide how far they want to work with other opposition groups and how far to go it alone. But considering that they no longer have an established position to protect, and may now be more vulnerable to repression without a political foothold within the system, the Ikhwan may well decide to work with other groups for the time being, despite the many good and legitimate reasons they had for maintaining their distance from other groups before the elections.
In order to understand the significance of the 2010 elections, Egyptians and outside observers must bear in mind two rules that are almost always applicable to the closed political systems of authoritarian states.
The first, relevant to participants, is that the regime makes the rules as it goes along, and bends and breaks them as it wishes, and no other player can take its position for granted. This is what some people were accusing the Ikhwan of even before the elections; but it is clear now that events of the last few weeks must have shaken even the most complacent of Ikhwan members and prompted what is likely to become a weighty debate about how the movement-cum-party should respond to the new situation in which it unexpectedly finds itself.
The second rule, of more relevance perhaps to outside observers and analysts, is that in authoritarian politics, what matters most is usually what is happening within the regime, and between the regime and its sponsors and supporters, rather than what is happening between the regime and its opponents.
In order to understand the reasons for the unexpected direction that Egypt has taken with the results of the elections, therefore, one must look within the regime and its system, and the pressures on various players within it. At this time, the single largest factor playing on the minds of those in power in Egypt is the question of the succession to Hosni Mubarak. This is something people have been talking about for years, but which is only getting more urgent over time. Mubarak is now 83 years old, and there are increasingly credible reports that he will step down this year.
Mubarak’s second son, Gamal, remains the favourite to inherit power, but has failed to establish himself as a serious and credible candidate among any of the country’s major circles of power, the most important being the military and the NDP leadership. Other candidates include Omar Suleiman, the head of intelligence, and Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League. Mohamed El-Baradei, portrayed as a “democratic reformer”, may be a contender if the powers that be decide that a radical change of direction is required to protect the key interests of Egypt’s elites and outside allies.
The one thing all these contenders and power-brokers have in common is a fear of the Islamic commitment of the Egyptian people and of the popularity and potential of the Ikhwan al-Muslimun, despite the many setbacks the movement has suffered in recent years. It may well be, therefore, that Mubarak’s plan is to do as much damage as possible to the Ikhwan before stepping down, so the movement is in the weakest possible position even if the political uncertainty of the political transition does offer opportunities for opposition movements to try and exploit.
If this is the case, the Ikhwan’s loss in the recent elections of the political position it has long enjoyed may prove to be only the beginning of a very difficult time for the movement and its leaders, activists and supporters.