What are the elections for?
Voters head to the polls November 9 in Cairo and seven other Egyptian provinces in the first of three rounds of balloting for the 444 seats in Egypt's Parliament, the People's Assembly. Two more polls will be held in other areas November 20 and December 1. A record 5,310 candidates are competing. President Hosni Mubarak's ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) may face stiffer competition than in previous elections: Opposition leaders' statements leading up to the election suggest they regard the race as the first real opportunity to contest NDP control, writes Amr Hamzawy, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in his brief Opposition in Egypt. But "no one expects anything less than a comfortable majority" for the NDP, says Steven Cook, the Council's Douglas Dillon fellow and director of the Task Force on Arab reform.
Why are these elections significant?
Many of the parties and independents are running for the first time, reflecting the potential for political change and giving impetus to the nascent political reforms first tested in September's first-ever contested presidential election. In that election, Mubarak won nearly 90 percent of the vote to gain his fifth consecutive six-year term. Many analysts criticized the election for abuses and irregularities, but Cook writes in Foreign Policy the move marks a shift in Egypt toward democratic rule and may mobilize Egyptians to push Mubarak's reforms even further than he anticipated
Mubarak is now under increasing international pressure to follow through on his campaign promises to increase democracy and strengthen parliament. Among other changes, he has also promised to end the state of emergency -- imposed after the 1981 assassination of his predecessor Anwar Sadat -- and replace it with a more specific antiterrorism law; change the constitution to limit the president's powers; and initiate a national dialogue on reform.
What are some of the groups vying for seats?
Under a new constitutional amendment, only political parties with at least 5 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly can participate in future elections, which means opposition parties must work to win at least 23 seats in the lower house. Some of the major political groups running for seats include:
- National Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP is the only party to have registered candidates for all 444 seats. Since the 2000 parliamentary elections, the NDP has controlled 85 percent of the parliament. After ruling as the majority party for twenty-four years, the NDP is entrenched in Egypt's state institutions and has effectively repressed political activity in the past, weakening the opposition.
- Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood enjoys widespread grassroots support and currently has fifteen members sitting in parliament as independents. For the first time in its history, the government has allowed the officially outlawed Muslim Brotherhood to campaign openly on its Islamist agenda, promote its candidates who run as independents, and spread its slogan, "Islam is the solution," across Egypt. Along with a new alliance of opposition groups, the Muslim Brotherhood is making its most assertive political push yet, fielding about 150 candidates in the elections -- double the number it ran in 2000 -- and hopes to increase its number of seats to fifty. The elections are expected to bolster the group's already formidable opposition to the NDP.
- United National Front for Change (UNFC). An unprecedented opposition alliance that comprises twelve political groups, the National Front for Change has announced a list of 225 candidates and includes three of the opposition parties already represented in parliament: the liberal and secular New Wafd Party, the Arab nationalist Nasserite Party, and the leftist al-Tagammu. The alliance also includes members of Kifaya (Enough), or the Egyptian Movement for Change, and the al-Wasat (Center) Party, a recently legalized Islamist party. The UNFC is headed by Wafd Party President Noman Gomaa, who ran for president in September.
- Al-Ghad Party. Leader of the reformist al-Ghad (Tomorrow) Party Ayman Nour -- jailed by authorities for forty-five days on charges he forged signatures on a candidate petition -- came a distant second to Mubarak in September's election. The party plans to field 200 candidates in nearly 70 percent of the country's districts, but its success may be hampered by the recent rift between Nour and his party rival and former deputy chairman Moussa Mustafa Moussa. Moussa's splinter group is fielding sixty-five candidates also under the al-Ghad banner, which experts say may confuse voters.
- Independents. About 2,000 NDP dissidents are running as independents. Candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood candidates are also running as independents. Some analysts speculate the number of independents running in this election will be higher than in previous races, but may be brought into the NDP after winning seats, as was the case in 2000.
What do analysts predict?
Hamzawy says, given current circumstances, an election result giving 15 percent to 20 percent of the People's Assembly seats to the opposition is plausible. And some election observers say the election preparations have been freer, without the government's usual anti-opposition moves. For the first time, ballot boxes will be transparent. Also, Cairo has allowed twenty-seven Egyptian nongovernmental organizations with 10,000 monitors the "unconditional right" to monitor the polling stations, though authorities have demanded the civic groups register with the state-sponsored National Human Rights Council.
Many critics and Egyptian opposition leaders, however, expect the opposition to make only minor inroads in the NDP-dominated parliament and do not expect the overall balance of power to change. Even if the opposition as a total wins 20 percent of the seats in the People's Assembly, the NPD still controls the other 80 percent -- and the political agenda, experts say.
What are the main issues?
Experts say this month's parliamentary elections are not so much a fight over specific issues like Egyptian foreign policy or domestic policy as a struggle to transition to a multi-party system. "The issue is reform and the political trajectory of Egypt," Cook says, "and the opposition is testing the waters" to see how committed the government is to reform. "We have to think in increments here," he says.