Michele Dunne, the editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the Egyptian parliamentary elections, which are now in the final phase, has produced surprising electoral triumphs for the Muslim Brotherhood, which while not allowed to campaign as a party, is likely to win as many as 25 percent of the seats.
Dunne, an expert on Egypt, says "in terms of the results, of course there has been a very dramatic victory by the Muslim Brotherhood." She also says the recent changes in Egypt, including the opening of the presidential race to other candidates, has invigorated the political climate in Egypt.
"I think what we see happening is that there certainly is a revival of political life in Egypt which was very stagnant for about twenty years...It is not stagnant now, there are things happening, opposition of various kinds has revived, the government and President Mubarak have started making some limited concessions in terms of opening up political participation."
She was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on November 30, 2005.
Egypt is nearing the final phase of a three-part parliamentary election and, so far, the results seem quite interesting. I’m wondering if you can describe what’s been going on.
Certainly. Well Thursday will actually be the beginning of the third and final round of the parliamentary elections. There are some things that are going on that are new and some that are not so new. The new things that are happening that make these parliamentary elections interesting are that the electoral administration and the procedures are different from previous elections. There is an Electoral Commission now which Egypt has not had before. There was one for the presidential election and now there is one for the parliamentary elections, although it’s not an independent commission. It’s headed by the minister of justice. But there is a commission running the elections and there have been election monitors; civil society groups have organized thousands of electoral monitors who have been present in the polling stations, although they’ve been largely excluded from watching the counting process.
These are paper ballots, I take it.
Yes, that’s right. They use paper ballots and they use indelible ink to dye people’s thumbs so they can’t vote multiple times. So those are new aspects of the elections and the bottom line is that it’s become more difficult to rig elections than it was in the past. It’s not impossible, especially when the counting process is not being monitored or not monitored closely. Also I would say the judges who run the polling and counting stations have taken a more active roll this time around. Because of the presence of monitors and the likelihood of whistle-blowers inside the judiciary, it’s become much more difficult to rig elections. That’s one of the things that is new and interesting.
And the results?
In terms of the results, of course there has been a very dramatic victory by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood is the largest and one of the oldest opposition organizations in Egypt. It is not a party, it is not even allowed to be a legal organization—it’s technically an illegal organization, and their candidates run as independents. First of all, the Brotherhood is running many more candidates this year than it has in the past. There were roughly twice as many Brotherhood candidates this year as there were in the 2000 parliamentary elections.
What is the number, roughly?
The actual number is around 130-140 Brotherhood candidates running this year. There are a total of 440 seats up for grabs. In the 2000 elections, they only ran about seventy-five candidates overall for all of those seats. This year they’re running many more candidates, and this in itself is significant. Most people believe, and I think this is probably right, that that was a subject of negotiation between the Brotherhood and the ruling party before the elections.
The government tolerated a larger number of Brotherhood candidates and it also allowed the Brotherhood to campaign more openly than they have in the past as the Brotherhood, not requiring candidates to hide their affiliation or anything. So, what is happening so far in the elections is the ruling National Democratic Party [NDP] has already now won almost half of the seats in the parliament. However, in order to do this they had to accept back a number of renegade independent candidates.
This happened in the 2000 election as well where people who the NDP had not nominated went ahead and ran as independents against the NDP and in many cases won. This is a repeat phenomenon. The candidates of the NDP have been winning at a rate of around 40 percent of the races outright, but then they increase their percentage by going ahead and accepting back these renegade independent candidates and they need to do it to control two-thirds of the lower house of parliament.
They need to be able to do that in order to have complete control of the parliament because certain measures need to pass by two-thirds. I don’t believe that there is any doubt that they will have that. They will have their two-thirds, but there will be a much larger opposition present than any observers, including myself, expected. The Brotherhood has already won seventy-six seats and in the third and final round of elections they may well win another twenty to thirty seats. There are 130 seats coming up and I believe the Brotherhood are running forty-nine candidates in those seats and the Brotherhood candidates have been winning at about a rate of 65 percent of the races that they’re running in. They are winning at a higher rate than the ruling party candidates, but they are running in fewer races. Of course, the ruling party puts forth a candidate for every single one of the 444 seats. The Brotherhood is really only contesting roughly one-third of the seats.
There are also reports of violence, with "thugs" trying to prevent people from voting in some cases.
This falls into the class of things that are not new about these elections. Unfortunately, this has happened many times in the past and it’s a pattern that’s been repeated here. One thing that’s different is now it’s all being documented. Candidates, especially from the ruling party but also sometimes from the opposition parties and the Brotherhood, have gangs of thugs who will go to the polling place and sometimes intimidate voters, try to keep out voters who are not known to be supporters of that candidate, especially the ruling party candidate.
There have been confrontations and so forth between the supporters of various candidates and especially thugs associated with various candidates. So far I believe one person has been killed, quite a few people have been injured, a number of the civilian monitors have been injured, so it’s been a very tense situation and not surprisingly, it was much more tense in the second round than in the first.
After the first the round was completed and it became clear that the ruling party was not doing all that well and that the Brotherhood was doing extremely well, relatively speaking, then the second round became much more tense and unfortunately I think the third round will also be tense because now people can clearly do the math, and I believe the ruling party will be fighting hard for every single seat in the final round.
To make sure it gets two-thirds?
I’m sure the ruling party will get its two-thirds but of course it wants more than that. It now looks as if the Brotherhood will easily have 20 percent of the parliament, possibly even a little more, possibly 25 percent, and that becomes uncomfortable for the ruling party. And there are always key districts that the ruling party especially wants to win for various reasons and I’m sure some of the districts will be very hard fought. Now the major cities are already finished. Cairo voted in the first round, Alexandria in the second round, the third round is a lot of rural areas and somewhat more marginal areas. But still of course, we’re talking about the numbers at the end of the day. I will note that other opposition forces, the secular opposition forces—whether they are the established older leftist parties, the Nasserist parties and some of the newer, younger, secular opposition forces like the Kifaya [Enough] movement and the al-Ghad, or Tomorrow party—have all done very, very poorly, made a very poor showing and have only gotten a handful of seats so far.
I read somewhere that how many seats you win in parliament determines whether you can put up a candidate for president.
Yes. The amendment to the constitution that was passed in May says that for a party to get a presidential candidate on the ballot, that party must hold 5 percent of the seats in the Lower House and the Upper House of parliament. There are also provisions for an independent to be nominated to appear on the presidential ballot but that involves gathering a large number of signatures from both houses in parliament and all the local government councils. Right now, it certainly looks as though none of the existing parties will cross that threshold, none of them will have 5 percent.
Oh really, even the Brotherhood?
No, the Brotherhood is not a party. The Brotherhood is in a different category, so unless it becomes a party, which does not seem to be in the offing at the moment, the Brotherhood would have to nominate an independent candidate and it would have to gain a very large number of signatures in both houses of parliament and among local government officials.
Right now that still looks to be not quite feasible for them to do. We have to keep in mind a number of things. If the next presidential election is when it’s scheduled, which is 2011, there would be another round of parliamentary elections in 2010 before that, it wouldn’t be this parliament. Now, if President Hosni Mubarak dies in office, then there would have to be an election earlier and perhaps it would be this parliament.
There is also the possibility that this parliament will not serve out its term. I think there are going to be a lot of legal challenges. In addition to the violence and so forth around the polls, there have been many, many allegations of vote-buying, there may be challenges to the constitutionality of the existing electoral law, and so forth. This has happened before in Egypt. Because of court challenges, a parliament elected in 1987, for example, was basically annulled because of constitutional challenges and there was a new election in 1990. This election is going to be so controversial that it may be that this parliament will not serve out its term, that there will be more parliamentary elections in a couple of years or something like that. All of these are possibilities. We really don’t know if it’s going to be this parliament that’s elected right now that’s going to be in place when there is a new presidential race.
President Mubarak announced earlier this year a plan to have multiparty presidential candidates. Then we’ve had the parliamentary elections under this new law, too, with a new electoral commission. Does this mark any real improvement in democracy? I know that’s a big word and of course the Bush administration has been pushing on this line. What do we see happening here?
I think what we see happening is that there certainly is a revival of political life in Egypt which was very stagnant for about twenty years. From the late 1980s to about a year or so ago, political life was extremely stagnant. It is not stagnant now, there are things happening, opposition of various kinds has revived, the government and President Mubarak have started making some limited concessions in terms of opening up political participation. At this point, the Egyptian parliament actually is fairly marginal in terms of its role within the country.
It has very little authority compared to the presidency and so forth. Most of the power is still concentrated in the hands of the president, so and we don’t see a situation where the ruling party is in danger of losing the presidency. The NDP is going to continue to be in charge for the time being. What President Mubarak promised during his presidential campaign was to begin to undertake some constitutional revisions to put more power in the hands of parliament as opposed to the president, to restore a little more balance among the branches of government. It’s going to be very interesting to see to what extent he will come through on that.
The NDP has had a history over the past couple of years of proposing reform measures that sounded fairly impressive but then translated those measures into actual legislation that contains so many caveats and so forth that they continue to stack the deck heavily in favor of the ruling party. For example, the law on presidential elections, as I said is quite limited, who can even get on the ballots for these elections? I would expect that the ruling party is going to continue to do that, continue to propose reform measures but then the devil will be in the details. That’s a challenge I think for the United States. To what extent will the United States press Mubarak and the Egyptian government to make more meaningful concessions and to deal with the opposition, include others outside the ruling party in the deliberations about reforms and so forth?
Recently, there was a big meeting in Bahrain at which the United States was present on reform in the Arab world. The final declaration never happened because Egypt was objecting to the provision dealing with nongovernmental organizations [NGOs], right?
Yes. That’s right. This has been an ongoing discussion within the U.S.-Egyptian relationship
This goes back to the Clinton administration, right?
Yes, well it does go back that far. It goes back into the 1990s because there was a lot of back and forth between the United States and Egypt on Egypt’s own NGO law. The Egyptian government has tried to keep pretty close control of nongovernmental organizations and has a lot of complicated procedures for licensing them. And also it requires them to request government approval for any grants that they accept from foreign organizations and so forth.
That is exactly the issue that the United States and Egypt differed on at the Bahrain conference regarding the establishment of a Middle East Foundation that would come out of these Forums for the Future meetings—whether the foundation would be able to give grants to organizations without those organizations having to necessarily be licensed by their respective governments. The Egyptian government objected to that. The foundation should only be able to give grants to organizations that are licensed by the governments of the countries in which they reside. I think the Egyptian government sees clearly that rules that appear somewhat technical actually have larger ramifications. They have ramifications including governments beginning to relinquish some of their control—for example over the NGO sector—and the Egyptian government was fighting that.