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A Brewing Confrontation With SCAF

Islamic Parties Win 75 Per Cent of Seats in Egyptian Elections

by ESAM AL-AMIN

Ever since the fall of deposed president Hosni Mubarak last Feb. 11, the unity the Egyptian people had displayed during the previous 18 days has been slowly eroding.

This fracture began to emerge during the nationwide referendum on March 19. Shortly after assuming power, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) formed a committee of constitutional scholars to propose a roadmap towards the transition to democracy. Within two weeks, the committee drafted a popular referendum that proposed to hold parliamentary elections, empowered the new parliament to select a hundred-person assembly to write the new constitution, to be followed by presidential elections.

Almost immediately, Egyptian society was sharply divided into two main camps. One was led by the Islamist forces, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which embraced this plan. Meanwhile, the liberal and secular forces opposed it for fear that their Islamist rivals were better organized and better positioned to dictate the composition of the constitution-writing assembly. This “elections or constitution first” approach – as dubbed in the press — was settled when Egyptians overwhelmingly voted in favor of the March referendum with 77 per cent support. Having been defeated at the polls, the secular and liberal forces have since been attempting to circumvent this process by pressuring SCAF to limit the authority of the future parliament.

Despite its initial promise last February to limit the transitional period to six months, SCAF has been slow in instituting many of the steps that were needed to carry out the elections, the first step towards the end of military rule. Under pressure from the secular and liberal parties, SCAF tried throughout the summer to impose a set of “supra-constitutional principles” that could not be amended, even by popular will. When that effort failed due to its undemocratic nature and strong public opposition, the SCAF-appointed government, through former Deputy Prime Minister Ali Al-Silmi, proposed an even bolder document before the November elections. Although Islamic and liberal groups had previously agreed on a set of core constitutional principles, the negotiations failed due to the insistence of SCAF to insert extra-constitutional powers to the military.

To be clear, the major political forces, religious and secular, agree that the emerging Egyptian state will be a civil state. But the Islamic parties argue that the Egyptian people want the frame of reference of that state to be the Islamic law or Shari‘ah, while liberal and secular forces argue that such a reference would undermine basic individual liberties. The MB, which rejects the concept of a religious state along the lines of the Iranian model, argues that this fundamental choice should be subject to the will of the Egyptian people. Secular forces, on the other hand, fear that due to the religious nature of Egyptian society, the model espoused by the Islamic parties would win over a majority of Egyptians and hence the attempt to establish a modernist-secularist state in Egypt hangs by a thin thread.

Throughout this debate, SCAF was not only tilting towards the liberal and secular forces, but was also quietly pushing to preserve as well as expand its authorities and privileges under the new constitution. For example, the SCAF-supported Al-Silmi’s document tried to slip through several provisions that would have greatly increased the powers of the military at the expense of the democratically elected parliament and president.

The draft included: no parliamentary oversight of the military’s defense budget; a provision that would require parliament to obtain the military’s approval prior to issuing any laws affecting its budget or functions; authority for the military to refer the new constitution to the Supreme Constitutional Court if it is thought to violate any of the constitutional declarations issued by the military,  in essence casting a veto over the new constitution before the people even cast a single vote; a provision that would allow the military to appoint 80 of the 100 members of the constitution-writing assembly, thus deeming the whole elections process a farce; and claiming authority to appoint a new constitution-writing assembly if the first one does not agree on a constitution within six months.

Needles to say, this power grab was totally rejected and mass protests took place on November 18 demanding the withdrawal of the document and the resignation of the government. After bloody confrontations with the security forces that resulted in at least 42 deaths and 3,000 injuries, SCAF accepted the resignation of the government, resolved to hold the parliamentary elections on time, and for the first time promised to hold presidential elections and end military rule by the end of next June.

Ironically, a sizable number of youth-led revolutionary activists who challenged the authority of the military council in the streets, do not see eye-to-eye with Egypt’s Islamic parties. Their main concern was to end military rule after losing confidence in its ability to transition the country to democratic rule. They called for escalations with SCAF and sit-ins in Tahrir Square until a national salvation government is established. Meanwhile, confident of their abilities to win the elections, the Islamic parties refused to go back to the streets after the collapse of the government and the death of Al-Silmi’s document.

U.S. Policy Towards Egypt

Throughout this tumultuous period, the United States government has been a quiet but active player. According to the Dec. 1 report of Campaign and Elections, the U.S. government has allocated “some $200 million, as a baseline, for democracy building in Egypt,” in a bid to “counteract the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.” It also reported that groups such as the neocon-inspired International Republican Institute “focused on building up the country’s nascent Western-leaning political parties.”

After giving Egypt almost $70 billion in the past three decades as a payoff for its peace treaty with Israel, U.S. policy towards Egypt has been wobbly of late. A report submitted to the U.S. Congress by the Congressional Research Service on Nov. 18, details the contentious issues facing the U.S. government as it determines its policy towards Egypt.

On the one hand, the U.S. purports to support the transition towards democracy, even while it loathes the anticipated victory by the Islamic parties. It wants to preserve its historic relations with Egypt’s military without being seen as overtly endorsing SCAF’s tactics to undermine democratic transitions. The report warns that many Egyptians are “highly critical of the U.S. [previous] support of the Mubarak regime” and that a revolutionary Egypt shows “resentment toward Israel.”

Moreover, continuous meddling by Congress, especially the Republican-led House, has been hampering this relationship because of its one-dimensional approach. It only views U.S-Egyptian relations through the Israeli prism. Recently a House Committee voted to provide a $1.55 billion aid package to Egypt next year, contingent upon the President’s certification that the Egyptian government “is not directly or indirectly controlled by a foreign terrorist organization,” and it is “fully implementing the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty,” as well as “it is detecting and destroying the smuggling network and tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.”

In a recent address to the Council of Foreign Relations in Washington D.C, Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-TX), the chairperson of the Appropriations Subcommittee on State-Foreign Operations in the House that initiated this bill said that she “was proud of that provision on the aid bill” and that “if the MB formed the future government of Egypt, then Egypt would be run by a terrorist organization.” When her statement was challenged by a member of the audience who pointed out that the MB was not on the State Department “terrorist list,” her answer was that it should be since the “Muslim Brotherhood opposed the peace treaty with Israel.”

In short, as long as the U.S. policy in Egypt and the entire Middle East is controlled by what is best for Israel, regardless of the broader U.S. interests and political implications in the region, such policy will continue to be perceived as contradictory, confusing, and suspect by ordinary Egyptians and Arabs.

Egyptians Go to the Polls

Egyptian parliamentary elections are unique because constitutionally they have to be supervised by Egypt’s judiciary. With only ten thousand judges to oversee the millions of votes cast, SCAF determined to hold the election over three stages, each covering nine of Egypt’s twenty-seven provinces. In addition, because of the fear that Mubarak’s banned National Democratic Party (NDP) members might dominate the elections in a system of single representation of districts, SCAF agreed to hold parliamentary elections that will allocate two-thirds of the 498 member lower-house People’s Assembly (PA), to party lists, while one-third would be allocated to individual candidates. In addition, ten other members will be appointed by SCAF to cover minorities such as the Copts, for a total of 508 members. The law also dictates that at lease half of the elected members must be farmers or workers.  Of the 270 member upper-house Shura Council, 120 will be elected on party lists, 60 in individual districts, and 90 appointed by SCAF. According to the constitutional decree issued by SCAF last March, these 778 members (of which 100 members are appointed by SCAF) will select the assembly of 100 empowered to draft the new Egyptian constitution.

The staggered system of elections is designed to be held over a period of four months, from the end of November to early January for the lower-house and from mid January to early March for the upper-house. If SCAF fulfills its promise of holding the presidential elections by June, in all likelihood the new constitution will not be in place and the presidential elections will then be held under the old system.

On Nov. 28 and 29 voters across nine Egyptian provinces including the main population centers of Cairo and Alexandria, swarmed election precincts. There were 168 contested seats, 112 reserved for party lists and 56 for individual members. According to the Egyptian High Commission on Elections (HCE), the turnout was unprecedented and the highest recorded in Egyptian history. Out of 13.6 million registered voters in the nine provinces, more than 9.7 million cast their votes for the party lists (71 per cent) and 8.5 million voted for individual candidates (62 per cent.) Moreover, there were more than 90 parties contesting the elections.

Many coalitions were formed to contest the elections. Some small parties joined into a coalition with the Justice and Freedom Party (FJP), the political wing of the MB, to broaden their appeal. The MB initiated this coalition back in April to form a united front against the remnants of Mubarak’s former NDP. Eventually, most parties (Islamic and secular) left the FJP-led coalition to form their own, accusing the MB candidates of dominating the lists in most districts.

Here is a list of the major blocs and parties contesting the Egyptian elections:

The Democratic Alliance consists of the FJP (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood). Established in 1928, the MB is one of the oldest social movements in the Middle East. Since its reconstitution in the early 1970s, it is now considered a moderate Islamic movement employing pragmatic politics despite accusations that it had a radical past. It is also the most organized and well-financed group in the country, and its membership is thought to number over one million. The alliance also includes smaller parties including the Karama Party (Socialist-Nasserist), led by presidential candidate Hamdein Sabbahi, and the New Ghad Party, led by politician Ayman Nour. The FJP calls for a civil state with Islamic Shari‘ah as a frame of reference for legislation and governance.

The Islamist Alliance consists of mostly Salafist (religious-literalist) parties that broke away from the Democratic Alliance. It includes the Nour Party, the largest in the alliance, the Asala (Authenticity) Party, the Salafist Current, and the Construction and Development Party, which is the political arm of Al Gamaa Al Islamiya, the former militant group accused of fomenting violence in the 1980s. Most of these groups insist on the application of Islamic laws in society over time, although they give assurances for the protection of minority rights and personal freedoms.

The Egyptian Bloc consists of liberal and leftist parties dominated by the Free Egyptians Party led by billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris, the most prominent Christian Copt in Egypt. It also includes the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (liberal), and the Tagammu Party (one of the oldest socialist parties in Egypt). Although the Coptic Church denies this, the Islamic parties claim that the Church instructed Egyptian Copts to vote for this bloc. This alliance is considered a nemesis of the Salafist parties and rejects any alliance with them in any future government.

The Revolution Continues consists of mainly revolutionary activists such as Socialist Popular Alliance Party, the Egyptian Socialist Party, Free Egypt Party, Equality and Development, the Egyptian Current (a liberal off-shoot of Muslim Brotherhood youth) and the Revolution Youth Coalition. Some of these parties were originally part of the Egyptian bloc but they left it to form their own list.

The New Wafd is an extension of Egypt’s oldest political party as it was formed in 1919 in the midst of the struggle against the British occupation of Egypt. It had been part of the Democratic Alliance but it broke off after disagreements with the Brotherhood over the allocation of seats on their unified list. As an established party, it is considered one of the most prominent secular-liberal parties that can compete with the Islamic parties, but its checkered past as a token opposition during the Mubarak regime eroded its popularity, especially among the younger generations.

Other Islamic Parties such as the Wasat (Center) and ’Adl (Justice) Parties. These much smaller parties were established recently by former members of the MB to promote moderate and progressive Islamic politics in a modernist civil state.

Reconstituted NDP remnants. Although SCAF belatedly issued a law that bans those who corrupted the political life during the Mubarak regime in reference to the remnants of NDP members, many of these same individuals established over ten parties to run for elections including the Egyptian Citizen Party, Egyptian Nationalism Party, and the Freedom Party.

So who won the first stage of the elections?

Although the HCE announced the raw results in the nine provinces that held the elections, the final count per party was not announced pending the conclusion of the elections of the lower-house in January. According to the raw data, the FJP won almost 37 per cent of the vote garnering almost 3.6 million votes, followed by the Salafist alliance at 2.4 million votes or 24 per cent. The liberal Egyptian Bloc was third with 1.3 million votes or 13 per cent, while the Wafd party was a disappointing fourth with about 700,000 votes or 7 per cent. The Wasat and Revolution Continues parties came next at 415,000 (4 per cent) and 335,000 (3 per cent) votes, respectively.

Twenty-two other parties received the remaining votes, the highest of which was the Construction and Development Party (part of the Islamic Alliance but running separately in one of the provinces) at 2 per cent. In Cairo’s first district, the HCE invalidated the votes, affecting 12 seats (2 individual and 10 party list) for violations by elections workers. It announced that the elections in that district will be held again in mid-January. Thus the total number of allocated seats in this round of elections was 156.

In the individual elections, only four seats were initially determined while fifty went into runoffs the following week. After the runoffs, the victories by Islamist parties were even more impressive. Out of a total of 54 contested seats the FJP won 36, the Nour Party won 5, the Egyptian Bloc won 1, the Wafd Party won 1, ‘Adl Islamic Party won 1, the liberal Free Egypt won 1, independents won 6, and NDP remnants received 3 seats.

With regards to the party lists, each seat was allocated in each province to the party according to its vote totals (each seat equals the total number of votes cast divided by the total number of seats in the province). The remaining seats then follow a remainder formula for allocation, according to the highest vote getter until all seats are allocated. According to conventional wisdom, the total seats that the Islamic parties won in this election was 60-65 per cent. But this author has analyzed the vote results and determined that the total of seats (both individually and party list) that Islamic parties won was in fact 75 per cent as follows:

Islamic Parties: FJP (MB): 77 seats or 50 per cent (36 individual-41 list); Salafist Parties: 33 seats (5 individual-28 list); Wasat and ‘Adl Parties: 7 seats (1 individual-6 lists). Total: 117 (75 per cent).

Other parties: Egyptian Bloc: 13 seats (2 individual-11 list); Wafd Party: 10 seats (1 individual-9 list); Revolution Continues: 2 seats (list); NDP remnants: 8 seats (3 individual-5 list); Independents: 6 seats (individual). Total: 39 seats (25 per cent).

When the scope of the victory by the Islamic parties was announced, the liberal and secular parties sounded the alarm and vowed to unite together in the next rounds. It is not clear what they will do differently since the secular elites and most Copts live in urban areas. Cairo and Alexandria would have given them their best showing.

Meanwhile, SCAF has seen the writing on the wall. It quickly appointed a new Advisory Council consisting of 30 people to advise SCAF and the newly appointed government headed by Dr. Kamal Al-Ganzouri, a former Prime Minister under Mubarak in the late 1990s. The majority of the members in this council represent liberals and secularists. It also included two potential presidential candidates including former Foreign Minister and Arab League Secretary General Amr Mousa, heads of political parties including Wafd, Free Egyptians Party, Wasat, and Al-Nour, as well as other prominent Egyptians. Initially, the FJP agreed to serve but it quickly withdrew claiming that this was an attempt to get around the will of the Egyptian people as expressed in the elections.

This misgiving was not unfounded. The MB was infuriated by the statement of one of the major figures of the military council. As reported in the New York Times, Gen. Mukhtar Al-Mulla, a SCAF member, told Western journalists on Dec. 7 that to “limit the power of the new Parliament that could be dominated by the Islamic parties,” the military planned to “give the newly constituted Advisory Council and the military-appointed cabinet major roles in forming the constitution-writing assembly.” In a major rebuke of the will of the Egyptian people as expressed in their unprecedented high turn-out, and free and fair elections, he declared during the briefing that, “the newly elected Parliament does not represent the will of the broader Egyptian public.”

Meanwhile, senior leaders of the MB including General Guide Dr. Muhammad Badie and his Deputy Khairat Al-Shater declared that the next government must be formed by the largest party in the elected parliament. Yet earlier, SCAF head Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi declared that the military would control the government until the presidential elections are held in June.

If after the elections conclude in January, and the final results hold true as most experts foresee, then a major confrontation in Egyptian streets between SCAF and the Islamic and revolutionary parties is quite possible. If the military takes away the right of the Parliament to appoint the constitution-writing assembly as well as its right to form a new government that was elected by the people, then what exactly was the purpose of the popular elections?

ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at alamin1919@gmail.com