11/23/2011, 00.00
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A thousand parties running in Egypt’s first (possibly) free elections

by André Azzam
Thousands of young people continue to protest in Tahrir Square against the military supreme council. Yesterday, General Tantawi accepted the resignation of PM Sharaf and his cabinet but is not planning to give up power. Egyptian expert André Azzam looks at the difficult pre-election situation in a country that has no history of free and fair elections. A victory by Islamist parties haunts many Egyptians, especially Copts. Clashes in Alexandria result in one death.
Cairo (AsiaNews) – Thousands of people continue to defend Tahrir Square despite the announcement by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that a new civilian government would be soon installed.

Yesterday, General Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Sharaf and his cabinet, promising fresh presidential elections by July of next year. Demonstrators remain sceptical however. They reiterated their intention to occupy Tahrir Square indefinitely unless the SCAF was disbanded. General Tantawi has instead indicated his intention to stay in power. On Tuesday, he said the military was ready to leave power “immediately if the people wanted in a public referendum”.

Meanwhile, soldiers and demonstrators have clashed again this morning, with scores of injured and one dead in Alexandria.

A few days before Sunday’s election, the situation remains uncertain and confused in the country. Christians fear an Islamist victory, led by the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, who are gaining ground, especially in rural areas, because of better organisation and funding. Pro-democracy parties are price for their divisions and their lack of a leader.

The first post-Mubarak elections are also overshadowed by the ambiguous relationship between religion and state, a typical feature of Muslim countries. Recently, some imams have issued fatwas urging voters not to vote for Christian candidates or former cronies of the Mubarak regime.

The following is an analysis of the situation by Egyptian expert André Azzam.

Many voices are calling for a postponement of Egypt’s elections. The Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), who has held state power since the fall of former president Mubarak, has instead said that elections would be held on fixed the date. Some rumours suggest however, that recent police violence was aimed forcing a postponement. Sunday night, the Council of ministers stated that the elections would be held as scheduled.

In fact, the first stage in parliamentary elections are set for 28 November in Cairo, Alexandria, Damietta, Kafr al-Shaykh (Delta), Port Said, Fayyoum, Assiout, Luxor and the Red Sea in four stages, each followed by a second turn a week later, until mid-January. Elections for the Consultative Council (Senate) would follow in February and March. The two chambers should then set up a special commission to formulate a new Constitution for Egypt’s second republic.

Everybody in the country is waiting for this crucial new experience in election to shape the future of the country, hoping for a true democratic vote that allows civilians to take over the State and run the country. A large number of political parties are trying to win the largest share in order to have the weight to write the new Constitution. Islamic religious parties clearly intend to impose their concept of an Islamic country. To their credit, they have a good organization and a lot of money to cover their expenses. This is why observers and well-informed sources think they will probably win about 40 per cent of the seats, and come out ahead of other parties.

By and large, Islamic religious parties are divided between the Muslim Brotherhood, which created the Liberty and Justice Party, and ‘Salafists’, proponents of a return to the origins of Islam, who have set up parties called ‘al Nour’ (Light), ‘al Asala’ (Genuine Origin) and ‘al Fadila’ (Virtue ).

The two religious tendencies completely reject the idea of a secular society. They have put great pressures on the current government to adjust the text of its ‘Document for Constitutional Principles’ in order to replace the term ‘civil society’, which they confuse with secularism, with the term ‘democratic society’. In fact, ‘civil society’ was used in opposition to the idea of ‘military rule’.

Compared to Salafist groups, the Muslim Brotherhood appears quite moderate. Salafists openly state that Christians should not be allowed to vote or serve in the military. Instead, they should be forced to pay the Jizya, a poll tax imposed on non-Muslims in Muslim societies.

They have even stated that all ancient statues should be either covered or destroyed. One of their members recently said that the Bibliotheca Alexandrina should be torn down and replaced by a huge mosque. Women candidate running on Salafist tickets have put the picture of a rose instead of their own faces, leading one newspaper to ponder on the fact that Egyptians are now asked “to vote for plants”.

At the same time, only 120 Christians are running for office, an infinitesimally small number of candidates against the thousands trying to be elected. Most of them are on the ‘al Kotla al Masriyya’ list (Egyptian Bloc), an electoral alliance of the Free Egyptians Party of Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris, leftwing ‘Tagammu’ (Rally) party and the Egyptian Democratic Party.

Facing them is the Democratic Alliance, which includes the Freedom and Justice Party set up by Muslim Brotherhood, the (Nasserist) Dignity (Karama) Party, and el-Ghad (Tomorrow) party. Only three Copts are running under their banner.

The Wafd party has 22 Coptic candidates in its list, while the Reform and Development Party, founded by the Christian businessman Rami Lakah, is running three Coptic candidates. The Centrist Party has two Coptic candidates.

Christian candidates include Rami Lakah, activist George Is-hâk (founder of the Kefaya movement), political researcher Emad Gad, leftist Amin Iskandar, leader of the Dignity Party, Dr Ihab al Kharrat, the lawyer Ihab Ramzi and Mamdouh Nakhla.

The different liberal parties include the old Wafd Party, which has candidates in the constituencies, the Free Egyptians Party, who is present in 46 constituencies through the Egyptian Bloc. There is also the Freedom Egypt Party, founded by Dr Amr Hamzawy, with only 18 candidates. The Democratic Front Party is running 133 candidates.

Liberal parties lack strong popular figures and political support, but they are backed by liberal businessmen and Copts who are afraid that Islamist might take a majority of seats.

There are also leftwing parties, like, the old ‘al-Tagammu’ (Rally), in the Egyptian Bloc, as well as recently created leftist parties like the Communist Party, at the extreme left of the political map, or the National Harmony Party.

In addition, we find national Nasserist parties like the Nasserist Party, the Dignity Party, allied to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party and the Arab Nasserist Party, as well as the Socialist Popular Party.

The chances of success for all those small parties are quite limited because of their limited political appeal, in spite of their speeches and ideas, which try to draw support among the poorest echelons of the population. They also lack strong charismatic figures with an impact on public opinion, except for well-known Hamdeen al Sabahy, founder of the Dignity Party.

All the parties have been using all possible legal and not so legal legal means to discredit their rivals. Many fatwas have been issued and used as weapons in this competition.

For instance, the General Secretary of Islamic Propaganda in al Azhar has issued a fatwa against voting for any former members of Mubarak’s former National Democratic Party who might run in the upcoming elections. At the same time, he also banned people from marrying anyone from the former ruling party because of their dishonesty towards the nation.

A Salafist sheikh issued a fatwa against voting for “secularists, liberals and the Copts”, calling such a vote a sin and high treason.

Some Coptic associations think Copts should boycott the elections, viewing them as plot between the SCAF and the extremist fundamentalist Islamic movements to keep away Copts away from the poll.

This attitude has increased since the Maspero incident of 9 October when 26 Christians were killed. In fact, Ramy Kamel, general secretary of the Maspero Youth Federation, said, “For young Copts, recent confessional incidents have sent a clear message that there is no place for Copts in the next stage in Egypt.”

Copts have certainly felt disillusioned, especially when these events followed numerous meetings all over the country to convince Christians to take part in the elections instead of keeping their negative attitude of before. Churches and Christian leaders are still trying to persuade Christian masses to participate in the elections.

Recently, a scientific Coptic agency published a thorough study on the number of Christians in Egypt based on demographic data provided by the thousands of churches that belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, as well as the Catholic and the various Protestant Churches.

According to the research, the Christian population in Egypt is as high as 17.1 million. Many other specialists believe that numbers are not that important since all Egyptians are equal in rights in a democracy in terms of political responsibility, human dignity and liberty.

On the other hand, many fundamentalist and radical movements act as if they wanted to exclude Copts, after attempts at a positive dialogue between Muslim Brotherhood and Coptic representatives failed.

A sociology professor at Cairo University explains that Egyptian voters have never cast their ballots in free and fair elections. In the past, barely 30 per cent of eligible voters voted because they were paid to do so. In some occasion, voters arrived at polling stations just to find their ballot had already been cast.

A psychologist at Al Azhar Islamic University agrees. Egyptian voters are usually moved by emotions, and his tribal or religious affiliation.

Many political experts find also that the new constituencies created by the SCAF, which are not based on geographic or demographic (density) criteria, have the potential representativeness of the new parliament at the expense of women, Copts and young people. Under the dual system of election peasants and workers are given a prominent place but this favours traditional forces, remnants of the old regime and rich people.

Less than a week before the elections, the situation is quite worrying. No one can predict how events will unfold. As demonstrators continue to face off the SCAF regime, under a weak unelected government with still powerful security apparatus, there is a sinking feeling that nothing has changed since last January and that Egypt is back to square one.
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