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The 2020 House elections: Opposition parties divided over participation

The two-stage voting process for the House of Representatives that divides the country into two 14-governorate blocs in which eligible voters inside and out of Egypt to elect their local MPs, began on Tuesday, October 21. The 568-seat chamber is convened through a mixed closed-slate and independent electoral system.

The closed-slate system is dominated by the Unified National List, headed by the pro-regime Nation’s Future Party. The three other competing lists include the Independent Alliance, Call of Egypt and Sons of Egypt, composed mostly of public figures and independents.

Figures close to the authorities are competing over independent seats, some of which are seeing upwards of 50 candidates battling over the two seats in a single electoral district.

In this context, some parties who are less connected to the authorities, and who are considered what’s left of the paling democratic movement in the country, are taking part in the elections in different ways, but for similar reasons.

The Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Justice Party and the Reform and Development Party, all considered opposition parties, have joined the 13-party Unified National List, also dubbed the “For the Sake of Egypt List,” which was crudely cobbled together by Nations Future and the security apparatus.

Meanwhile, a loose coalition of self-described democratic groups announced on Sunday its support of 20 candidates for the individual seats.

Members of political parties without close relationships to the regime authorities who chose to take part in the elections are “expecting” that some of their imprisoned members will be released after the new House is elected.

Several opposition party members and independent politicians were arrested in June 2019 for attempting to put together the “Coalition for Hope” that aimed to field candidates in the current parliamentary elections. They face charges of joining terrorist groups among other charges.

Yet no clear timeline has been given regarding the potential release of these party members.

Meanwhile, there is a shortlist of names whose release seems more unlikely than others, an opposition party member told Mada Masr. These include the names of young and popular politicians who have a demonstrated ability to organize and mobilize support and who are able to gather “protest votes,” which manifested in the 2019 vote on constitutional amendments that gave more power to the president and the military.

More broadly, according to Abdel Azim Hammad, of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, opposition participation in the election reflects the need for political parties to “stay alive” and to avoid “political dilapidation.”

The set-up of the current elections might be suggestive of a “measured” inclusion of opposing voices by the regime, as put by some of those partaking in the process. This relative level of competition was absent in the Senate elections held in August, in which the National List for Egypt, led by the Nation’s Future Party, fielded its candidate lists unchallenged to gain all the seats available across all four of the list districts.

According to an aide to an independent candidate in Upper Egypt, there have been “reassurances from the security agencies (which organize the elections) that the state would not put its weight behind candidates who are contesting for the independent seats.”

“I think there is an awareness from the regime that it can now afford to move in the direction of political pluralism having overcome the most difficult years where it was facing serious security threats,” political analyst Gamal Abdel Gawad told Mada Masr. “The regime seems to be more confident today.”

This confidence, Gawad argues, comes from the fact that the threat of terror attacks has been largely eliminated and that the current regime has secured the support of the international community.

There is also the argument that a slightly more inclusive electoral process is a response to what is perceived by some top executives as citizens’ discontent.

Small-scale protests erupted in Cairo and Upper Egypt on September 20, one year after a contractor turned political opponent in self-imposed exile made a call for protests against the regime.

“I think the regime is clearly sensitive about those demonstrations and although we don’t think that they are in any way significant, we do feel they are making the regime worried,” a Cairo-based European diplomat told Mada Masr.

According to the aide to the independent Upper Egypt candidate, “they want to allow people to let off steam through the ballot boxes in some places — especially those districts in Upper Egypt that saw rare demonstrations against the regime in September.”

An informed government source told Mada Masr there have been directives to the government to ease a recent set of regulations related to the demolition of informal buildings and constructions, causing some public anger.

“We have seen the demolitions slow down as well as significant reductions in reconciliation fees. This was done on presidential orders,” the source said.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who had initially warned that the state has the capacity to take down every single illegally constructed building, later said that this would not mean that people would be put on the street without alternative housing.

But for Amin Iskandar of the Karama Party, which opted not to partake in the elections, the regime needs a “political facade” to cover for its socio-economic policies that have fallen short of the people’s expectations. Rather than qualifying the relative openness of the regime to parties distant from it in having seats in the upcoming House as a form of political plurality, Iskandar describes the regime as rather “apolitical.”

Yet, Abdallah al-Sennawi, a commentator who once enjoyed considerable in-roads in the regime before falling out of favor due to his vocal criticisms of the same, supports opposition parties running in the elections, citing the 25-30 Alliance of independent MPs in the outgoing House and the role they played in challenging some policies.

This is precisely why independent Alexandrian MP Haitham al-Hariri is participating in the current elections for the individual seats: “to keep trying to push the line.”

During the course of his five years in Parliament, however, Hariri admitted that he was defeated more often than not, especially on major political issues that he wished to defend. Still, “being there is better than nothing,” he says.

In a similar vein, Tamer Sehab, an independent candidate, is hoping to challenge the fact that people are giving up on politics by partaking in the elections.  A founding member of the Egypt Freedom Party that saw the light of the day in the wake of the 2011 revolution, Sehab is well aware that it is no easy task to engage voters who have decided to abandon political participation out of comfort or dismay. “It would just be defeatist not to try,” Sehab says.

Sehab is not delusional about his chances when he is competing with other candidates with close associations with the political establishment. But for him, “when we narrow the gap between the votes that a candidate who has unconditional support from the authorities get and those votes that a candidate who is working on his own gets, we are sending a message that there is a constituency with different views and that this constituency wants its voice to be heard.”

However, opposition candidates in lists put together by the Civil Democratic Movement, however, didn’t make the final register, nominally due to technicalities.  Other individual and list candidates were also rejected, with the NEA clarifying that all those who didn’t make the cut had failed to meet the necessary qualifying criteria.

The final results are expected to be announced by December 14.

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