Egyptians are electing their first parliament since the 2013 coup that overthrew President Morsi. But, Naomi Conrad reports from Cairo, amid a climate of intimidation and repression, many are boycotting the elections.
In the grimy, dimly lit hallway of a crumbling building in downtown Cairo, someone has painted a huge red star on the wall beside the door leading to the headquarters of the Bread and Freedom Party. Beside it are scrawled the defiant words “So here’s to comrades near and far … We stand bloodied, yet unbowed.”
Inside, huge, faded banners declared the party’s unwavering support for Palestine, while a small handwritten note vowed to “plant the seeds of resistance in the ground.”
But, sitting in the bare meeting room, party spokeswoman Mona Ezzat was less defiant. Her party, she told DW, sounding weary, had decided not to field any candidates for Sunday’s elections.
Egyptians are heading to the polls this weekend to elect the country’s first parliament since the army deposed President Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, in 2013. This weekend’s vote is the final step in a transition plan backed by the army, which included the drafting of a new constitution and the 2014 elections that confirmed former army General Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi as president.
“We just don’t have the same chances as those supporting Sissi,” Ezzat, a journalist, said of Bread and Freedom’s decision not to field any candidates for the two-round legislature vote that begins Sunday.
Faced with those odds, Bread and Freedom, which was founded about two years ago and, according to Ezzat, has some 1,000 members and supporters, simply didn’t have the resources to run candidates.
Ezzat said party leaders also feared that activists campaigning for Bread and Freedom might get arrested or attacked. “The streets aren’t safe anymore for political parties that don’t support the regime,” she said. “It’s as if they’re trying to end all opposition.”
The elections are taking place amid a general crackdown on any opposition – in recent months, an increasing number of activists and opposition figures have disappeared or been jailed, and others have left the country. Public criticism of the government is also strongly discouraged, and media, with the exception of a few brave independent outlets, have been supportive of the regime and those candidates who support it.
‘Definitely not free’
Ezzat’s party is not alone in boycotting the elections: None of the key figures that emerged from the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak, such as Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed El-Baradei or former presidential contender Hamdeen Sabahi, are running.
Hussein Magdy, the 22-year-old programs director at the independent Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, said the lack of opposition came from a general assessment that “the elections are not fair and they are definitely not free.”
At a cafe in central Cairo, Magdy said he didn’t think that there would be any fraud: There’s no need for that. Egypt’s electoral system dictates that just over one-fifth of parliamentary seats are allocated through closed party lists – the ticket that gets the majority of votes wins all those seats – and the rest on an individual system. Magdy said such a system clearly favored independent and bigger parties and left little or no room for opposition candidates.
Magdy said he anticipated a “very tame parliament” given that such a system rewards candidates with a pro-government bent and a generally “anti-democratic outlook” who tend to care more about providing favors to their constituencies. Most observers expect the For the Love of Egypt electoral list, which many jokingly refer to as “For the love of Sissi,” to emerge as the big winner.
Review of decrees unlikely
According to Egypt’s new constitution, the parliament has the power to revoke the decrees that Sissi has passed since becoming president in 2014. “I doubt there’ll be any debate on the laws he passed,” Magdy said, “particularly as the speaker of the parliament will most likely be a member of the For the Love of Egypt list.”
Few MPs, Magdy said, would dare touch any of Sissi’s most controversial laws – including a recently passed anti-terror bill that stipulates hefty fines for contradicting the official line when reporting on security operations.
And that is why many of the activists who took to the streets in 2011 just can’t bring themselves to run – or even vote. In an air-conditioned cafe in Cairo’s affluent district of Zamalek, Nouran El Marsafy, shrugged. The 26-year old architect told DW that she wouldn’t be voting in the elections. “I don’t trust the regime,” she said. “It’s not as if we can change the system.” Voting, she added, “just wouldn’t make a difference.”
Around Marsafy, men and women were typing away at their laptops while others chatted over their cappuccinos and lattes. Like so many in Cairo, she had taken to the streets in 2011 to demand the fall of Hosni Mubarak and a more democratic system. Following his ouster, she and her friends had campaigned in the poorer neighborhoods, urging people to exercise their democratic right to vote.
But now, with many of her friends jailed or in exile, Marsafy feels that her vote would make little difference. “There’s just no point,” she said.
On Sunday, Marsafy said, she would go to work, and drive home again, “like it’s just a normal day.”
Heba Farouk Mahfouz contributed to this report.
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