Alexandria–On a fairly sedate Friday afternoon in Ramleh Station, it was obvious that elections were in the air. But sometimes, depending on where you looked, it was difficult to tell just who was running for what.
Campaign banners and posters hung from many of the downtown balconies and lampposts, advocating multiple candidates in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. They were all outnumbered by an overwhelming majority of dark green posters championing a candidate who hasn’t announced his candidacy in an election still a year away.
“Gamal Mubarak: We chose you and pledge you our loyalty and support you for president of the republic,” the signs declare.
Alexandria-based journalists say no one is quite sure who paid to blanket the city with Gamal-for-President posters earlier this month. But their appearance here in the midst of a parliamentary race seems somehow fitting.
It feels like a message that whatever happens on Sunday is just a place-setter for the larger question framing Egypt’s future: Who will run for President next fall and who will rule Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak, 82 and in indeterminate health, leaves the stage?
The actual democratic value of Sunday’s vote seems a little dubious. No one doubts that Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) will maintain its dominance over the People’s Assembly. The only real question seems to be whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood will be able to hang on to its 20-percent opposition bloc.
All signs so far point to the Brotherhood losing as many as half of those seats. But even if the group somehow emerges at the same strength, the last five years have proven that even a vibrant Brotherhood parliamentary presence has only the ability to harass and annoy the government, but not actually stop it from doing anything.
After all, the Brotherhood’s impressive victories in the last parliamentary elections in 2005 didn’t stop the government from ramming through controversial constitutional amendments two years later, which among other things removed the judges from Egypt’s polling stations.
So in the absence of tangible democratic value, perhaps it’s best to view Sunday’s vote as an informative test of strength for Egypt’s primary political players. Based on the run-up to the election, it’s a test the government seems determined to decisively win.
The past week has witnessed an impressive government crackdown on Brotherhood political activists, with Alexandria being one of the main flashpoints. More than 100 supporters of incumbent Brotherhood MP Sobhi Saleh ended up in jail earlier this week after police attempted to break up a public march, prompting a brief but violent clash.
“The security forces are treating us like criminals at every opportunity,” Saleh told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
The crackdown has already had the desired effect of forcing Saleh to scale back his public campaign activities. Public marches, for example, have been completely eliminated in favor of much more low-key campaigning.
“I only walk around with three or four people now, like I’m out running errands,” Saleh said.
However, he predicted—perhaps a little optimistically—that the government’s tactics would backfire and rally casual supporters to his cause.
“The people sympathize with me more than ever. They can see the conspiracy,” Saleh said. “The people hate the NDP and hate the government.”
The government’s moves to hinder the Brotherhood’s campaign activities aren’t necessary a uniform policy for every district. For example, this reporter witnessed an open campaign march through the streets of Shubra Al-Kheima earlier this week by incumbent Brotherhood MP Mohammed Beltagui. The 50-strong contingent of chanting sign-waving Beltagui supports was permitted to march openly with no apparent interference from the police or security services.
Asked why police seemed to be focusing on his campaign, Saleh said the crucial difference was his opponent: former Alexandria governor and current Minister of Local Development Abdel Salaam Mahgoub.
“In Egypt, ministers don’t lose,” Saleh laughed. “It’s against the law.”
The pre-election strong-arm tactics have already drawn the ire of the international community. Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a damning 24-page report earlier this week alleging “mass arbitrary arrests, wholesale restrictions on public campaigning, and widespread intimidation of opposition candidates and activists” by the state.
"The combination of restrictive laws, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests is making it extremely difficult for citizens to choose freely the people they want to represent them in parliament," said Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director. "Repression by the government makes free and fair elections extremely unlikely this weekend."