Non-political groups set to influence Egypt’s parliamentary polls

As in previous parliamentary elections, non-political groups will largely determine who the winners will be in Egypt’s parliamentary elections on Sunday by capitalizing on their grass-roots networks and mobilization capacities.

In Alexandria, Minister of Administrative Development and NDP candidate for the district of Al-Raml Abdel Salam Mahgoub appealed to both Muslim and Christian constituencies in order to garner the support needed to beat his Muslim Brotherhood rival.

This week, prominent Muslim preacher Amr Khaled was invited by Mahgoub’s campaign to deliver a religious sermon in Al-Raml in a move that was seen by his brotherhood rival, Sobhy Saleh, as a “cheap ploy” aimed at wooing devout Muslim voters.

“Mahgoub campaigners could have simply distributed election pamphlets for their candidate,” Khaled, who has been barred from preaching in Egypt for the last eight years, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. 

Mahgoub, a former governor of Alexandria, also managed to garner the endorsement of the city’s churches.   

“Mahgoub has our support because he has a close personal relationship with the pope,” a papal source close to Coptic Pope Sehnouda III told Al-Masry Al-Youm on condition of anonymity. “But this doesn't mean that the church is interfering in politics or the parliamentary race."

In Egypt’s highly depoliticized scene, where political parties have been deprived for decades from establishing grass-roots networks and mobilizing support, religious institutions have grown increasingly important in terms of mustering support for particular candidates.  

Religious groups and big businesses, on the other hand, often act as “mediators,” which not only endorse candidates but also provide them with expansive campaign infrastructure.

The Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, for example, complains that authorities have arrested more than 1200 of their campaigners–including eight candidates–in the last few weeks before parliamentary polls.  

Experts also believe that the ruling National Democratic Party likewise relies heavily on these grassroots institutions, rather than appealing to voters’ sense of party loyalty or political orientation.

The Church

The growing Islamization of Egypt, coupled with the decline in secular political parties within the last three decades, has left the Coptic Church as the Christians’ primary political body.

The church has been in the spotlight recently for a number of reasons, including its support for Mahgoub and its recent reception of a Wafd Party delegation at the Church of the Virgin St. Abanoud in the Nile Delta city of Banha.

“From a papal perspective, the church only has a stated political endorsement during presidential elections in favor of President [Hosni] Mubarak,” said Samir Soliman, political science professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC). “Local churches sometimes may try to leverage their position by choosing candidates who may be better for their community, and they're not always Christians.”

Other experts, however, believe the papal office plays a more central role in terms of negotiating Coptic demands with the government.

“In the upcoming elections, the pope interfered to push for certain candidates in some electoral districts,” said Ashraf al-Sherif, an AUC political science lecturer.

Last month, media reports suggested that Shenouda had asked Christian businessman Ramy Lakah to change the electoral district in which he was registered from the Azbakiyya neighborhood to Shubra so that he would avoid running against another Coptic contender for the same district.  

Sufi orders

Though traditionally known for their apolitical orientations, Egyptian Sufi orders have managed to mobilize thousands of supporters in previous parliamentary elections.   

The NDP, meanwhile, has been able to ally itself with extensive networks of over 78 Sufi orders, comprised of over five million adherents. 

“The Sufis were politically frozen since the July 1952 revolution and their [political] infrastructure has since been largely seconded in support of the NDP,” said Middle East Studies and Research Center Director Ammar Ali Hassan. 

Given the Sufi orders’ secrecy and oaths of loyalty, NDP candidates only need to secure the support of the sheikh–or leader–of a certain Sufi order to ensure the support of his followers. 

“Opposition groups have largely ignored them, while the NDP has protected them from Salafis, who accuse them of heresy,” Hassan said. "So they have mostly remained loyal to the NDP."

Hassan also brought to light a potential break from the Sufis' normal support for the NDP, noting that Sheikh Alaa Abou Alazayem of the Azayemya Sufi order had stated his intention to run against parliamentary speaker and NDP stalwart Fathi Surour in the Sayyeda Zaynab district. 

“This is a marked departure from the norm; a statement from a prominent Sufi sheikh that they would not be quiet when their grievances are ignored,” said Hassan.

Big Business

Businessmen have always entered elections, deploying their money and position as large-scale employers to bolster their political campaigns. The likes of Ahmed Ezz, Tarek Talaat Moustafa and Mahmoud Osman have consistently existed on Egypt's political plane. The number of businessmen running in elections, however, has increased at an alarming rate over the past 15 years. 

“Government mechanisms supporting a wide range of NDP candidates has weakened, and so many more businessmen are running and using their resources for outreach instead,” said Soliman. Families with business interests will give handouts and perks to their employees while urging them to support them or their desired candidates, he noted.

The NDP has been accused of trying to influence employees of public-sector companies. “They don’t always specify certain candidates, but public companies will send their employees on vacations and give little perks around election time,” Soliman said. The intention, he noted, is to instill a sense of loyalty to the ruling party, which, after all, runs the government that runs these companies. 

The most recent of such instances comes amid allegations that the government-run Eastern Company, which specializes in tobacco products, was handing out free cigarettes to encourage people to vote for NDP candidates. Trade and Investment Minister Rachid Mohamed Rachid was moved to issue a reminder to company officials to “maintain neutrality” throughout the elections.

Minister of Petroleum Sameh Fahmy has also been able to garner the loyalty of the vast petroleum companies that fall under his ministry’s direct supervision. Many of his numerous campaign ads in the Nasr City/Heliopolis district were openly sponsored by these companies.

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