Stubborn polls: Elections likely to be source of further provocation

As he answered questions about the upcoming parliamentary elections over the phone, Mohamed Zakareya, a member of the Popular Alliance in Port Said, was at the cemetery for the burial of those who died during ongoing clashes between protesters, police and military forces.

As Port Said’s civil disobedience continues into its third week, and with renewed bloody clashes, some agree with Zakareya, who says that parliamentary elections slated for April are unlikely to succeed there.

“The people in Port Said will not boycott the elections, they will prevent the elections from happening,” he says. “If ballot stations are set up, they will close them down; if anyone announces their candidacy, [the people] will torment them, considering it a form of treason for the blood of the martyrs.”

People in Port Said and other cities where anti-Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations are taking place were infuriated when, amid the growing protest movement and while victims of the ensuing violence continued to fall, President Mohamed Morsy set the start date for the parliamentary elections for 22 April. The elections and runoffs are expected to be held in four stages over two months.

Observers consider the government’s decision to hold elections, as waves of violence spread in several governorates, a sign of political failure that will lead to a flawed election process and even more bloodshed.

A hostile environment

The wave of protests and violence currently unfolding all over Egypt, now mainly centered outside the capital and in the Delta, began in January. Demonstrations commemorating the second anniversary of the 25 January uprising turned violent in many places, leading to the imposition of a curfew in the canal cities, which, in a further demonstration of the frail security apparatus, was ignored as people thronged the streets.

Since then, the peaks and troughs of the violence in Port Said, Suez, Mansoura, Mahalla, Kafr al-Sheikh and Cairo have seen the death toll rising, security buildings torched and resentment about the state’s disregard growing.

With all this, many scoff at, and reject talk of, parliamentary elections. But there is a precedent to holding a crucial vote in such tumultuous times.

The president pushed the Constitution through in late December amid growing discontent and polarization, and Morsy’s controversial declaration — meant to safeguard the assembly drafting the Constitution and to ensure the decision to hold a rushed referendum could not be challenged — spurred a wave of violent protests.

The interim rulers also held the 2011 parliamentary elections despite violent clashes between security forces and protesters demanding an end to the then-ruling military council’s rule, calling on the generals to swiftly hand over power to civilians. At the time, political groups’ decision to participate in the elections aggrieved those taking part in the street movement, who saw the polls as flawed.

Just six months after being seated, the Supreme Constitutional Court dissolved Parliament.

Azzab Mostafa, member of the Freedom and Justice Party’s supreme authority, says postponing the elections is not possible and denies that the current violence will have any effect on the polls.

“The strikes and violence here and there will not hinder the elections. We’ve had elections before under worse conditions,” he says, referring to the parliamentary elections in 2011.

This time around, however, the mood is palpably more volatile.

“The most effective way to impose security is to have public opinion ready for the elections, which is not the case now,” says security expert Tarek Khedr.

Khedr says the significance of the coming parliamentary elections as the first following the post-revolution Constitution makes it prone to violence due to rising anti-regime sentiment. Coupled with the reigning social congestion and weakened police apparatus, especially in the wake of ongoing clashes, the number of risks will only rise.

Because of the security situation, Khedr says, the Interior Ministry will need the military to help secure the electoral process. But even with its help, he adds, it is vital to reach a resolution for the political crises before the elections — especially Port Said, where people are the most provoked.

According to Turkish news agency Anadolu, a military source said a presidential committee is considering postponing elections in the city.

In fact, Zakareya says, holding elections in a city where every political move by the regime has been met with resentment will be seen as disrespectful of the martyrs and current rage, which could lead to more violence.

As of Monday, five were reported killed and more than 100 injured as a result of the ongoing clashes.

The Port Said situation is unique in that in late January, it was further fueled by the verdict in the trial of last year’s football violence, where more than 70 were killed. A court found 21 of the city’s residents guilty and sentenced them to death, spurring the wrath of residents there and leading to bloody confrontations with security forces.

That was only the first part of the verdict and no security personnel were found guilty, even though many blamed the deaths on what they saw as security forces’ negligence. The second verdict, in which some security officers face charges, is due on 9 March, so it is unlikely that the situation will calm down anytime soon.

Zakareya says that despite the respect and coordination the people of Port Said have shown toward it until now, even the military will not be able to secure the elections.

“The people haven’t clashed with the military because it hasn’t taken a position against them so far. If they try to secure the elections, people will turn against them,” he says. “Neither the police nor the military can control the security situation in Port Said now.”

Meanwhile, some plan to contest the vote, particularly in cities where protests have gone viral.

Mostafa Amin, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement in the Delta governorate of Gharbiya, says public opinion — especially in the city of Mahalla, where clashes have taken place — is not leaning toward holding elections, and calls for a boycott are gaining momentum.

Opposition groups in Gharbiya plan to set up alternative polling stations where boycotters can cast symbolic votes as a sign of their rejection of the elections, Amin says.

Security in the area has deteriorated to a point where safely carrying out elections has become unrealistic.

“The security in Gharbiya is almost nonexistent. Security forces are only focused on cracking down on protesters and are absent in maintaining security. I don’t know how they’ll be able to maintain security during elections,” he says.

Why not postpone?

For his part, Azzab says that while conditions are not perfect, it is important to hold the elections on schedule.

But many observers are baffled by the government’s decision to carry on with election plans. They blame it on short-sightedness and poor judgment, arguing the decision does not translate into significant political benefit for the ruling Brotherhood.

It is not the first time decisions by the ruling powers have been labeled as such.

“I do not think holding elections now will benefit anyone. I think it just shows the government moving forward like a train, without paying attention to its surroundings,” says Mohamed Naeem, a member of the Social Democratic Party.

His party is a member of the opposition’s National Salvation Front (NSF) coalition, which announced it would boycott the elections.

Already holding the legislative authority through its majority in the Shura Council, Naeem argues that the Brotherhood government does not even need to hold elections now.

Still, he adds, the opposition’s boycott will play to the advantage of Islamist powers since it eliminates competition.

Unless the NSF reverses its decision, holding elections amid current violence will keep the opposition out of the race, and inevitably lead to another Islamist-dominated parliament.

Naeem blames both sides: the opposition for boycotting without offering an alternative, and the government for stubbornly holding elections despite an ongoing crisis.

In response to boycott calls, Azzab asks opposition parties to stop providing political cover to those who cause bloodshed, who, he adds, include street children used to instigate violence.

Alaa Abdel Moneim, former parliamentarian and opposition figure, highlights the futility of elections in Egypt’s current climate.

“This is like thinking about what to have for lunch while the house is on fire,” he says.

The government will fail to complete the elections with popular rejection of the polls reining in many governorates, he adds.

Meanwhile, estimates suggest a failed election will cost the state billions of pounds at a time when the economy is deeply suffering.

The government has said it will once again resume negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over a US$4.8 billion loan before the elections. Analysts doubt that a deal will be brokered before a parliament and permanent government are in place.

Other observers say the insistence of the Brothers to hold the polls is based on their recent electoral track record. There have been striking electoral gains in calmer Upper Egypt, which renders the unrest of the Delta and less-populated canal cities relatively less relevant.

“There is no explanation other than that they don’t understand the situation and they are weak in intellect and politics,” says Abdel Moneim.

The election dates, which fail to allow for major political events, reflect Abdel Moneim’s sentiment.

The volatile Port Said, for example, is scheduled to vote in the first stage of the elections. Registration for candidacy will open on 9 March, the same day as the trial verdict.

Abdel Moneim says the government has been prompted to ignore the violent clashes and hold elections regardless by using past elections as an example. The then-government held the first stage of post-revolution parliamentary elections in November 2011, just days after bloody clashes in Mohamed Mahmoud Street left more than 40 dead.

The country’s interim rulers ignored calls to postpone the elections, and they went forward peacefully amid tight security, except for one shooting incident in Monufiya.

“This crisis will pass like many others that the Egyptian state has faced, and we’ll reach safety,” Azzab says. “We would have preferred to have the elections in a quiet atmosphere with the participation of most parties, but we want to go through with the last elections necessary to finish constructing state institutions.”

Abdel Moneim would beg to differ: “They think that it will pass just like it passed before but the situation is different now,” he says.

Related Articles

Back to top button