Student union electoral system reflects a highly politicized process

As Egypt’s student union elections reach their end, independents and opposition groups have achieved surprising victories against the veteran Muslim Brotherhood student movement. But a flawed electoral system, critics say, has led to an overly politicized process, which has lent itself to partisanship, effectively alienating university student bodies.

The complicated electoral process is divided into five stages, in which university students only elect their representatives directly in the first stage. Afterward, the rest is decided through political and partisan deals.

In the first stage, students from each year elect committee members within their year and faculty. This is the only point at which students are entitled to directly elect their representatives.

In the second stage, these committee members elect a secretary general and deputy secretary for their committee. The same applies to all years and faculties.

The elected leaders of the different year’s committees, in the third stage, elect the secretary general and deputy secretary for the entire faculty’s student union.

In the fourth stage, the secretary general and deputy secretary of the university’s different faculties then elect committees for the university-wide student union, who in turn elects the secretary general and deputy secretary of the university’s student union.

Those elected in the fifth stage automatically form the nationwide Egyptian Student Union, or ESU, which includes figures from all Egyptian state and private universities as well as Al-Azhar University.

A politicized and partisan system

“The university’s electoral system is very stratified. It deprives students from directly electing their representatives at all levels,” argues Mohamed Nagui, a researcher in the academic freedoms program at the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression.

Nagui argues that such a system does not reflect, but rather contradicts the electoral patterns of students who voted in the first stage.

“If we take Minya University as an example, we’d see that independent students who allied with non-Islamist students won 68 percent of the vote, while the Brotherhood won 30 percent of the votes. Yet the Brotherhood managed — through political deals — to convince those independents to vote for them in the fifth stage. This allowed Brotherhood students to win the post of secretary general in the university’s student union,” he explains.

He further adds that most of the process is controlled by political deals among the students, regardless of what skills they may have to fulfill the position’s duties.

“In this regard, Brotherhood students are the best equipped. They know how to make these deals,” he explains.

Mohamed Sarhan, a member of Ain Shams University’s student union, agrees, adding that the new bylaws passed by the Brotherhood-controlled ESU last year further enhanced such a flawed system.

“We demanded that changes be made to the electoral system in the bylaws, but the Brotherhood refused, because this conflicts with their interests,” he states. “If students could directly elect the secretary general and deputy secretary of the unions, the Brotherhood would not have managed to win any seats.”

The results of the first stage indicate this, the student, who belongs to the liberal Dostour Party, adds.

“[The Brothers] are not popular among wider student circles,” he says.

A representative from the Brotherhood student movement was not available for comment.

Sarhan says the Brotherhood manages to conduct political deals successfully with independents, who are easily roped in by the Islamist group’s promises.

“Brotherhood students would ask independents to help them vote in a secretary general of a certain student union, while in exchange they would promise to help them vote in the deputy secretary, for example,” he adds.

Politically affiliated students, Sarhan says, had to resort to the same tactics to prevent the Brotherhood from winning control that they do not deserve.

The formation of the ESU reflects a topsy-turvy reality divorced from the results of the initial stage, as Brotherhood members, using partisan deals, managed to maintain a firm presence.

The Brotherhood won 17 seats, including two from Al-Azhar University; independents supported by non-Islamist students won 19; the liberal Dostour Party won two; the Life Makers Movement, affiliated with preacher Amr Khaled’s Egypt Development Party, won two; Salafis won two; and the Strong Egypt Party, led by former Brotherhood member and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh, won one.

Student movements affiliated with certain political parties must register in the university as “families,” as political parties are forbidden from running as such.

Nevertheless, the independent students are rising as a swing power that has shown an ability to balance the political competition between Islamists and non-Islamists.

The student union elections this year demonstrated strong turnout levels by typically apolitical students, making independent students the biggest bloc in the ESU.

Students before the uprising and even over the past year refrained from participating in the union elections. They neither contested the elections nor voted, but now they are fully engaging in the entire process.

Islam Fawzy, president of Helwan University’s student union and an ESU member, believes independent students’ participation was a reaction to the Brotherhood domination in previous elections.

“We witnessed what happened during the drafting of the new bylaws last year. Our participation is a reaction to the flawed drafting process that favored one political group,” he says. “We intend to amend the bylaws through a democratic process, and we will show the student community that we will change the bylaws to suit their interests, not our own.”

However, he believes the process will always be politicized, no matter how much electoral laws are amended, saying “politics are an essential part of student life.”

“We are in post-uprising Egypt. Elections in Egypt, wherever we are, will be controlled by politics. We cannot avoid this,” he adds.

Student success: A lesson for older politicians?

Campus politics has seen broader nationwide political struggles play out in recent student elections, reflecting broader tensions rather than localized student politics, and paving the way for radical political changes in the country’s future. University students believe there is much to be learned from the success of anti-Brotherhood movements on campus.

Student success in creating coalitions and shaking the Brotherhood’s tight grip on student unions further reflects a disparity between the student opposition and the broader political opposition, which continues to fail in electorally challenging the Brotherhood.

Opposition groups have repeatedly demanded the postponement of parliamentary elections since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak two years ago, arguing, among other things, that the political climate was not conducive to elections or that more time was needed to form competitive parties.

The oppositional umbrella group, the National Salvation Front, decided to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections due to what it described as the lack of guarantees to conduct free and fair elections.

“The same conditions existed in the student unions elections,” Sarhan says.

The bylaws were unilaterally drafted by the Brotherhood and the electoral environment did not encourage opposition students to participate, he says.

“But we decided to organize, form our coalitions and do our best to win,” says Sarhan.

Fawzy, who ran in the student union elections as an independent, believes there is more to the issue.

“University students are anti-authoritarian by nature,” Fawzy says, adding that the students’ youth makes them thirstier for change and more open to revolutionary ideas than the broader public.

“Students were not easy prey for the Brotherhood’s religious propaganda. Plus, they aren’t easily seduced by oil and sugar,” Fawzy argues, referring to accusations that the Brotherhood expands its charitable activities in poor neighborhoods prior to elections to win votes.

He argues that secular politicians have to deal not only with a flawed electoral system, but also with a complicated and corrupt political climate in which the masses’ political awareness is very low.

“If we add this to the initial failure of these political parties to connect with the public — due to their politically elitist nature — we are faced with a complicated situation, in which it is much easier for the Brotherhood to win,” Fawzy adds.

Sarhan agrees, arguing that the reason students are more successful than politicians is that students are more active and connected with their electoral base.

“Unlike [university students], political parties — including Dostour, which I’m a member of — are predominantly controlled by the political elite, who are unwilling to interact with the masses,” he states.

They are intellectuals, but “do not know how to speak the language of the street,” he says.

“They stay in their air-conditioned and closed rooms. But we, as students, work with the student community,” he adds.

Sarhan believes that if students and younger generations can get into the decision-making circles of these parties, things would drastically change.

“But the older political elites are more concerned with political deadlocks inside their parties,” he says.

Sarhan thinks it will take time for the revolution to produce its own caliber of young politicians who can take the lead within these parties.

Student union elections are proof that the future is in the capable hands of younger generations, he asserts: “We just need some time.”

This piece was originally published in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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