25 November 2010
Dr Maha Azzam
Former Chatham House Expert


Egypt's forthcoming parliamentary elections and presidential elections are particularly significant. President Mubarak, who has ruled the country under emergency law for the past thirty years, is 82 years old and is likely to be succeeded by his son, Gamal. This is unless there is a serious challenge to the regime which could bring together a coalition of political forces and mass unrest.

The US has called on Egypt to allow peaceful political gatherings, open media coverage and international observers in the run up to the parliamentary elections. There is concern that the ongoing political situation, combined with economic grievances, is unsustainable and if ignored likely to destabilize a key ally. Instability in Egypt could affect its role as a key regional player in the Middle East Peace Process and have repercussions on domestic stability among neighbouring states.

Civil society groups have been allowed to monitor the parliamentary vote but the government has refused to allow foreign observers. A history of vote rigging and limited political room to campaign has resulted in a number of opposition parties and political groups calling for a boycott, most notably the Ghad and the April 6 Youth Movement. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the IAEA and now head of the National Coalition for Change, said that 'if the whole population boycotts the elections totally, it will be…the end of the regime'.

Significantly, the liberal Wafd party and the Muslim Brotherhood are participating. The Wafd is fielding over 200 candidates and is mooted to become the largest opposition bloc in parliament. Like other opposition parties it is calling for political and constitutional reform, but it is seen by Mubarak's ruling NDP as preferential to the Muslim Brotherhood which won 20% of seats in parliament in 2005. The participation and possible gains to be made by the Wafd would enhance the NDP's profile and help give some legitimacy to the regime's claims that there is a parliamentary opposition.

The banned Muslim Brotherhood represents the most significant organized political opposition in Egypt and is fielding 130 candidates as independents. It argues that although it knows that the elections are not free and fair it can attempt to challenge and connect with constituencies during the run-up to the polls.

Despite the significant restrictions on the Muslim Brotherhood's activities - with an estimated 1000 members including 8 parliamentary candidates detained ahead of the elections and a quarter of its candidates disqualified - it nevertheless has significant support among a professional constituency and some grassroots influence. ElBaradei found them a useful ally in gathering support for his campaign to collect a million signatures to demand changes to the constitution and an end to emergency law. However, internet campaigns have yet to succeed in channeling online criticism of the regime into a grassroots movement capable of challenging the political system.

The government's heavy handed tactics such as detention without trial and allegations of police brutality have become common place. Ahead of the elections there have been new controls. Nilesat, Egypt's main satellite operator, said that it had shut down twelve channels on grounds of violating broadcasting licenses. Newspaper editors have been removed from their jobs, bloggers and SMS messaging have been restricted.

Although the regime may be able to control the outcome of the polls, it is being challenged, albeit weakly, across a range of political parties and groups which in itself represents a crossroads in Egypt's politics. The degree of discontent has manifested itself through different pockets of opposition, most significantly through workers protests. According to experts, since 2006 Egypt has experienced 1,600 labour protests. Riots may become a feature of economic and social discontent in a country that has become increasingly divided along economic and class lines during the Mubarak era.

In a population where a fifth live on less than $ 1 a day and 30 % are illiterate, the parliamentary election will not inspire participation. However, the elections are likely to increase resentment of an ailing regime and a coterie of vested interests. The challenge to the regime and Egyptian society is how to contain years of seething anger.