Maspero violence raises doubts over prospects for peaceful elections

Candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections, scheduled to begin on 28 November, are to be announced on Wednesday. Campaigning for the elections will begin a mere three days after at least 25 protesters were killed in bloody violence in downtown Cairo, the tragic outcome of what started as a peaceful protest against a Church demolition in Upper Egypt. 

Eyewitnesses and human rights groups say that on Sunday evening military vehicles intentionally ran over protesters, killing many. Other eyewitnesses say that the military opened fire on protesters. 

The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced yesterday that, despite the clashes, the bloodiest since Mubarak’s resignation in February, they plan to proceed apace with the election timetable.

But for many, the recent violence raises serious doubts about the ability and willingness of Egypt’s military leadership to keep Egypt safe during the sensitive transitional period. It is also a sobering reminder that sectarianism, one of the pre-existing security concerns regarding electoral violence, is as much a concern as ever. 

“It is unconscionable that the SCAF insists on continuing with opening candidacies on the same date, amid widespread Coptic anger, due to the bloodshed, and the general chaotic state in the country, which we hold the interior ministry responsible for,” said Democracy Status Watch (DSW), an offshoot of the local Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, in a statement released today.

Egyptians will be voting in the first parliamentary elections since the dissolution of the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Mubarak’s NDP dominated Egypt’s parliament for 33 years. To maintain that dominance, its members made elections violations the norm. Now, chaos seems to be the only tool at the disposal of those who would like to impede the transition away from the old corrupt regime and its mode of operation. Violations will likely continue this year, but they, like the elections, may become more democratized, analysts say.

The coming parliamentary elections will take place under a new set of electoral laws and a significantly diminished security atmosphere. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) introduced new measures stipulating fines and prison sentences for any candidates or parties that engage in violence, fraud, or campaigning violations. However, as was evidenced by the 9 October incident, the SCAF has proven itself incompetent in imposing the rule of law in a manner that is itself legal. The security situation, as well as the unstable political scene may together lead to higher rates of electoral violence.

According to DSW, the Elections High Commission has no real powers since the SCAF is unilaterally putting forth all election laws and setting the timetables. The statement by the group argues that allowing candidates to submit their names before the implementation of the law banning former NDP members and corrupt officials from the coming elections is also a recipe for disaster.

The November 2010 elections featured some of the most blatant violations in recent memory. Reports of vote-rigging, the physical intimidation of opposition candidates and their campaigners, vote-buying, and procedural violations at polling stations were widespread. Many of these violations occurred under the watchful eye – and sometimes with the helping hand – of the police.

This year the police are likely to play a less active role in electoral violations. However, since 28 January, Egyptian police have yet to return to the streets in full force, raising fears of a less secure electoral environment generally speaking.

“Police will probably continue playing a negative role in elections-related violence this year, while their positive participatory role in the violations in years past may decrease,” said Amr Hashem Rabei, a political analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Rabei believes that countries in a state of democratic transition are more susceptible to election-related violence. “Transitional periods for countries are by nature periods of political and security fluidity. Some will undoubtedly attempt to take advantage of that for political gains,” he said.

The deteriorated security situation only helps aggravate pre-existing conditions that make for high levels of violence in the coming elections. Many Egyptian pundits fear that after the attack on the Maspero protesters, Egypt may be on the brink of an explosion of sectarian conflict. To add to that, tribalism, personality cults, and the tendency of corrupt businessmen to employ illicit tactics to gain the coveted seat — associated with enhanced business prospects — will most likely cast their shadow on the coming elections.

“Violence for personal and ideological reasons, and candidate-on-candidate, may increase,” said Hassan Abu-Taleb, another political analyst at the Al-Ahram Center. He argues that previously, there was a single power that acted as the source of most election irregularities. Now, as they become more disparate, each area may fight a more localized battle for votes.

Tribal tensions have marred elections in the past, especially in Upper Egypt. With weak political parties, it is likely that tribalism will become a more prominent campaign tactic, according to some. “I predict high levels of violence, especially in Qena and Assiut Governorates,” said Saad Aboud, a former Karama Party MP from Beni Suef Governorate. 

Aboud said that previously, the government, its cronies, and the security apparatus harassed opposition candidates and campaigners, but this time, violence may become more localized.

The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces introduced a new law pertaining to parliamentary elections that creates larger constituencies and electoral lists over 60 percent of the voter lists, as opposed to voting for individual candidates.

That might be a problem. “Historically, voting on electoral lists decreases elections-related violence. It is worrying that the military council did not make all the voting on electoral lists,” said Rabei, fearing that there may be widespread violence, in particular over the 30 percent of seats based on individual voting.

Parliamentary elections violence markedly increased after 1990, when Mubarak changed the elections system to one based purely on individual votes, according to a study on electoral violence by Rabei released by the Al-Ahram Center earlier this month. In the 2005 elections, candidates reported 18 cases of death threats, and eight actual murders directly related to the elections, according to the study.

Judges presiding over polling stations also received a worrying decision. For the coming elections, the SCAF has removed their power to call on both the military and police to intervene in cases of violence at polling stations. Now the judges are only allowed to call on the police. This, given the police’s subpar performance lately, is a worrying security concern, Rabei said.

Activists and politicians have called on the popular committees, which were formed to protect neighborhoods during the security vacuum that began on 28 January, to play a role in protecting local polling stations. 

“The youth in the revolution learned that they are able to protect their neighborhoods just as effectively as police if they take the time to organize,” said Aboud.

The elections will also take place under the inhibiting conditions of the Emergency Law, which the SCAF has decided to extended past the original end date of 30 September. The SCAF says the decision is aimed at curbing gun and drug trafficking, as well as acts of extortion and physical intimidation by thugs.

“During Mubarak’s time, the Emergency Law was used to justify many elections violations. The question is, is the SCAF telling the truth when they say the Emergency Law will only be used for the [stated] purposes?” Rabei said. The SCAF or the Interior Ministry may use the current situation to justify amending the Emergency Law to include a broader application allowing them to interfere more directly with the elections.

Besides the existing security conditions, Egypt’s socio-economic situation could lend itself to violence on polling day. 

Egypt has rates of youth unemployment of up to 30 percent in some areas, according to official statistics. Thugs who are used to making money engaging in electoral violence are most likely still unemployed, and experienced in the role.

Prices for election-day thugs in the November 2010 elections varied from LE100 to LE1000 per-day on voting day. A more stagnant political environment and deteriorated security situation mean that young men may be more susceptible to recruitment by the more experienced thugs.

“Given the current situation in Egypt, it’s not a matter of whether or not election violence will happen. The question is, will it escalate?” said Tihana Batrulac-Blanc, a deputy director at the Washington-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems.

Across the political spectrum, major players are calling on the SCAF to switch to a full electoral list system. Rabei also believes that the elections commission must ensure its neutrality as well as introduce limits on campaign spending.

“Before anything else, there must be more oversight on parliament, so that all candidates go in knowing that being a member of parliament is a responsibility and a burden, and not only a source for material gain and diplomatic immunity,” Rabei said.

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