Egypt: The 'change' challenge

The scramble for seats in Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary elections is leading to alliances, animosities and anxiety.

The battle for Egypt's parliamentary seats will not be waged at the general ballot box. In the run-up to the elections - which kick off on November 9 - politicians from the same party have been fighting each other for the chance to run for one of the house's 454 seats. This has led to some strange alliances, and to many candidates leaving their parties and running as independents in their provinces. For the first time in half a century, all this matters. Since Gamal Abdul Nasser led the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in 1952, the Egyptian Parliament has been a toothless body ruled by an autocratic regime and a single party: the National Democratic Party (NDP). And nobody is fooling the voters. In the last parliamentary elections in 2000, only some 5.2 million Egyptians of the 30 million eligible voters turned out to vote. This time it's different. Egypt is undergoing what - for Egypt - is an incredibly fast-paced reform. Whether this is due to foreign (read: US) pressure or to internal (read: skyrocketing unemployment and dangerous dissatisfaction with the regime) pressure, the result is the same - the country is slowly turning the wheels of change. True, these wheels have not been used for years and are grinding noisily from rust. But they are moving nonetheless. And Egyptian politicians are encouraged, because they have greater political freedom. But there is another key factor: the 2011 elections. Unlike Egypt's first multi-candidate presidential elections, which took place in September, the upcoming presidential elections are critical. The recent elections did not give oppositionists enough time to campaign or gain recognition among the public. But over the next six years, whoever gets into parliament will have the chance to show his stuff. And according to a recent constitutional amendment, if a party does not obtain at least five percent of the total parliament seats, it cannot run a candidate. As of yet, no opposition party meets that requirement. The problem is getting Egyptian voters out of their doors and into the voting booths. Most Egyptians are not the least bit savvy in the ways of democracy, mainly because they are not accustomed to it. In the September elections, only 23% of the country's voters turned out. Many said that "it didn't matter; nothing would change," not realizing that if they all voted for someone other than the long-time ruler, President Hosni Mubarak, then something would change. Moreover, many felt scared to vote for someone lacking in extensive political experience. Most opposition politicians are inexperienced because the one-party system never gave them the chance to acquire any experience. The fear is that the voters won't take the opportunity to institute change - that the usual, long-time (and paid) NDP supporters will be the majority of the voters to show up at the polls ensuring, ensuring the party's rule through 2017. To prevent this outcome to the best of their ability, the opposition decided to unite to rid the NDP of its grip on the Parliament. The NDP currently controls 404 of the 454 seats in the house. But the members of the new alliance, the National Front for Political and Constitutional Change, began fighting among themselves as soon as they joined forces a month ago. The leftist Tagammu Party objected to having the Muslim Brotherhood on the ticket. Many in the Muslim Brotherhood objected to the presence of an MB dissident on the ticket. The Nasserists objected to the presence of another Nasserist party, Karama (Dignity), on the ticket. And the Wafd Party leader, Nouman Gomaa, objected to having the Ghad Party - whose leader, Ayman Nour, placed a distant second in the presidential elections - on the ticket. Even the NDP had internal problems. Many members who did not make the cut to be candidates in their region left to run on independent tickets. The result is that 432 candidates are running as independents, most of whom are from the banned but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest opposition force. The parliamentary elections will be conducted in three geographical phases throughout the month of November. Only in December will Egyptians and the world know if the ruling NDP party presidential candidate will have a contender in 2011.