In Cairo’s Garbage City — as with many other places in Egypt — there is little optimism about the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. “We don’t know anybody. We only know Mubarak,” says Hani Shanouda, a 26 year-old member of Cairo’s 60,000-strong Coptic Christian garbage collecting community, the Zabbaleen. Like many others in this slum, Shanouda will most likely not be voting on either ballot.
In Egypt’s current situation it is increasingly difficult to discern between those who did not vote as a political statement and those who stayed away from the polls for other reasons. In 2005’s parliamentary elections, less than nine million Egyptians voted — representing almost a third of registered voters but only about 11 percent of Egypt’s population of 77.5 million at the time. The presidential elections that year saw only seven million go to the polls.
There are a number of reasons why Egyptians don’t vote. A lifetime of rigged elections and quasi-dictatorship makes voting seem inconsequential — Egypt’s young population means that, like Shanouda, the majority of Egyptians have never experienced a regime other than Mubarak’s and his National Democratic Party, which have ruled since 1981. Also, with 40 percent of the country living on less than $2 per day, simply putting food on the table often trumps political concerns.
A boycott of November 28th’s parliamentary polls has been urged by Nobel Prize winner and former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei. He returned to Egypt with political ambitions earlier this year and says a poor show at the polls will expose the fraudulent nature of the country’s elections and spur democratic reform.
However, ElBaradei has been accused of being out of touch with Egypt’s masses. Calls for a boycott could give these accusations credence, showing that ElBaradei’s brand of opposition is more akin to the flash-in-the-pan, internet-based, intellectual-driven opposition groups composed of the upper and middle classes, such as the ‘April 6 Movement’ that caused a small stir in 2008. While Western observers may applaud ElBaradei’s calls for a boycott as a brave step toward democracy, it could prove entirely detrimental to his movement and leave him on the outskirts of Egypt’s political arena.
Attempts by ElBaradei’s National Coalition for Change to get the country’s numerous opposition groups onto the same page have been hindered by the Muslim Brotherhood, who will field their own candidates in November’s elections. With the group still officially banned by the Egyptian government, Brotherhood candidates have run as independents in the past and currently hold 88 out of 454 seats in parliament, making the Islamist party the strongest officially-represented opposition movement in the country.
Unlike ElBaradei, the Brotherhood is more in touch with ordinary Egyptians and has built much of its support base through providing community services to those ignored by the state. While remaining cautious in the political realm the Brotherhood has still managed to make significant political gains, as evidenced by the number of seats it occupies in parliament.
For any opposition groups though, the election cycle — which starts this month — will be an uphill battle. The Egyptian government has already begun cracking down on dissenters, arresting many Brotherhood members in recent weeks. In October, the government announced that companies that send out mass text messages would require a license — a blow to the opposition, which relied heavily on SMS to mobilize supporters in a country where 60 million people have mobile phones. Despite calls for election monitors from Egyptian civil society actors, the United States and other international entities, it looks unlikely that any such measures will be taken.
Whatever the media hype, anti-Mubarak protests this year have been small and tame compared to the tens of thousands of demonstrators that ground Cairo to a standstill in years past. In this atmosphere, prospects for opposition gains remain slim, and thus it is unlikely that any real change will happen in Egypt soon.
Still, with next year’s presidential elections likely to be a wash (in 2005, Mubarak won a whopping 88.6 percent of a vote widely regarded as rigged), this month’s parliamentary elections are the best shot opposition groups have at making any real gains in the near future.
JOSH WOOD is a
freelance journalist based in Beirut