Fear of Islamist resurgence, corruption cast shadow on Egypt’s next municipal polls

Party preparations include forming electoral programmes, selection of candidates and training them for public campaigning.
Saturday 13/07/2019
A man rides a bicycle decorated with Egyptian national flags at Qasr al-Nil bridge in Cairo. (Reuters)
Hurdles on the road. A man rides a bicycle decorated with Egyptian national flags at Qasr al-Nil bridge in Cairo. (Reuters)

CAIRO - Political parties in Egypt began preparing for the municipal elections, which are expected this year.

The Egyptian House of Representatives has scheduled discussion on a draft measure that would regulate municipal councils. Enactment of the legislation would lead to elections, the first at that level in more than a decade.

Party preparations include forming electoral programmes, selection of candidates and training them for public campaigning.

“We are taking serious measures to prepare for the elections and will be ready for it whenever its date is decided,” said Tarek al-Kholi, a leader of the Nation’s Future Party, which controls 44% of the seats in parliament.

“We are aware that winning the elections will be a tough job, given the fierce competition we expect to face from other political forces.”

Egypt had municipal elections most recently in 2008. Fear from an Islamist control of municipal councils was among reasons Cairo did not call the elections.

The same fears overshadow preparations for elections now, especially after Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Abbas Qabari said the Brotherhood would allow its members to enter secular political parties, particularly after the dissolution of the Islamist Freedom and Justice Party.

Egypt has cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood since 2013. It dissolved its main political party in late 2014, designated the group a terrorist organisation and froze its funds.

However, Qabari’s statements mean some of those likely to run in municipal elections can be Muslim Brotherhood affiliates.

“It is very possible that Brotherhood members or Islamists will run in the elections with the aim of returning to the political stage,” said Magdi Murshid, a House of Representatives member. “However, we count on the awareness of the Egyptian public and their ability to vote for those who will serve the interests of their country best.”

The bill being debated in parliament would not ban Islamists or Muslim Brotherhood affiliates from running in municipal elections. Islamists, especially those not known to the public, do not carry a tag showing political or ideological affiliations.

The bill would give municipal councils unprecedented powers, including withdrawing confidence from governors, who are appointed by the president, and fire municipality leaders.

Municipal council members usually deal directly with people on the streets, which is why political parties consider the councils an important opportunity to be directly in touch with the general public, introduce themselves and build their popularity.

The Brotherhood built its popularity by offering services neglected by the government, including helping people get subsidised bread and butane gas cylinders and offering free medical care to the poor.

Apart from the competition they expect to face from Brotherhood affiliates, Egyptian political parties face a problem convincing people of the value of the municipal elections.

In Egypt, the municipalities are synonymous with corruption and inefficiency. Municipalities have been unable to find solutions to very simple problems, including collection of trash, providing poor districts and villages with sewage and potable water and preventing destruction of farmland.

Corruption in the municipalities is manifest in the large number of financial and administrative irregularities discovered by supervisory authorities.

Millions of Egyptians remember Zakaria Azmi, a chamberlain under President Hosni Mubarak, who in 2008 told parliament that the municipalities were up to their knees with corruption. Azmi, himself, was accused of corruption when Mubarak was deposed in 2011. He turned out to have amassed a huge amount of wealth in an unlawful manner.

In July 2016, parliament Speaker Ali Abdel A’al, accused Egypt’s officials under previous regimes of ignoring corruption in the municipalities.

The corruption scourge has created a barrier between ordinary people and the municipalities, one that will not be broken easily by political parties, observers said.

“The municipalities and corruption were one and the same thing for many years,” said Farida al-Naqqash, a senior member of the leftist Unionist Progressive Party. “This is why few people have confidence that they can do anything good.”