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Elections in Assiut: Back to the old days?
 
 

Assiut — Arriving at the train station in the Upper Egyptian city, the first scene you encounter is a long queue of cars waiting at a gas station. Dozens of banners for candidates competing in the upcoming parliamentary elections are hanging over disgruntled drivers as they wait for their turn.

Mohamed Talaat, a taxi driver who has had to wait in line for two hours to fill his cab’s gas tank, pays little attention to the banners hanging around the place. He is more concerned with the growing gas crisis than the elections.

“What elections? What will these candidates do for us? Will they end this crisis? Never. We’ve seen the same old faces all through the past year, and they did nothing,” he says as he drives his cab down crowded streets packed with cars waiting for gas.

“The same old faces” was a statement echoed by many the city’s residents who were interviewed by Mada Masr, referring to candidates who used to run for elections before the revolution, namely figures of the dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP).

Hoda Hassan is a housewife who voted in all elections since 2011, including presidential elections, when she voted for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. She is unmotivated, however, to vote this time around.

“We are promised that our lives will get better, but they never do, so why would I waste my time? I have kids to take care of,” she says, as she complains about the rising prices of vegetables and meat.

Despite a general mood of political apathy, there is harsh competition over the two individual seats in Assiut’s constituency. It is the first time the elections see such a high number of candidates associated with the formerly ruling National Democratic Party compete with one another for parliamentary seats since 2011.

One of the leading candidates, Mohamed Ahmed Farghaly, and more popularly known as Mohamed al-Sahafy, is a former police officer who won parliamentary elections in 2005 while representing the NDP. He depends heavily on his circle of influence and financial networks. His main competitor is Mohamed Hamdy al-Dessouky, who was also a NDP parliamentarian, serving six consecutive terms before he lost his seat in 2011 to the Muslim Brotherhood. Dessouky depends mainly on the legacy of his father, long-time MP Hamdy al-Dessouky, who represented the constituency in parliament since the 1960s.

Ibrahim Khashaba, also a leading candidate, is reliant on the wealth and reputation of the prestigious and well-established Khashaba family in the city. The young candidate represents the Nation’s Future Party, whose founder, Mohamed Badran, is known for his close relationship to President Sisi.

Businessman Ahmed Allam Shaltout, representing the Free Egyptians Party, is another leading candidate, who competed against NDP candidates a number of times in previous elections. He managed to qualify for the second round of the 2010 parliamentary elections, but did not win.

The scene within the rest of the governorate is less competitive because tribalism has the upper hand. Traditional candidates representing big families and tribes in the villages dominate the electoral scene. In the Badary constituency, Omar Galal Haridy, board member of Zamalek Sports Club and former NDP official is running, while in the Manfalut constituency, Abdel Hakim Tarash, also a former NDP official representing the Free Egyptians Party will be competing.

Assiut is one of the major Upper Egyptian governorates where the lines of politics and tribalism strongly intersect. For a long time, the NDP utilized the influence of tribalism and family connections to attract voters. Leading former NDP parliamentarians and members of local municipalities mostly belonged to big families, who have money, power, agricultural lands, and in some cases, weapons.

Assiut-based journalist Moheb Emad thinks it is a major landmark in the electoral scene to find NDP officials competing against each other. “Nour Party representatives are not strong and have no real presence, while representatives of democratic civil parties are almost non-existent, with only two candidates from the Social Democratic Party,” he says.

One of these two Social Democratic Party candidates, Hossam Mostafa, shares Emad’s pessimism. Himself having access to limited resources, Mostafa believes that funds and political networks control the scene.

“There is a general feeling of disappointment and apathy. Voters are sick of old faces controlling the elections again. Without banners showing the candidates’ faces, elections’ days would have passed without people knowing there are elections in the first place,” he says.

Voters also think that corruption will return, Mostafa explains. “What has helped these former NDP officials is that some of the secular parties have allowed them to infiltrate their lists.”

Journalist Emad says that Assiut residents are bracing for the worst. “People are getting ready to see the fights between the competitors where live ammunition is shot as carelessly as fireworks, I know no one who intends to vote in these elections. People here are waiting for the bad old days.”

According to the official report released by the High Elections Commission (HEC), the voting rate in Assiut in the 2014 presidential elections was 33.1 percent, with 95.3 percent of voters casting their ballot for President Sisi, compared to 44.6 percent in 2012 presidential elections, with 61.5 percent voting for ousted President Mohamed Morsi.

In the aftermath of the January 25 uprising, the influence of the tribal system dwindled. Emad says that most former NDP officials were sidelined and replaced by members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had the chance to openly mobilize and campaign. Out of 54 parliamentarians representing the governorate in 2011 parliament, 22 candidates belonged to the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political arm.

“Now the conditions have shifted. We are now back to the old system,” Emad says. “Muslim Brotherhood figures have disappeared and only [former] NDP candidates are running.”

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Mai Shams El-Din