All in the family: Elections in Fayoum determined by tribal ties

“The priority goes to Egypt,” said Abdel Tawab Braik, a farmer in the Fayoum village of Tunis, when asked how he would select his parliamentary representative. 

Braik cast his ballot on Monday, the second and final day of voting in the first round of parliamentary elections. Polls took place on Sunday and Monday in Fayoum and 13 other governorates in Upper Egypt and the West Delta, while the rest of the country will vote on November 22-23.

Mamdouh Hamdy Abu Zayed and his friend Abdel Gawad Zayed were voting at the same polling station as Braik, and they gave the same answer when asked what future members of parliament (MPs) should advocate for: “Egypt’s best interests.”

The three men each offered a straightforward definition of what Egypt’s “best interests” are. Braik said the country needs to build up its state institutions, while Zayed believes the ideal candidate should have a legal background, hold a doctorate degree and have a long history of political activity in order to help “amend legislation and build state institutions.”

Certain rhetorical flourishes tend to bracket any discussion of Egyptian politics. Phrases like “state institutions,” “legislative body” and “political activity” are frequently bandied about in government statements and state-owned media, and those same terms kept popping up in Mada Masr’s interviews with voters in Fayoum.

But as the discussion continued, people dropped the political jargon and their focus on “Egypt’s interests” faded away as they turned their attention to local issues. After his initial insistence on the importance of state institutions, Braik then defined the perfect parliamentarian as one who “gets the deed done.”

But what is the deed? And who can get it done?

For most Fayoum voters, “the deed” is getting access to water. Most villages in the governorate have suffered from a severe water shortage for months. They also want better infrastructure and more job opportunities, especially for young people.

People here agree on the key issues to be fixed, but their idea of who can “get it done” depends on their tribal and family affiliations.

There are six voting districts in Fayoum, two of which are in Fayoum City, while the others are in Abshway, Youssef al-Seddiq, Tamya, Sinowras and Etsa.

With the exception of Fayoum City, these are all small rural communities where tribalism controls the political scene. Smaller families are connected in one way or another to larger, more powerful ones. When it comes time to vote, people here tend to keep it in the family.

And many of the candidates themselves come from the same high-profile families. Ali Abdullah Ali Abdel Qadir, his cousin Omar and their relative Rabie Abou Letea are all running for seats in Youssef al-Seddiq.

In Abshway, Alaa al-Omda said he’s running to protect the legacy left by his father, who ran in previous parliamentary elections. Fellow candidate and former MP Mohamed Taha al-Khouly has the same story — his father, Taha al-Khouly, held the Abshway seat in previous parliaments. And he’s related to yet another candidate, Youssef Ahmed Ali al-Sawy.

Abshway resident Rabie Abdel Tawab, 28, sits with his laptop in front of one of the polling stations to help voters check their designated voting place. When asked about his candidate of choice, he said he was boycotting the elections.

He smiles as he explains he’s only helping out because one of the candidate’s family members asked him to.

Due to Fayoum’s deeply rooted tribal culture, Abdel Tawab doesn’t think it’s possible to elect a candidate who would defend the people’s interests.

“People choose the favored son of their village, but after elections we won’t ever see his face again,” he said.

Ahmed Fawzy, general coordinator for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, believes the strong influence of tribalism on voters is due to the nature of the electoral system.

New electoral laws issued in April gave 75 percent of seats in parliament to individual candidates (448 seats), while only about 20 percent of seats are elected based on a closed list system (120 seats). The remaining 28 seats are directly chosen by the president.

In the individual seat system, one candidate runs for one seat in a particular district. Voters cast their ballots for him or her, not for a party or group.

In the closed list system, voters select one electoral list that’s composed of a single party, a coalition of parties or of individuals. No matter how the list is composed, voters are selecting one cohesive list, not cherry-picking individual candidates therein.

Fawzy argued that the individual seat system shifts the focus off real electoral platforms and onto the candidates’ personalities and family connections, whereas the electoral list system would encourage voters to focus on a given party’s actual political agenda.

He added that many voters don’t even understand how these electoral systems work, given the total dearth of civic education and a general absence of an elections culture.

But Youssry al-Ezbawy, the head of the political system program and elections forum for the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, fears that tribalism even extends to the electoral lists system. He believes the whole electoral system should be overhauled.

“We need a clear electoral system that goes beyond traditional formations and helps change the culture of elections in Egypt,” he argued.

And beyond a general need for electoral reform, Ezbawy blames a negligent government for this problematic tribal mentality.

“The need for a ‘family candidate’ is due to deteriorating public services and the absence of municipal government,” he asserted. “The expanding needs of the local population in the face of limited public services will continue to affect this situation.”

Braik agrees with Ezbawy. He pauses for a few moments, then adds to his list of desires for the parliament: “Municipalities. I pray to God they can fix the municipalities.”

Mohamed Hamama 

You have a right to access accurate information, be stimulated by innovative and nuanced reporting, and be moved by compelling storytelling.

Subscribe now to become part of the growing community of members who help us maintain our editorial independence.
Know more

Join us

Your support is the only way to ensure independent,
progressive journalism