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EGYPT: Will independents challenge Hosni Mubarak's party stalwarts again?

Egypt-election

Among the intriguing scenes ahead of Egypt’s Nov. 28 parliamentary elections have been the throngs of would-be candidates vying for nominations from the ruling National Democratic Party, or NDP. More than 3,000 members have reportedly expressed interest in the 444 seats open to both genders, a ratio of more than 6 to 1. The 64 women’s seats are even more hotly contested, with some 1,000 women reportedly applying — 15 for every seat. 

Carnegie logo While these numbers are no doubt encouraging to the NDP, the party still faces a major challenge: how to avoid a repeat of the 2000 and 2005 elections, when hundreds of its members ran against NDP candidates — and won — as independents. Although those members later returned to the NDP, their willingness to split from the party initially led to doubts about its strength, a situation NDP leaders do not want to repeat.

NDP candidates this year seem to be applying in such large numbers for personal and political reasons, as well as procedural ones.

On a personal level, parliamentary membership conveys significant prestige and presents an opportunity to make contacts that might be useful in business or professional advancement. If a potential member of parliament is interested in obtaining services or other benefits for his or her constituents, membership in the ruling party (as opposed to the opposition) also offers advantages.

On a functional level, the process initiated by Organizational Affairs Secretary Ahmad Ezz to build a broad network of support for Gamal Mubarak has likely created the impression that new opportunities for advancement exist within the party.

Even with new procedures, however, it is unclear whether the party can move beyond the embarrassment of the 2000 and 2005 elections, when it was beaten by its own renegade members and forced to integrate them back into the party to achieve the desired two-thirds parliamentary majority. In 2000, only 145 NDP candidates won seats, compared with the 166 members who quit the party to run as independents, defeated the NDP candidates, and then rejoined. In 2005, 170 NDP candidates won compared with 218 independents, all of whom rejoined the party.

The issue of independent candidates has many implications for the NDP. First, it indicates a serious failure of cohesion and discipline within the party. Second, it suggests that either the NDP leadership does not really know who is electable or, perhaps more accurately, that electability is not a major consideration in candidate selection and that loyalty to a certain faction within the party might be much more important. Third, the phenomenon of independents further damages the party’s image in the eyes of many Egyptians and adds to widespread doubts about the party.

After the 2005 election, the party sought to change the country’s election laws to make it harder for independent candidates to run in elections, or at least to reduce the number of seats available to independent candidates. But NDP members elected as independents made clear they would not support the measure in parliament — probably because they had little faith that NDP leaders would nominate them in future elections. Thus, an initiative by the NDP to strengthen political parties failed because of  weakness within the party itself.

This month’s parliamentary elections — both the outcome of competition between NDP candidates and independents, and the leadership’s handling of renegade members afterward — will show how much the NDP has progressed since 2005, if at all, toward becoming more like a political party than a patronage distribution network.

-- Michele Dunne in Washington and Amr Hamzawy in Beirut and Cairo

Photo: A plainclothes policeman pushes down a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood opposition group during a scuffle in Fayoum, about 62 miles from Cairo, on Nov. 3. Police detained some of the candidates nominated by the Muslim Brotherhood members as they tried to nominate them for the upcoming parliamentary elections.Credit: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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