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Samer Shehata: As September elections draw near a new phase of the struggle unfolds

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PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Egypt, preparations for the election in September are already underway. The Muslim Brotherhood has said it will not contend for more than half the seats–I guess part of its compromise with the Egyptian military and the Egyptian elite. Forces that emerged in the democracy movement and the workers movement are scrambling to get together political representatives. They had asked for the elections to be postponed further than September. They lost that in a referendum that was part of a vote on whether to accept the new constitution. Now joining us to talk about the coming elections in Egypt and the state of politics there is Samer Shehata. Samer teaches Arab politics at Georgetown University. He’s also the author of the book Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt. Thanks for joining us again, Samer.

SAMER SHEHATA: You’re welcome.

JAY: So talk a bit about the coming elections and who are the various forces at play, and then, particularly for the people who are out in the streets, especially the young people, who’s going to represent them.

SHEHATA: Well, the parliamentary elections are scheduled for September, and we’ve been told that the presidential elections will come shortly after that, two months or so. We’ve been told that. Of course, there was a referendum on March 19 covering eight constitutional amendments that paved the way for this timeline, this political timeline. About 18 million people participated in that referendum, and they approved the referendum by about 77 percent. And so this puts in place this timeline.

JAY: Now, just to remind people who may not have been following this, the leadership of the democracy movement, a lot of the workers movement, especially the sort of left leadership, left-wing leadership, they opposed this referendum, they wanted people to vote no, and they lost.

SHEHATA: That’s right. And the reason that they wanted people to vote no is they wanted a more thoroughgoing transformation in the basic rules of Egyptian political game. They wanted a new constitution, not simply amendments to the Constitution. And that was the logic behind the vote no campaign. The vote yes campaign, which was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, by remnants of the old regime, implicitly by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, really put forward the idea that these constitutional amendments will be enough to get us to the next phase, to move the process along orderly, and will also allow the Supreme Council to exit the political scene relatively in short order. But the yeses had it, and now that puts in place this timeline, with parliamentary elections in September. Now, there’s a great deal of speculation and political maneuvering and the emergence of new political parties going on in Egypt in anticipation of the September parliamentary elections. Now, also, another very important development is that the National Democratic Party, President Mubarak’s ruling party, has been dissolved by court order. Now, that doesn’t mean that remnants of the old regime aren’t going to participate in the political process. This wasn’t a de-Baathification where they have been banned from political participation, but it means that the party, at least the party’s offices, the party’s real estate, and so on, will not play a role in this. But what many people are concerned about is that the Muslim Brotherhood is the best-organized group that has experience in electoral participation in the past, and that they, along with remnants of the old regime, are the ones who are most advantaged by this timeline, by the holding of parliamentary elections in September, and they’re likely to do the best. I think there’s some truth to that. And I think there’s also some truth to the fact that because of these new political parties emerging almost on a weekly basis and so on, many of which do not have previous experience competing in Egyptian parliamentary elections, they’re likely not to do so well. So in my estimation, I think that the Brotherhood–. And another important point is that when parliamentary elections were originally announced, the Brotherhood announced that they were going to only compete for about 30 percent of the seats. And then, more recently, they have increased their stated participation to about 50 percent of the seats. And I think some people are quite concerned about that.

JAY: Now, the presidential elections, as you said, come not too long after the parliamentary elections. ElBaradei says he’s going to run if he believes they’re free and fair. Is he at all emerging as a unifying figure or not?

SHEHATA: Well, he is certainly one of the, you know, leading contenders. And I think that there is a consensus among those who are concerned about democracy and progressive politics in Egypt that he is the leading candidate to represent those kinds of views, because of course the other candidate, the most prominent candidate, the one who is leading in a few polls that have been done, is Amr Moussa, the former Egyptian foreign minister between 1991 and 2000, and then secretary general of the Arab League from 2000 until the present. And of course, he has very direct links with the Mubarak regime, serving as foreign minister for quite some time, even though he has been critical of that regime and has claimed that he has had nothing to do with them for the last decade or so. But I think many of us are skeptical or suspicious about his democratic credentials, really. So Baradei, I think, is the person that progressives are going to vote for. Now, there have been a number of others, six or seven other people who have announced their candidacy, including Ayman Nour, for example, the head of the Ghad or Tomorrow Party. He participated in the 2005 presidential elections and was the second leading vote-getter after Mr. Mubarak. And a number of others as well. So the presidential elections are still some way aways. The parliamentary elections are in the near-term. The parliamentary elections are particularly important because under the constitutional amendments that have been approved, this new Parliament will then choose a hundred-person committee that will be tasked with writing a new Egyptian constitution. So it really–this sequencing and this timeline, where you have parliamentary elections first but then choose a hundred-person committee that write or draft the constitution followed by presidential elections, really increases the stakes for the parliamentary elections, because there is a widespread belief, and I think this is correct, that the largest blocs in the parliament, those who do the best in the parliamentary elections, will have an opportunity to shape the contents of the Egyptian Constitution in the future.

JAY: Is there any political formation, united front, developing from the more secular democratic forces and the workers movement under one banner? Or you said there’s many parties. Is this going to be–are they going to be so split up they can’t be effective?

SHEHATA: Right. It’s not quite the Tunisian case, in which we have over 65 parties that have emerged already. There are two parties that I think have some significance that are liberal and democratic in the full sense and secular in the full sense of the word that have some significance. One is called the Social Democratic Party, and that is, again, newly emerged. And that is a combination of liberals as well as left progressive socialist elements that have unified to put forward ideas of social justice, democracy, and so on. And then another political party called the Free Egyptian Political Party that was recently established as well that is also fully liberal and Democratic. But they, unlike the Social Democrats, are very market-oriented, pro-market, and so on. In fact, one of the leading contributors to that party and one of the founders is Naguib Sawiris, one of the richest people in the world, the 64th richest person in the world, who is the owner of a number of telecommunications, mobile phone operations in Egypt and other African countries, in North Korea, and so on, but very much committed to separation of religion and state, but pro-market, as opposed to the other party, which is much more social democrat in the kind of Northern European sense of the term. And then, of course, there are a number of other groups that have said that they’re going to form political parties as well. Again, many of them don’t have experience in electoral competition. Many of them probably don’t have access to resources. So it’ll be interesting to see what’ll happen in the parliamentary elections. I think the Brotherhood is probably going to get about 25, 30 percent of the seats. I think the remnants of the ruling party, local notables, business people who are not necessarily ideologically committed to President Mubarak but nevertheless benefited from the old regime, because of their electoral experience, because of their prominence, because of the type of electoral system that Egypt has, with single-member districts and so on, they’re probably going to do very well also, capturing 15, 20 percent of the seats. And then I think the remainder of the seats are going to be left to the new political parties that we’ve spoken about. One last thing that’s very important about this and quite sad but not really unexpected is that the youth elements that were really the driving force behind the January 25 revolution are likely not to be fully represented in the Egyptian parliament. They have not been able to kind of forge a united coalition of–again, they don’t have experience electorally in electoral competition. Resources is something that they don’t have. And as we’ve seen in other cases of democratic transformation in which youth movements played a very important part, the Serbian example, the movement against Slobodan Milosevic by Otpor!, a youth movement there, when they transitioned in the post-Milosevic period to a political party, they did very poorly in elections, receiving less than 3 percent of the vote. I think that’s likely to happen in Egyptian case, unfortunately.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Samer.

SHEHATA: You’re welcome.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Samer Shehata is an assistant professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. He is the author of the book: "Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt" published in 2009. Samer has also written numerous articles on Arab politics for the International Herald Tribune, Boston Globe and the Arab Reform Bulletin.