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By Mada Masr

A prominent member of a party participating in the Senate elections — scheduled for August 8 and 9 for expatriate voters, and August 11 and 12 domestically — jokes that the National List, which brings together pro-regime parties with nominally opposition parties, chose Cleopatra as its electoral symbol to capitalize on the popular appeal of the eponymous brand of affordable local cigarettes. More commonly, it is speculated that a major funder of this year’s election is a businessman who owns a successful factory named Cleopatra. Having long considered the name a lucky charm, it was he who proposed Cleopatra as the symbol of the National List instead of the more conventional camel, moon, sun, or star symbols.  

In any case, the party member and others preparing to participate in the first elections for the new upper chamber say that the fate of the 100 candidates on the For the Love of Egypt slate — the National List — is not in doubt. They will ultimately make their way to the Senate, along with the 100 members appointed by the president and the 100 candidates competing for the individual constituency seats.

But how did this list come about? And how did the upper house, which was abolished in the 2014 Constitution, make its way back?

It all began in a meeting room at an office attached to the presidency in early fall 2019. The president’s top security advisor, Ahmed Gamal Eddin met with several officials from various security agencies and a handful of people from the Administrative Control Authority at the president’s behest. Gamal Eddin acts as the coordinator for various security agencies and is the conduit for the president’s directives, according to another leading member of a party participating in the Senate elections who was present at the meeting.

 The main question posed at the meeting was about the composition of the chamber. According to the same party source, discussions about the parties lasted for weeks. Specifically, participants debated whether Nation’s Future should remain the leading party or whether another party should take its place — The Republican People’s Party was proposed by some participants.

Founded in November 2014 by Mohamed Badran, the former president of the Egyptian Student Union, Nation’s Future first broke into politics with the 2015 election for the current House of Representatives, in which it took 53 of 596 seats, the largest single party vote share; the party is known for its close ties to the National Security Agency. Republican People’s was established in September 2012, winning 13 individual constituency seats in nine governorates in the last House election and coming in fifth among the parties represented in the assembly; it is close to one of the sovereign security agencies.

According to sources from three parties taking part in the Senate elections, it was eventually decided that Nation’s Future would take the lead and would be funded by several businessmen seeking to ingratiate themselves with the state. Republican People’s would be the understudy. 

The National List thus emerged from a deal struck by Nation’s Future and 11 other parties, some loyalist and some affiliated with the civic movement. The electoral coalition includes Republican People’s, Homeland Defenders, Modern Egypt, Wafd, Tagammu, Egyptian Social Democratic, Reform and Development, Egyptian National Movement, the Congress Party, and Egyptian Freedom parties. 

According to the same sources, settling on the final composition of the list required numerous discussions involving several businessmen close to the state, among them Mohammed Abu al-Einein, Gamal al-Garhi, Ahmed al-Sweidi, Ahmed Abu Hashima, and Hisham Talaat Mustafa. 

They decided that Abu al-Einein and Sweidi would play a more public-facing role during these elections, the sources said, based on several factors. Firstly, Hisham Talaat Mustafa is still widely known for ordering the killing of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim, carried out by a former security officer. Both men were convicted and were serving prison sentences before the sentences were reduced and they were released. Abu Hashima, though he is striving to regain the trust of the regime that ejected him from the inner circle, remains “on probation.” Abu Hashima’s star rose in May 2016 when he assumed control of the pro-state media apparatus, helming the board of the Egyptian Media Group, which owns several newspapers, news websites, and satellite channels. He was removed in December 2017, replaced by Dalia Khorshid, the former investment minister and wife of Central Bank of Egypt Governor Tarek Amer.

The nominees chosen by Nation’s Future not only dominate the National List, but also the individual candidate constituencies, according to the same three partisan sources. Ninety of these were set aside for Nation’s Future, leaving Republican People’s to compete for the rest against candidates from the co-opted opposition, the sources said.

The tamed opposition agreed to two things: to join Nation’s Future, Republican People’s and other loyalist parties on the National List, and to compete for a handful of seats in the individual constituencies, where they were promised the race would be relatively transparent.

“The pledge was that the security apparatus would not intervene on the side of Nation’s Future or other party candidates against our parties’ candidates,” said the leading figure of an opposition party participating in the elections. “But our parties’ candidates do not have the financial backing of those other candidates, since they receive support from businessmen.”

The decision to participate in Senate elections and even team up with pro-regime parties was not an easy one for some of the ostensibly opposition parties. Members of Nation’s Future approached the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Reform and Development, and the Congress Party. The discussions, according to the party source and another party member who took part, were heated, first of all because they took place against the backdrop of the demonstrations in September 2019. With no clear leaders or ideology, the demonstrations were a popular response to the videos released by Mohammed Ali, a contractor who worked on projects implemented by the Armed Forces Engineering Corps before breaking with the agency over late payments. After leaving Egypt for Spain, Ali released a series of videos that tarnished regime pillars’ hallowed reputation of integrity and restraint. 

The demonstrations initially caught the security establishment off guard, before the latter quickly acted to crush them as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi returned from New York, where he was participating in a UN General Assembly meeting. While in the US, the president met US President Donald Trump, who expressed substantial support for him, according to a source at the time.

The crackdown and arbitrary street stops foreclosed any possibility to resolve the Hope Coalition crisis, which involved the arrest of several prominent young political figures starting June 2019 seeking to build a broad oppositional electoral coalition around the constituency that opposed the constitutional amendments.

According to the opposition party sources, some party members believed that no opposition party should take part in any elections held by the regime as this would be tantamount to misrepresenting the political reality. Others believed that participation should be conditional on the release of all political detainees, including those not charged. Still another group believed that the regime would not accept conditions or make an initial positive gesture. For them, the only option was to agree to participate in the hope of “piercing the wall of silence, which is not necessarily a completely solid wall,” said one of the opposition party sources. He added that the issue had indeed divided members.

Those who agreed to participate know that it’s a gamble. The state made no explicit promises to release detainees, ease the security crackdown, or initiate any sort of political dialogue. At the preparatory meetings held in the National Security Agency headquarters, they were only told that their requests for the releases would be conveyed upward, but no releases were promised before or after the Senate elections, or even after the House of Representatives elections scheduled for the end of this year, the opposition party sources said.

Ultimately, some opposition parties decided to participate in the election while others withdrew entirely from the civic movement meetings. Others remained with reservations. Those parties that refused to take part include Karama, al-Dustour, the Popular Coalition, and Bread and Freedom. On July 23, they issued a statement rejecting participation in the elections, not only because of the currently undemocratic conditions, but also because it will elect a parliamentary chamber with no real legislative or oversight powers.

According to the three sources from three parties taking part in the elections, the plan devised by the security committee in coordination with several businessmen and party leaders seeks to put ostensibly opposition parties — the Wafd, Tagammu, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and Reform and Development — in 10–25 of the 300 open Senate seats.

In addition to these, there will be 150–180 senators from Nation’s Future and 20–30 from Republican People’s, along with a few from the Youth Coordination Body, established in June 2018 pursuant to the recommendations of the Fifth National Youth Conference. That body includes representatives from 25 parties, both pro-government and opposition. All together, this will round out the 200 seats elected on both lists and individual constituencies. The remaining 100 seats will be appointed by the president based on nominations from the Coptic Orthodox Church and Islamic religious leaders (though not including Al-Azhar), as well as those of the security bodies, which are vetting the selection of figures from universities and other institutions deemed important. The presidency will also appoint figures like ministers and advisors who have performed their duties well and can now be put out to pasture in the Senate to make way for new blood, the sources said.

According to a source from the three parties, the oversight bodies, principally the Acting Oversight Authority, are busy compiling detailed reports for the presidency on all candidates for appointment, to ensure they have a sterling financial and security record.

But it still is not clear why the powers-that-be decided to revive the upper parliamentary chamber, previously known as the Shura Council, after having rejected proposals to retain it during the drafting of the 2014 constitution; the Senate is scheduled to hold its first session this fall.

The ten-member committee assigned to write the 2014 constitution suggested abolishing the Shura Council due to the cost of elections and the chamber’s LE1 billion-plus budget given the country’s economic straits. The move was supported by most of the 50-member constitutional committee that followed it. A majority of the 50-member committee believed that the Shura Council was no more than a tool to control the press and a means to reward loyal regime supporters with parliamentary immunity through the one-third of appointed members. At the time, the Armed Forces representative on the committee abstained from the vote, while the church representative led the opposition to the abolition of the chamber, since it offered a channel for Coptic parliamentary representation via appointment.

One answer on why the chamber is back comes from the political parties that took part in the electoral preparations, specifically from the head of a party involved in the discussion with Nation’s Future. According to him, in the run-up to the constitutional amendments presented to the parliament in February 2019 — which, in addition to reinstating the upper house, amended the 2014 constitution to extend presidential terms to six years, made the Armed Forces responsible for “protecting the civil state,” and changed the way the heads of judicial bodies are appointed — several National Security Agency officials pushed for the return of the upper house as a means of expanding the space to build and cement allegiances, similar to the process in the lower chamber, where the executive selects candidates to back and appoint based on candidates’ contributions to the state, according to a source from one of the three participating parties.

National Security has been in charge of managing the domestic political landscape over the last two years, since Sisi was reelected in the spring of 2018. “Turnout in [that] election was initially weak so the agency overseeing elections turned to National Security,” said a member of an Upper Egyptian family active in electoral politics. “And in fact, National Security leaders moved quickly in villages, calling on a network of connections and families, and turnout rapidly improved.”

National Security continued to perform well in the referendum on the constitutional amendments in 2019, according to the same source, which “made this agency, whose former name [State Security] is linked with the biggest electoral farce before the January revolution, into a key player that can’t be ignored in any political election setup.”

The source adds that the National Security Agency does indeed have a map of families, alliances, disputes and their agents in each governorate who know how to encourage the big families — be it with carrots or sticks — to offer the necessary financial support for any political move. This process was seen in action during the referendum on the constitutional amendments and in voter mobilization for the second presidential election, when a few hours in, it was seen that polling places were empty.

The source says that since the idea of reviving the upper chamber was the brainchild of National Security, it is only natural that it would be active in the electoral machinery. But it is not alone.

“The agency has come to play a direct role on the domestic political scene and it can no longer be sidelined,” the source said of another high-level security agency. “There are also people in the agency who are close to the president, like Abbas Kamel, who was a colleague of the president for years, and Mahmoud al-Sisi, who returned to the agency after some circles attempted to sideline him. This means the president is comfortable leaving things to his managers in the agency.” But he adds that, contrary to appearances after the passage of the constitutional amendments, it is not one single agency that is running the show. Electoral management and the selection of candidates was ultimately a collaborative process.

The National Security Agency will monitor and assess the performance of participants in the Senate election, the sources from the three parties said, in particular Nation’s Future and Republican People’s, using that as a basis to determine their respective roles in the House of Representatives elections later this year. Luck may smile on Republic People’s and give it a greater share of candidates for the House if it performs satisfactorily, especially since the regime does not want Nation’s Future to become a successor to the National Democratic Party. The regime does not believe in a role for any independent political entity. In fact, it thinks one reason for the fall of the Mubarak regime was the transformation of the NDP from a tool used by the security apparatus into a party with a life of its own; initially run by regime confidantes Safwat al-Sherif and Kamal al-Shazli, it became vehicle for competition from Gamal Mubarak and Ahmed Ezz.

National Security will also track the performance of independent candidates selected thanks to connections in former NDP circles, some of whom are linked to the architect of the 2010 People’s Assembly elections, businessman Ahmed Ezz. According to one party operative, Ezz has “done everything asked of him,” including providing financial backing for some candidates. “There were proposals — and even expectations — that Ezz would strive to make a political comeback by participating in the Senate.”

According to party sources participating in the elections, Ezz’s potential return is not the main headline. It’s just a sidebar to the main story, which is the political return of NDPers, particularly those from influential families. It may not be the same Mubarak-era parliamentarians occupying Senate seats, but it could be their sons and nephews: the second-generation of NDP gathered under the banner of Nation’s Future, Republican People, or as independents.


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