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Why do candidates affiliated with the regime in Egypt fail in union elections?

April 2, 2024 at 9:43 am

A screen displays the vote percentage for Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, Egypt’s president, during an election results news conference in Cairo, Egypt, 18 December, 2023 [Islam Safwat/Bloomberg via Getty Images]

Over the course of the latest heated elections in three long-established trade unions in Egypt, the result has been the same: the candidate supported by the regime and its security services has lost, and the opposition or independent candidate won. Security and regime agencies often try to control all electoral processes in Egypt, whether for presidential, parliamentary, union or student elections. This is an approach that has been going on for decades but has gone even further since the military coup in July 2013.

There are 25 professional trade unions and professional syndicates in Egypt, in addition to 29 general unions supervised by the Minister of Manpower. They had a total of more than eight million members as of the end of 2021, according to official data from the Central Bureau of Statistics.

Lawyers, engineers and journalists who participated in their respective syndicate elections within the past 12 months or so represent a voting bloc that is representative of the Egyptian electorate. They include groups closer to the middle and rich classes and are highly popular and influential.

Former head of the Bar Association and ex-Senate member Sameh Ashour is known for being close to the government. He lost the association’s election a few days ago, the latest regime-affiliated candidate to do so. The sitting head of the organisation, Abdel Halim Allam, won a new term ending in 2028.

The Engineers’ Syndicate saw a heated election campaign in May 2023 that ended in a violent quarrel and an assault on voters, who managed to abort the plans of the Future of a Nation party, which is backed by the Egyptian intelligence service. The party had planned to overthrow the current syndicate head, Tariq Al-Nabrawi, but the members renewed their confidence in him; he is known for his independent positions.

In March last year, Egyptian journalists were able to overthrow the government candidate, Khaled Merry, editor-in-chief of the state-owned Al-Akhbar newspaper. They elected the leftist oppositionist, and one of the symbols of the January Revolution, Khaled Al-Balshi, as head of their syndicate.

Ironically, Al-Balshi’s victory came while the Darb news website, of which he is editor-in-chief, was being blocked, just like hundreds of other websites blocked by the Egyptian regime with no legal basis. However, the block was lifted when he won, which was seen as a political earthquake whose aftershocks affected the engineers’ and lawyers’ elections.

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It’s interesting that electoral bribes, which are financial and in-kind incentives offered by the government to voters in exchange for voting for its candidates, failed in these three elections.

In fact, the closer a candidate was to the regime, the more negative it affected the number of votes he received.

Supporters of the regime are trying to downplay the messages sent by the trade unions’ membership in Egypt, by saying that lawyer Allam is not at odds with the regime, and that he represents the state in one way or another. They’re also saying that the other unions do not fully represent all sections of the population. However, the regime’s loss in three elections within a year is a remarkable development. It is too big an issue to be reduced to this interpretation, given the growing trend of punitive voting against anyone who’s related to the regime.

Observers and trade unionists told me that they agreed that the Egyptian situation is simmering, and that these three election results were no mere coincidence. They were more like steam just before reaching boiling point.

The deteriorating economic and living conditions in Egypt, and the insane rise in prices with the collapse of the value of the local currency —the exchange rate of the Egyptian pound has been liberalised at 47.40 per US dollar — may lead unions and other political entities to express dissatisfaction and anger through a union awakening. This could escalate into a popular uprising against the regime.

According to the lawyers, though, their own election result was not linked to politics or intended to challenge the regime. It was, they insisted, simply a natural reaction to the winning candidate’s achievements related to service provision, pensions, added tax, electronic invoices, developing the union’s resources and stopping the waste of its revenues.

Journalists believe that the issues of wages and an increased allowance — a cash sum members receive monthly from their union, as well as services, health care, training, registration and other union activities — were the decisive factors when electing the union’s head and his council.

Optimists think that the government candidates’ loss for the third time in a row has created a hole in the wall of repression created by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. He is imprisoning thousands of his opponents, including journalists, restricting civil society, blocking newspapers, and banning movements opposed to his rule, mainly the Muslim Brotherhood, the April 6 Movement and Ultras Leagues (groups that include football fans).

This repressive hole may get bigger as the level of public dissatisfaction with the government’s policies increases. Rare demonstrations have already been seen in Alexandria last month, in rejection of the high prices and poor living conditions, under the slogan “You starved us, Sisi”, according to the Egyptian Network for Human Rights.

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One Egyptian political expert who spoke to me on condition of anonymity said that the successive failure of candidates affiliated with the regime in the union elections indicates that the organisations are trying to become independent of the regime. It also shows a general tendency to seek change and reject restrictions imposed on unions since 2014.

Over more than 10 years, union work in Egypt has been subjected to security restrictions, freedom-restricting legislation and government violations. These resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of lawyers and journalists, forced disappearances and the blocking of hundreds of newspapers and websites. Moreover, people were removed from unions for political reasons, banned from travelling and had their personal funds confiscated.

The outcomes of these latest union elections may tempt others to follow suit, based not only on political, but also economic and livelihood motives. Lawyers, engineers and journalists have faced a serious threat to their livelihood because of the current conditions. These same economic conditions are affecting all Egyptians, including the lifting of government subsidies on basic commodities.

An anonymous union source believes that the defeat of the regime for the third time in a row is an indication of the return of the Egyptian unions to playing an active political role, especially in terms of demanding freedoms. This may develop into taking positions that are in opposition to the regime, especially since the journalists’ and lawyers’ unions have always been known for their political activities.

He cited as evidence the resumption of such activities within the journalists’ syndicate in central Cairo; the organising of demonstrations and events in support of Gaza; the collection of donations for the Palestinian people; and the honouring of prisoners jailed in Egypt to suppress their freedom of expression. All of this may allow for the possibility of developing an effective, more mature and dynamic union movement, led by the three unions. The movement might even grow into a tool for change that will once again revive the soft power of the Egyptian masses.

It is certain that any elections that meet the standards of electoral integrity in Egypt may not result in the victory of a regime-affiliated candidate. This is a reality feared by the regime, which has thus been keen on excluding any real competitor to Al-Sisi in the presidential elections since 2014. Any potential candidate has tended to end up behind bars, such as Abdel Moneim Abu Al-Fotouh, Sami Anan, Ahmed Qanswa and Ahmed Tantawi.

It is wise not to ignore what has happened, or minimise its symbolism, given the emergence of lively union platforms capable of giving the Egyptian masses a breath of life and some glimmer of hope for change. This may well be paving the way, albeit slowly, for the dissolution of the political stalemate imposed by Al-Sisi on the masses for 10 years. Official attempts may also be made to thwart the transformation of unions into consumer outlets for the distribution of meat and food supplies, leading to the creation of a movement resistant to oppression and tyranny. More precisely, it’s fair to say that soft power is waking up in Egypt.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.