Focus on religion was ‘grave mistake’ by political parties, expert says

Egyptian Coptic Christian women help voters find their registration numbers outside a polling station in the Manshiet Nasser district of Cairo on Nov. 29. (AFP Photo/Mahmud Hams)

By:Heba Fahmy /Daily News Egypt

CAIRO: Egypt’s political parties made a “grave mistake” by focusing on religion while campaigning ahead of parliamentary elections, said Mazen Hassan, professor of electoral systems at Cairo University.

Developmental issues should have been the focus, he added, namely education, health and the economy.

“There were hardly any debates between these parties regarding their policies to solve Egypt’s problems. including poverty, which is more essential than religion,” he said.

Results of the first round of parliamentary election will be announced on Friday, instead of Thursday, as originally planned, because the vote count has not been completed in some constituencies, an official told Reuters.

However, preliminary results showed Islamists taking the lead in the first phase of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, with fierce competition between two main coalitions and with the liberal Egyptian Bloc.

Mazen said liberal parties were doomed from the start since Islam plays a large role in Egyptian’s lives.

In preparation for the highly-anticipated parliamentary elections, religious affiliation dominated a great part of the parties’ campaigning.

The Salafi Al-Nour Party, which came second after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party in several constituencies, posted a campaign video on its website stressing the importance of Islam as the main identify of Egyptians, portraying the Quran and a mosque with the call to prayer echoing in the background.

In TV commercials, the Egyptian Bloc — an alliance comprised mainly of the Free Egyptians Party, founded by Coptic tycoon Naguib Sawiris — stressed that they approve of Article 2 of the constitution, which stipulates that Islam is the religion of the state. The message was a bid to counter counter-campaigns by Islamists.

Similarly, in a statement issued on the first day of elections, the Bloc denied that it was supported by the Church.

“Talk about the Church supporting candidates of the Free Egyptians Party because it is comprises the most Christians is out of order, especially since most of the party’s candidates are Muslims,” read the statement.

The trickling vote counts showed a lead for the FJP in the electoral lists in Cairo, especially in the first and third districts. The Egyptian Bloc was leading in the second and Al-Nour led the fourth. The Revolution Continues Coalition and Al-Wafd made minimal gains on the Cairo lists.

The fault of focusing on religion, however, wasn’t the only lesson learnt from the first phase of the elections.

Sayed Abdel Aal, general secretary of Al-Tagammu Party, a member of the Egyptian Bloc, said one of their biggest mistakes was the lack of members’ presence outside polling stations to welcome voters and remind them with what their candidates can offer.

“The FJP outdid us a great deal in this — its members were outside and inside polling stations helping voters and influencing them,” he told DNE.

FJP and Al-Nour supporters were seen distributing flyers for their candidates outside polling stations, in violation of campaigning laws. The presence of the Egyptian Bloc was minimal outside schools.

“Distributing flyers [on election day] is a violation of campaigning laws, but welcoming voters and speaking to them outside polling stations about the party is fine,” Abdel Aal explained.

The FJP set up booths outside polling stations to guide voters to their specific electoral committees and explain the complex voting process. Voting information was scribbled on the back of a flyer for FJP’s candidates in that constituency, while FJP supporters urged voters to cast their ballots in the party’s favor, at times even using blaring microphones.

“We don’t want to violate campaigning laws like the FJP, but in the next stage, we will document their violations and present them to the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC) so they can be held accountable,” Abdel Aal said.

Maged Hussein, founding member of the FJP, refuted that last minute campaigning is what gave FJP an edge over other parties.

“We have been involved with the Egyptian people on the streets for years, in a bid to serve them and understand their problems,” Hussein said.

“Our hard work and sincere concern for the people is why they voted for us — not five minutes outside any polling station,” he said, adding that most voters had already formed an opinion about their candidate of choice before heading to the ballot boxes.

Mostafa El-Guindy, former leading member of Al-Wafd Party and current member of the Revolution Continues Coalition, said Al-Wafd made several mistakes thus diminishing its popularity.

“It was Al-Wafd’s responsibility to take all liberal parties under its wing, according to its historical role in Egypt,” El-Guindy said.

Since the 1920s, Al-Wafd enjoyed a reputation of being Egypt’s main liberal party, decades before the creation of the Free Egyptians Party.

El-Guindy condemned Al-Wafd’s initial decision to join the Democratic Alliance, which was spearheaded by the FJP, describing it as a “fatal mistake.”

However, Secretary General of Al-Wafd Party, Margaret Azer, said the alliance was established for the higher purpose of national unity.

Prior to the elections, Al-Wafd along with several parties left the Democratic Alliance, claiming that the FJP dominated the parties’ lists.

Azer accused the Egyptian Bloc and other liberal parties, as well as Islamists, of launching a “vicious campaign” against Al-Wafd, attacking its liberal identity and describing it as “pro-Islamic.”

“Liberal parties viewed Al-Wafd as their only competitor instead of other Islamic parties,” she said. “We need to clarify our identity as a liberal party in the next stage of elections and intensify our campaigning,” she added.

The second round of the People’s Assembly elections will be held on Dec. 14 to include nine governorates.

El-Guindy attributed the poor performance of the Revolution Continues Coalition, which includes many members from the revolutionary youth, to the lack of resources and funding.

“We will try to focus on better campaigning in the second phase of the elections despite our lack of resources,” he said. “We will also try to raise more funds.”

The coalition’s Facebook page made a call for volunteers to help in the second and third rounds of voting.

El-Guindy said a parliament that doest not represent the revolutionary youth is “invalid.”

“They are the ones who started the January 25 Revolution and made the elections possible.”