Justice

Back to the future: Egypt's new 'felool' and the parliamentary election

Supporters of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi demonstrate in Cairo on January 25, 2015, to mark the fourth anniversary of the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak. At least 10 protesters and a policeman were killed in clashes in the north Cairo neighborhoods of Matareya and Ain Shams, and another in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.
Credit: Mohamed El-Shahed

CAIRO — In the brief afterglow of the Jan. 25 revolution of 2011, any association with the former regime of Hosni Mubarak was considered a black mark. But the overthrow of the man who had ruled Egypt for 30 years failed to rid the country of much of his clique, the business associates and higher-ups of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party. Their continued presence in political life led them to be labelled "felool" — meaning "remnant." 

The new reign of President Abdel-Fatah al-Sisi has ushered in what many believe is a new golden age for the felool. The networks of business interests and political cliques can once again operate openly, without fear of reprisal from the public, or even the government. This was confirmed Monday when it was announced that Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, the sons of the former leader, had been released from prison to await retrial on corruption charges.

The brothers' release immediately followed the deaths of 23 protesters as they commemorated the anniversary of the revolution this Jan. 25, a reminder that the new regime is more than ready to flex its muscles to preserve power. 

In the four years since Egyptians first took to the streets, the term felool has expanded to encompass anyone who supports the policies of the military-led government, including a small section who fetishize a return to the era of former leader Hosni Mubarak.

"The term felool became so broad that I became proud to be felool, proud to be against what was happening: if this is what felool means, then screw the alternative," said Adam Mowafi, a 28-year-old CFO with the M04 creative agency.

Mowafi’s office on the 23rd floor of a Giza high-rise is filled with white leather sofas and glass-topped desks. One room has a panoramic view, where Mowafi and his 50 employees can look down over the tops of the tallest buildings in Zamalek, the affluent central Cairo neighborhood.

While felool is typically used to mean the older generation who were resistant to the demands of the revolution, Mowafi represents a slice of society who were the same age as the young demonstrators who filled Tahrir Square, but who have come to realize they favor the regime's way of doing business. 

Sisi reclaimed Egypt for the military regime by capitalizing on massive street demonstrations in June 30, 2013 against former president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Sisi took power and arrested Morsi in an undisclosed location, carrying out what many observers termed to be a military coup. The army then brutally suppressed pro-Morsi demonstrations, notably at Raba’a al Adawiya Square in August 2013. 

President Sisi later called for elections, in which he won 97 percent of the vote. The election was brought into question by international observers, who were concerned about extending the presidential run-off. Observers from Democracy International also later stated that they had “limited access to some polling places.

The upcoming parliamentary election has been presented as the next pivotal phase in Egypt’s modern history. Some observers believe the parliamentary election could end up showcasing a range of new voices and faces, as the supporters of the new electoral system have espoused. Others believe the election is simply an opportunity to rubber-stamp Egypt as being on a path to democracy.

But critics point out that even if most of the faces are new, their beliefs look like a return to ideas that prevailed before January 2011. 

"I feel part of a band of people who love Egypt, love equality and love rights. But we also understand the importance of work," Mowafi says. "The word felool was why June 30 happened. When people talk about binaries, they forget that the revolutionaries created that binary themselves — if you're not with us, you support the police crackdown."

Mowafi speaks English with an accent that belies the expensive British education he had before returning to Egypt six years ago to start his business. He is proud of having weathered what he sees as three years of economic turbulence after the revolution, and now has high hopes that the forthcoming parliamentary election will aid what he believes is a simultaneous weakening of corruption and a strengthening of business under Sisi. 

"We understand the advantage of having an army man in charge. Roads and bridges need to be repaired. There are things he's done, like subsidy reform, which would have taken the Muslim Brotherhood or the liberals 10 to 15 years," says Mowafi. "There are advantages to authoritarian tendencies when you understand the reason behind them."

The first round of parliamentary elections is due to kick off on March 21 after a series of delays. Mowafi says he doesn't yet know who he'll vote for, but that "like any voter", he's looking for practical promises that will help grow business, and not ideology. He credits the changes that have happened after June 30, 2013, when former president Morsi was ousted, with having created an environment that is now "open for business."

He is pleased that companies like Samsung and Coca-Cola are now looking to do business in Egypt, and believes that a growing economy better answers the needs of the common man.

"Everyone going into Tahrir Square to protest every little thing hurt a lot of people, the people the revolutionaries claimed to be helping," he says. "Jan 25. was essentially a revolution about bread — the right to work."

New System, New Faces, Same Policies

In one sense, there is plenty of choice for Egyptians when it comes to choosing who to vote into parliament. The past 18 months have witnessed an explosion of political parties. A ban on religious parties enacted in September 2013 means that there is no threat from the Muslim Brotherhood, although the Salafist Nour Party has not been prevented from running in the elections.

Critics of the party like Mowafi say that this is a way of ensuring that the “Salafist bogeyman” is still around to scare voters into handing power to secularist liberal parties.

But a reform of the voting system sets the stage to hand power back to those who were powerful at a micro level under the Mubarak era, relying as it does on individual candidates rather than parties. 

The new voting rules are complex. The system will draw 74 percent of representatives by popular vote, and 21 percent from winner-take-all party lists (meaning that a candidate or list need only to get 51 percent to win a seat or block), plus 5 percent directly appointed by President Sisi.

This has been combined with widespread redistricting, leading many Egyptian political parties to criticize the changes, saying they are designed to weaken parties’ influence. 

The International Foundation for Electoral Systems agrees, arguing that redrawing the electoral boundaries to include far larger areas means there can be no relationship between a party candidate and their constituency.

Analysts and political parties alike say that this all adds up to a return to power for those who led districts in the Nile Delta region and Upper Egypt under Mubarak, meaning prominent and relatively wealthy local families who either ran as members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), or became NDP members after being elected.

Former NDP members had been banned from running in elections, but a court overturned this ruling in July 2014, meaning 2015 looks to be the year they stage a comeback. 

Adding to this resurgence is a tradition that Egypt's parliament serves as a "rubber stamp" to the president's decrees. Thus parliamentarians tend to focus on providing municipal services to those they represent rather than being a check on the government. This has fostered a political culture that favors the wealthy and connected, who are likely to be better placed to fulfill these demands. 

Analyst Ahmed Morsy, formerly of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Foundation, argues this return to power makes the term "felool" somewhat redundant.

"In a way we are all felool," he laughs "we were all around before the Jan. 25 revolution. Felool is just a term for stigmatizing people," he said.

Morsy argues that understanding the current situation means taking a wider focus beyond the resurgence of former NDP members and Mubarak's clique.

"The Salafist Nour party Al-Nour stood by Sisi and the regime, so they could be called felool by these standards," he says. "It's not 2011 anymore, the old cadres of the NDP are there, but they're not the most influential on the scene," explains Morsy. 

Morsy uses the example of Ahmed Ezz, an infamous Mubarak-era steel tycoon who was acquitted of an array of corruption charges in June 2013.

"Technically he's at home working on his business in Monofuiyeh, where he used to run. But now we hear that he's quietly supporting candidates financially, and could form coalition or group, and that by 2022 after eight years of Sisi he could run [for president] himself," says Morsy.

"But there are now new versions of Ahmed Ezz, connected to the state one way or another, who are not necessarily always in favor of the every single policy, but they see that survive they have to align themselves with the current regime and leadership," he adds.

The New Grey Area

This growth in new candidates who support old ideas has created a grey area in Egyptian politics.

"We are often punished with the idea that we are a felool party. But I say, show me five names of people who are felool in my party. We haven't more than three," says Dr. Magdy Morshed, vice president of the Conference Party (also known as the Congress Party).

The pary’s founder is Amr Moussa, a longtime foreign minister under Mubarak and former head of the Arab League. Moussa is also a failed presidential candidate who went on to back Sisi and become his political adviser. 

Morshed distinguishes between hardcore felool, who he estimates included up to 500 formerly powerful individuals, and the 3 million rank-and-file members of the NDP.

"To call someone part of the old regime, they really had to have a powerful place in the old regime, not just be a regular member of the NDP," he explained. 

But fundamentally, he says that someone being considered a felool politician shouldn't necessarily be a black mark. "If someone is a felool but they're honest, not a thief, not stealing the rights of others, there is nothing pending before a judge or in the courts for example, there's no problem for them to continue — this person can continue to practice politics," he argues. The independence of Egypt's judiciary, particularly after Morsi's ouster, has routinely been called into question by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International

Morshed argues that there is a diversity of views within his party, and within the six-party Egyptian Hope Coalition. All espouse secular liberal politics and are headed by prominent Egyptian businessmen or longstanding politicians. 
 
He argues that the political culture has changed in Egypt in a way that will influence the parliament.

"Normal citizens have had a political education these past four years, the mentality of people has completely changed," he says.

Even so, he is more than able to wax lyrical about the advantages of having Sisi as president. 

"Our party, the people hoped the president wouldn't be from the military. But the presence of someone who actively and clearly touches the desires of the people like Sisi changed the minds of most people to elect a military man. He came to us not as someone from the military but as a kind person," he explains. "Emotions play a big role in the way that Egyptian people make decisions. In Sisi they saw a kind, caring person who will protect them. When he talks to the people, he talks to their hearts, people want that. He got 97 percent in an election. That's an abnormal result."

He denies that the role of the coming parliament will be to "rubber stamp" Sisi's decrees or to provide services.  

"Finding agreement inside parliament will be very difficult as there's no majority or ideology — there are more individuals than parties and a two-thirds majority is needed to pass decisions," he says.

Morshed argues that the main job of parliament will be "the problem of translating the constitution into laws and rules. This is a massive job for parliament, including all the decisions that our president took up until now. There are more than 400 to be legalized." 

He agreed that it may be difficult to have genuine debates about the laws given the nature of the parliament. Citing a law that his party would like to change, he named the controversial 2013 Protest Law, saying "we want to change the law in part, so that you're not forced to ask permission from the police to protest, but just forced to inform them."

What's Left of What's Left

"Democracy is not like instant coffee. You can't prepare and drink it in five minutes," says Khaled Dawoud of the Constitution Party, quoting its leader Mohamed ElBaradei.

Dawoud, the spokesman for the party, is trying to find political space to reflect the values of the Jan. 25 revolution inside the forthcoming parliament. 

Still, he has lost what he dismisses as his own idealism that took place around the time of the revolution, as well as the ouster of Morsi, in which he also participated. 

"There's no intention to change the state institutions," he says. "When we propose to restructure the Interior Ministry to focus on human rights, it's seen as a threat to the state."

The Constitution Party, with its support base firmly with those who took to Tahrir Square in 2011, is split over whether participating in elections is wise in the current political climate. The debate has peaked with a series of votes, none yet conclusive, which began on Jan. 18. 

Dawoud thinks they should participate. "To have a definite banner, a voice in parliament to speak the values of January 25th, is better than staying outside "If we don't take part, we'll be marginalized. I fear for our existence, so we have to take part." 

Even so, he is highly critical of the new electoral system. He describes the current state of Egyptian politics as one where he feels he has a giant "X" on his head each time he gives a public appearance. He recently appeared on a cable TV channel, to be greeted by the news that someone had opened a court case against him. 

"We don't have an NDP now, but it's coming," he says, citing the example of Sisi's economic adviser and former Prime Minister Kamel El-Ganzouri's ongoing efforts to create a single list of non-Islamist candidates. "They're tailoring the election to create public support for Sisi, as it's treason not to support Sisi. The old state machinery is trying to make a pharaoh out of him whereby he's the only one capable of doing stuff."

As the machinery of elections slowly grinds into gear, many of the people who went out into Tahrir four years ago say they are looking at a bleak future, whatever the outcome. Opinion polls show that slogans about stability, security and the economy are winning out — ones that the current regime have positioned in opposition to democracy and human rights. 

Dawoud sums up a widespread cynicism in Egypt these days, saying "I'm negative about the current prospects for democracy.”  

Support for this project was provided by The Correspondents Fund with additional funding from the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. The reporting fellowship is dedicated to the spirit of late colleagues Anthony Shadid, Marie Colvin and James Foley who all dedicated themselves to on-the-ground reporting to tell the stories of the people caught in the tumult and conflict of the Middle East.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the increased death toll of Jan. 25 protesters and news of the release of Gamal and Alaa Mubarak.

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