Experts fear fraud in upcoming union election

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Sunday’s vote seen as opposition challenge to NDP

CAIRO: On Sunday Egyptian workers begin the first round of voting in elections for the national basic union, electing new representatives to a number of worker organizations meant to represent their concerns to the state. But opposition figures and independent analysts warn that the voting process used in the elections is overly complicated and highly susceptible to manipulation and vote-rigging.

Government critics argue that this is the whole point. Many see this week’s polls as either a way for the government to reaffirm its dominance of the labor movement, or as a potential challenge to the power of the ruling National Democratic Party of Hosni Mubarak.

“The NDP wants to control the union because when Gamal Mubarak runs for president they want the president of the Itihad to say that he supports Gamal Mubarak on behalf of all the workers of Egypt, speculates Ali Badry, a member of activist group Workers for Change. The Itihad is the secretariat of the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions and the most powerful arm of the labor bureaucracy.

Badry is employed at a bakery company in Cairo and wants to run in the basic union elections on Sunday, but he has been denied certification by the Itihad.

He is by no means alone in his certification problems. According to Mustafa Nayed Ali, a WFC member and certified candidate, more than 630 workers have been denied permission to run in the election. The political affiliations of each denied candidate are unclear, but according to a statement released by the Muslim Brotherhood, 520 of their members have been barred from running, and many have been arrested and detained by security forces.

“This procedure is being manipulated so that a lot of workers who want to nominate themselves are prohibited from doing so, says Ali, who is employed at the Iron and Steel Company in Helwan.

Currently, candidates in the basic union elections must first obtain written certification from their workplace confirming their employment, and then use this certification to apply for a second certificate from the Itihad. If a candidate is approved to run and is elected, they can then participate in the election for the governing body of the General Union, the organization charged with oversight of the basic union. If they win that election, they are then eligible to run for a seat in the 21-member Itihad, which oversees all Egyptian unions.

Critics say that union members have too little say in the syndicate system because workers at large are only able to run for election for the lowest of the three organizations. Furthermore, they say that the Itihad makes candidates obtain the second round of certification so that it can screen them and disqualify those not seen as sufficiently loyal to the party.

“The syndicate system has been dominated by the authoritarian state established by the 1952 regime, says Nabil Adel Fattah, the deputy director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “The syndicates have been one form of control within the system.

For this reason, many fear that the government may engage in the kind of fraud that marked the 2005 parliamentary elections, in which the Brotherhood unexpectedly won a large number of seats in the lower house of parliament. Workers for Change, Kefaya and other opposition groups are demanding full judicial oversight of the upcoming elections.

“We need the judges to make sure that the government doesn’t play any tricks, says Tamer Waguih, an activist and analyst with the Center for Socialist Studies.

Such oversight, says Waguih, is legal according to Article 41 of Law 35, passed in 1976.

“No one can say that judges cannot monitor the elections because this is endorsed by law, even the Itihad accepts this. The issue is, what do you mean? he says. “There is a disagreement about the interpretation of the law. Workers interpret the law to say that there should be a judge in every factory to monitor the elections. The Itihad interprets that same clause to say that there should only be a judge in every governorate in the country, but not a judge in front of every ballot box.

“It is an issue of effectiveness, he says. “Will the oversight be deep, wide and effective? Or shallow, formal and ineffective?

According to Waguih, the last national union elections, held in 2001, were marked by many of the same problems. The results of those elections were challenged in court several times by candidates who had been disqualified or removed from voting lists by the Itihad, and in all cases the high court ruled that the disqualifications were illegal.

In May 2006, the high court ruled that due to widespread irregularities the 2001 elections were invalid, making the current Itihad illegitimate. The same body is now poised to monitor this weekend’s elections.

“But the state never abided by the court’s judgment, he says. Experts and activists agree that the face of the opposition is one thing that has changed since the 2001 elections. “This exclusion of opposition candidates and the Muslim Brotherhood is the result of the last parliamentary elections, says Abdel Fattah. “That 20 percent of the members of parliament are in the Brotherhood makes the government very worried. The extent of the Brotherhood’s reach within the workers’ movement is one of the real red lines of Egyptian politics.

“Since 1922 Egyptian regimes have depended on control of a unified workers’ movement, and the new trend now is for the Brotherhood and opposition parties to build independent syndicates, he continued. “This is the first time that Egyptian workers have presented these kinds of professional and political demands.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is trying to extend its power within the system after its great successes in the 1980s in the professional syndicates, like the lawyers, engineers and medical syndicates. They have extended through the nerves of the middle class, and now they want to extend through other channels, through the worker syndicates and elections in the sports and social clubs.

Waguih agrees, “The most important thing about this election is that the Muslim Brothers have decided to participate. Of course there have been Brotherhood union representatives and officials before, but this time the Brotherhood has decided to participate in a very big way.

According to statements released by the Brotherhood, its members play prominent roles in roughly 1,700 of the more than 2,000 local unions that are governed by the basic union. The organization, which is officially banned, has decided to field candidates for 15 percent of the seats in the higher bureaucracies, but will participate in half of the races for the basic union. It also proudly notes that for the first time, it has nominated eight female candidates.

The Brotherhood complains that many of their candidates have been threatened or intimidated by security forces and that 520 of them have been denied permission to run, including almost 100 in Cairo alone.

“When the Muslim Brotherhood began to widely announce its participation, the Itihad was alarmed, says Waguih. “The security forces were also alarmed because it looks like the Muslim Brotherhood is taking another step towards control of the institutions of society.

Speaking to the Associated Press last week, Brotherhood member Mohamed Bishr tried to allay official concern over the possibility of Brotherhood involvement in the syndicate.

There are unreasonable worries and fear, he said, “They should know that our representation would be a very small thing compared to the seats the government is going to possess.

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