For the second time in three months, Egyptians have expressed their dissatisfaction — albeit largely symbolically and on a limited scale — with the government’s tightening control over nearly all public freedoms. In this latest prominent example, on May 30, over 25,000 Egyptian engineers gathered for hours in a sweltering public hall in Nasr City and widely rejected an attempt by the government’s majority party in parliament to oust Tarek el-Nabarawy, the current head of their syndicate, known for his independent stands and links to the political opposition.

The proposal to replace Nabarawy was put forward by syndicate members belonging to Mustaqbal Watan (Nation’s Future Party), which maintains more than 300 seats in the national parliament and declares its loyalty to Egyptian President Abdel-Fatah el-Sisi. The party, backed by influential businessmen, is known for its state-wide campaigns distributing boxes containing basic food stuffs to thousands of poor Egyptians, especially ahead of elections, all decorated with pictures of the president and his well-known slogan that he regularly repeats three times at the end of his speeches: “Long live Egypt.”

The party used its extensive network of hundreds of offices in Cairo and other nearby governorates to mobilize engineers and pack them onto buses, in addition to feeding them, in order to take part in the Engineers’ Syndicate vote and support their attempt to push out Nabarawy. However, the engineers chose to enjoy the free ride and meal but still voted to maintain the current head of their organization.

Shocking attack

This clearly infuriated the minority of anti-Nabarawy engineers, including several members of parliament (MPs) from Mustaqbal Watan. So when the likely results of the vote started to become clear, dozens of thugs suddenly rushed into the hall where the proceedings were taking place, beat up voting officers, broke ballot boxes, and spilled the paper ballots all over the floor in order to prevent the judges overseeing the voting from declaring the official results.

One opposition parliamentarian and an engineer, Maha Abdel-Nasser, who belongs to the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, bravely stood up to the brutes who charged into the voting hall and filmed their attacks on her mobile phone. Her videos went viral on social media, garnering more than 500,000 views in a matter of hours. She also presented a complaint to the parliamentary speaker, petitioning for disciplinary measures against four Nation’s Future MPs whose actions aiding the assault were caught on video.

The images were so shocking and violent that Egyptian security agencies and the government found it impossible to ignore the events, even though the authorities’ initial reaction was to claim that the situation involved fights among engineers taking part in the voting and that complaints from all sides would be investigated. Two government ministers met with Nabrawy on June 9, and six key members of the Engineers’ Syndicate’s board, who were charged with involvement in the attempt to spoil the vote, were forced to resign. Nabrawy said he welcomed the government’s initiative but still insisted that the official results must be announced and that those involved in the violence should be held accountable.

Doubts over National Dialogue

The Civil Democratic Movement (CDM) alliance, made up of 12 opposition parties and other independent figures, warned that it would not be possible for its members to continue taking part in the National Dialogue that President Sisi called for a year ago if those responsible for spoiling the Engineers’ Syndicate’s election were not brought to justice and the official results of the vote remained unannounced. They added that one of the key reasons for them to take part in the Dialogue was to open up the tightly controlled public space over the past nine years; thus, the use of thugs to prevent the Egyptian engineers from expressing their free will signaled the absence of serious desire on behalf of the security agencies to change their policy of not tolerating any opposition.

CDM leaders announced that they would raise no other topic but the Engineers’ Syndicate events during the next sessions of the Dialogue that were supposed to take place on June 4. In response, the government organizers issued a brief statement that those sessions would be postponed for one week, claiming that a sand storm that hit Egypt a few days earlier had inflicted damage to the Conference Hall, where the meetings have been taking place. Ironically, the above-mentioned Engineers’ Syndicate elections were held in the very same building where the National Dialogue sessions have convened since the process was launched in early May.

On March 18, members of Egypt’s Press Syndicate had delivered a similar message of defiance to government-backed candidates, but with a happier ending. The state had presented the editor-in-chief of a government daily as its candidate for the post of the head of the syndicate. The government’s pick faced off against an opposition journalist, Khaled el-Balashi, the latter widely seen as a long shot to win the post. Like in the case of the Egyptian engineers two months later, the authorities tried to mobilize hundreds of journalists working for government publications and provided them with free meals and transportation to the election site. Yet while behind the privacy curtain to fill out the secret ballot, the majority voted for Balashi, the opposition candidate. There were also attempts to delay announcing the results by a few hours, yet pressure from the journalists forced the judicial committee to announce the winner.

Influence on 2024 presidential vote

Historically, professional syndicates in Egypt, such as those of engineers, journalists, doctors and lawyers, have frequently been a battleground between the government and opposition as well as a reflection of the public mood in a country where consecutive regimes have repeatedly resorted to rigging and tightly managing elections to assure results favorable to the government and president. Under late President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a popular revolution in 2011, after staying in office for 30 years, the Muslim Brotherhood group controlled many professional syndicates, which were seen as an alternative means for the officially banned political Islamic group to showcase its influence.

Considering that President Sisi is up for re-election for a third term early next year, many observers have tried to draw parallels between the outcome of the journalists’ and engineers’ recent voting and the possible result of the upcoming presidential campaign. The full-scale outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine has exposed the weaknesses of the Egyptian economy, heavily dependent on borrowing from abroad to finance fancy mega-projects that Egypt’s president insists on in an attempt to claim that the Egyptian state has restored its strength. And so analysts have presented the syndicate elections, in which members voted against the authorities’ preferred candidates, as a reflection of the growing public dissatisfaction with the government’s policies and deteriorating economic conditions.

President Sisi has maintained firm control over the political scene and the media since taking office nine years ago. Thousands of opponents were placed in jail, with many awaiting trial for years, for publicly criticizing the regime on social media or in interviews. All elections that have taken place since 2014, whether for parliament or president, ended with overwhelming — over 90 percent — support for the government.

In 2018, Sisi ran nearly unopposed for a second term in office, and a year later, he amended the 2014 constitution, which limited the president to two four-year terms. Instead, he added two years to his second term and made an exception for himself to run for a third, six-year term (2024-2030). Under the revised constitution, any future president will be allowed to run for only two terms, totaling a maximum 12 years in office.

So far, just one opposition candidate, Ahmed Tantawy, has declared his intention to run against Sisi in early 2024. Despite the limited political opening that followed the launch of the National Dialogue a year ago, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, Tantawy, known for his sharp criticism of Sisi, has already paid a price for announcing his campaign. Days later, security agencies arrested 16 of his relatives and friends.

There are few indications so far that the upcoming presidential elections will be truly open and free; yet the results of the recent press’ and engineers’ syndicate elections have given opponents some hope that they can stand up to government candidates, despite their weakness and lack of resources.

Meanwhile, an important lesson for the government to learn from those syndicate elections is that even if it uses all its resources to mobilize voters and brings them to the ballot box, the final outcome will not necessarily match the effort. Some would argue that both syndicates are too small to be representative of the more than 60 million registered Egyptian voters; thus, it is hard to draw any hard conclusions. Yet if taken to stand in as a sample of an influential segment of the population, these professional groups may be pointing to the growing public dissatisfaction with government policies, both on the economic and political fronts.


Khaled Dawoud is the deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram Weekly and former president of the social-liberal Dostour Party.

Photo by KHALED DESOUKI/AFP via Getty Images

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