Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Mohammed Seif is amongst the few politically engaged young Egyptians, who still believe in the potential of partisan politics. He has worked as a Researcher for the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) in 2014, ran as a Parliamentary candidate in the Legislative National Elections of 2015 and served as a Parliamentary Assistant for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party in 2017. This month, MERH’s has invited him to share his perspective on the challenges and developments of youth representation in the current Parliamentary election.
Interview conducted by Dounia Mahlouly
Can you tell us about the general context of the recent electoral campaign?
This time is different than in 2015. There are two systems in Egypt for candidacy: the list and the district. District-campaigning is harder because you compete for yourself within the district you live in. You would have the backing of your political party but, at the end of the day, you need to work on your own district and campaign on the streets, which requires a lot of money and resources. It is actually very hard to win within a district, especially if you are a youth candidate and don’t have much resources. On the list, alternatively, you would have another 30 or 40 people running with you on the national, sub-national or regional level. I think we have 29 youth candidates on the National list.
What are the structures and mechanisms that have been implemented to encourage youth representation?
Youth representation has been coordinated by an entity endorsed by the State, which is designed to coordinate and support youth candidacies. And I would say that this entity has been, in some regards, more youth empowering than a lot of civil parties, because civil parties’ members often tend to compete with each other. Internal competition is very much part of the political culture, which I think is why this particular entity, which was endorsed by the State, ironically turned out to be more empowering to the youth than the parties that were calling for youth empowerment.
What has been the recent evolution of the political landscape in terms of youth representation?
The big positive shift in the culture in Egypt is that the general public is more accepting of youth candidacies right now. I remember that in 2012, we used to say that Amr Hamzawy was the youth candidate and he was over 45 years old. Now I consider myself to be old and I am 33! The general perception is that any candidate over 30 is old. Though it is still legal to run as a youth candidate until 35, after that you are not considered as an [eligible] youth candidate anymore…. You could say that today, it is more progressive than it used to be in terms of youth representation. However, in terms of political or ideological representation [of the youth], it is not. Generally speaking, I can see more youth empowerment but less politicisation of the streets: we would accept individual youth or female candidates running as such but would have more issues if these candidates were promoting a particular ideological identity, which I think is a problem. Because you have empowerment for the youth but you do not have a receptive culture to political ideas, so between two youth candidates, the one who is more likely to win is the one that would have more exposure to the media, resources and State-support, even if the other calls for a political agenda that is closer to what the majority of people wants.
Are there similarities between the political programmes of the different young candidates?
The campaigning practices still appear to be a little bit shallow in most of the cases. It is mainly money being circulated; it is sort of an income distribution in the country. Because a lot of wealthy businessmen who have no idea about politics would run for social recognition or prestige and would spend a lot of money. Even the younger ones, because the younger ones themselves are related to wealthy families. This ‘local family-business politics’ generates investments in the streets, one would say that it creates temporary economic relief. Of course, it is not always the case and there are candidates who have a clear political agenda but I would say that the mainstream approach to campaigning is like that. What has changed is that back in 2011 or 2015, the older generations would have been running on behalf of these families. Nowadays, it is the younger generations that are running, and this is the positive aspect of this evolution. It is still a sort of un-politicised oligarchy that is not campaigning for a cause but for its own network of interest or personal lobbies.
When you say ‘politicised’ do you mean rooted in ‘partisan politics’?
Yes. I mean relying on partisan politics and also having an ideological framework. We have a lot of political parties that have been represented in the single lists, in the House of Representative there have been 12 and there are 17 parties in the senate national lists, in addition to the ones involved in the single lists. However, ideological rhetoric is lacking in the campaign and the result is that political action does not translate into substantial change in our governing policies. Public bureaucracy is the default form of governance. So, at the end of the day, we do not have a candidate that comes with a new programme that could be consistent with a set of ideas. I would say that 50% of the youth candidates running are also not politicised, since they represent the younger generation of the oligarchy. But at the end of the day, I think it is worth it, even if these younger representatives represent the oligarchy or big family businesses, I think still it’s a good sign, because it suggests that there is a new culture. And this new culture means that when the political parties have wider space, they will benefit from youth empowerment. Because due to the competition within parties, it so happens that those who advocate for youth empowerment may not even empower their own youth within a party. And we can only hope that the change of culture will force any party to consider youth representation.
What about the young voters? How do you anticipate youth election turnout and involvement?
Based on my own observations, I would say that in my own district there has been barely no participation […] I think that the youth participation in the candidacy would be higher than the youth participation in terms of voting. In general, I see that there is sort of a resentment amongst the youth, and this is something that needs to be addressed. For example, women are better represented in the government, there are like 6 female ministers currently, however, women citizens in the Egyptian streets do not feel empowered. In Egypt you may find that this level of highly institutional empowerment is higher than the level of empowerment that may be experienced culturally. And we should be studying this gap in the single districts. We have 29 candidates from the state-entity mentioned above on the national list. They have very high chances to succeed because the national list has minor competition from other lists, but we need to pay attention to how many youth candidates succeeded in the single districts as well. Is it the politicised youth? Or the youth who belongs to the oligarchy? Or not the youth at all? We will see… but in general my impression is that the young candidates would be more enthusiastically engaged than young voters this time.
Would you say that the public issues that young voters would be interested in have been covered by the campaign?
When it comes to the district-based campaign, I would say it is not about the issue but very much about the candidate’s personality, network or ability to deliver local services. It is pure clientelism. That would describe the candidacies that represent the oligarchy. As for the exceptions that are more involved in [partisan politics], you may find very shallow rhetoric that is limited to political positioning. It’s exceptional when you have a candidate with a set of ideological ideas reflected into a clear policy direction. There is public resentment in the streets, because of the economic austerity measures that are being implemented, but at the same time, people are fearful of any labelling of what would be the so-called opposition. There are mixed signals from the streets, on the one hand, the public expects someone to stand up for them but the people also want to make sure that a would-be MP or representative would not have any issue with the State. The state-structure would play a good role, in this regard, because it guarantees that young candidates have been formally endorsed. In my opinion, what is still missing is that particular type of candidacy that would satisfy all the public needs i.e.: not opposing the State, presenting a well-defined partisan identity, and speaking to individuals’ direct interests as citizens. In my view, the only thing that would feel this gap is if we have the municipal elections.
Are there other communities that may experience challenges in terms of political representation?
The same considerations that apply to youth representation also apply to women representation, and I personally believe that in order to understand how to address issues related to women’s rights you also need more of a political message, partisan engagement and ideological substance. This would help channel the grand ideas that support youth or women’s rights beyond representation in a number of seats or quotas. Overall representation can only happen by combining state reforms and cultural change. At the moment there is still a gap between the achievement of having female ministers and the reality of what women are living on the Egyptian streets, and we need to bridge this gap. I would say that women empowerment is relatively high at the state level but not that high culturally and socially speaking. A young male candidate would have higher chances on the single district lists, because in that case, the culture would be more receptive to male than female; but if that same candidate was to run on the national list with the State, the State might prefer a female candidate. This is due to constitutional amendments that approved a new women’s quota (25% of the total elected seats in the House). But I also wonder if this is not due to the fact that males are seen as more politicised in Egypt and that the State still prefers lower levels of politicisation.
Do you mean to say that males are seen as more politicised because they had more access to political engagement before?
Because they have more opportunities to practice political engagement, engage in confrontations, which is less likely for women, because men have more opportunities to meet in public spaces, cafes, argue and disagree…The result is that culturally men are still more empowered, although the State is now keen to promote female candidacies. Of course, the root causes of this are complex and open for interpretation…