Student Union Elections and the Brotherhood’s Electoral Mechanism

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Throughout its history, student activism played a crucial role in Egypt’s political and social scene. Starting with their struggle against the British occupation of Egypt in the early decades of the 20th century, to the opposition of leftist student bloc to the capitalist policies of former president Anwar al-Sadat in the 1970s, all the way to the current era where the number of students affiliated with political Islam groups rose significantly. But what caused such a dramatic increase in the numbers of Islamist-affiliated students?

Under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, leftist groups were very active within Egypt’s different campuses. Liberal students opposing Nasser’s nationalist policies were also on the scene, but the vast majority of active Egyptian students were leftist.

Following the death of Nasser, Sadat assumed power and started shifting the Egyptian compass from socialism toward liberalism. He adopted capitalist economic policies and took a more lenient stance with Israel and the US. This provoked anger among the large leftist blocs in Egypt’s universities, sparking significant protests.

Attempting to eliminate this wave of opposition, Sadat issued a decision to dissolve ‘The Republic Students’ Union’, a representative body of student unions from across Egypt’s different universities, responsible for organizing their activities. He also cancelled the political committees within student unions, but this did not deter leftist activism in the country.

In an attempt to limit leftist influence among students, Sadat created an ideological competition. With the liberals a weak force in the country, he struck a secret deal with Islamists in which he released some of their detainees from prisons, while they worked to limit leftist influence among students. Sadat allegedly funded the activities of those Islamists inside universities, according to Ahmed Bilal, head of the students’ committee at the Progressive Youth Union.  While the plan achieved its goals, Sadat was later killed by the very same Islamist hands he supported.

When Mubarak came to power, he detained many Islamist student figures, but by that time, they had already established a grassroots movement.  The rise of political Islam continued both in and outside of universities during Mubarak’s rule, despite his attempts to limit their influence, with Mubarak’s last few years of rule witnessing severe restrictions on student activism.

After the January 25 revolution, students gained more freedom to express their opinions and engage in political activities. Rushed student union elections were held in August 2011, few weeks after university schedules resumed. Out of the 40 leading seats including the heads and deputy heads of all Egyptian university student unions, students affiliated with political Islam groups won only 4 seats.

Three months later, parliamentary elections were held, and Islamist parties won around 70% of the seats. They used their majority to push for re-establishing ‘The Republic Students’ Union’ under the name ‘The Egyptian Student Union’. Intense disagreements ensued, between political Islam students and revolutionary students. Revolutionary students boycotted the ‘Egypt Students’ Union’ elections, as well as student union elections at several universities. Unsurprisingly, Islamist students won 25 out of the 40 leading seats. The head and deputy head of ‘Egypt Students’ Union’ were members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is worth noting that the head of ‘Egypt Students’ Union’ represented Egyptian students in the constituent assembly responsible for drafting the constitution, a body dominated by Islamists. This was likely the driving force behind Islamist determination to re-establish the union before even setting the new bylaws governing it.

Just a year and a half later, with student elections held once again, revolutionary and independent students secured more than 60 percent of this year’s student union seats, according to The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.

The results ignited a significant wave of reactions among students and intellectuals, who perceived the result as an indicator of the decline of the popularity of political Islam in Egypt, following an increased dissatisfaction with President Mohamed Morsi’s performance since he assumed power in June 2012.

This, however, may be a generous overestimation. Despite a decline in the popularity of Islamist groups, particularly that of the Muslim Brotherhood, student union elections’ result are not an indicator of that decline. The reason for that can be understood in the context of the Brotherhood’s electoral mechanism.

This electoral mechanism targets lower income groups, who have not necessarily gained access to university-level educations. This voter base is large enough to grant the brotherhood an overwhelming victory in any elections they run for. However, university-level students are not part of the brotherhood’s target groups.

The brotherhood’s electoral mechanism proved to be efficient in all occasions in the past two years. Starting with the constitutional amendments’ referendum of March 2011, the parliamentary elections of 2011-2012, the presidential elections of June 2012, all the way to the constitutional referendum of December 2012, the Brotherhood has maintained its ability to secure the majority of votes despite a declining popularity. This mechanism is still – to this moment – efficient enough to secure a majority for the brotherhood in any elections in the near future.

The Brotherhood’s electoral and party slogans are rooted in religious sentiment, from the now shelved ‘Islam is the solution,’ to ‘Applying Sharia is the key to prosperity,’ used alongside a well-established charity program that has been in place long before they came to power.  Garnering people’s sympathy for their detainees, playing on the poor economic status of many Egyptians under Mubarak’s rule, in addition to the combination of charity and enticing slogans constitute a magical electoral mechanism used by the Muslim Brotherhood.

With the Brotherhood now in power, the poor are getting poorer, former detainees are accused of becoming corrupt officials, the enticing slogans are becoming meaningless, but charitable activities still exist. In early March, in the lead up to what was expected to be the second parliamentary elections since Mubarak’s downfall, the Brotherhood has already begun several charitable campaigns, selling food staples at wholesale prices and targeting key issues like unemployment and healthcare.

As Morsi’s mistakes mount, these target groups are getting smaller, as the popularity of his brotherhood shrinks, but not to the extent that would impact elections results. Under autocratic regimes, the Muslim Brotherhood was able to connect with the student movement, bringing forward the current generation of political leaders among their ranks. If anything, the victories among non-Islamist students in university student unions may have little bearing on today’s political situation, but could be an indication of what to expect from the next generation of political leaders. 

Fady Salah is an Egyptian writer, journalist, political analyst, and author.

Photo: Al Hussainy Mohamed

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