Arish–On the day before the elections, Northern Sinai seemed ready for a tumultuous – if predictable – election.
Northern Sinai is divided into three electoral districts: Arish, Rafah, Shiekh Zowayed, and Bir al-Abd. A total of 34 candidates are competing to win eight seats.
The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) is expected to sweep all three districts, however. In the second and third districts, weak opposition guarantees NDP victory in spite of multiple NDP candidates. The one exception to the NDP's dominance is a seat of the women’s quota, where the most prominent tribal leaders pledged to vote for the Wafd candidate.
Given the presence of armed contenders, many observers anticipate a violent election day.
In most districts, the NDP fields several candidates for both seats. A current MP, Hassan al-Kassas, is competing with Kashef Mohamed al-Kashef over a seat in Arish. Both rivals are NDP members. Al-Kassas provoked opposition groups at the previous parliamentary session when calling for the use of loaded guns to intimidate demonstrators. According to local sources, al-Kashef has widespread popularity in the district, especially after representing the area for 15 years as MP.
The NDP has opted to nominate several candidates per seat in order to accommodate candidacy requests filed during electoral college sessions.
Hundreds of NDP supporters assembled in a huge tent and vowed to re-elect Hossam Shahin, a current MP, who is confident that he will be re-elected. “Our biggest challenge this year is Sinai's unemployment. Last year I received job requests from 8,000 unemployed Sinai residents, and honestly, I was only able to provide jobs for about 1,000 of them,” Shahin told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "We are working to find more job opportunities and to attract investment, whether in industry or in tourism, into North Sinai.”
Competing for the same seat is Abdel Rahman Shorbagy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Unlike other contenders, Shorbagy was prohibited from conducting a parade, a common election tradition in Sinai. Shorbagy said at a gathering late Fridaynight that he lost legal suits concerning the issue. Shorbagy employs a new slogan, “Together We Will Change,” in place of his previous one, “Islam is the Solution,” as a result of the latter's rejection by the Higher Elections Commission.
Late Friday, the MB candidate, along with the Wafdist candidate for the workers' seat, Hamdan al-Khalili, gathered in the Bollok family's diwan in Arish. Large Sinai families, like the Bolloks, share diwans, huge occasion halls designed to host large gatherings and celebrations. A Bollok family member told Al-Masry Al-Youm that this was the first gathering the Muslim Brotherhood succeeded to hold in the days before the elections. Security services had threatened them against holding conferences or events.
“The security apparatus has stopped all our parades. They tore down all our banners and prevented us from speaking to people during the campaign's most crucial days,” said Shorbagy.
Amidst cheers of gathered crowds, Shorbagy shared his vision of new employment opportunitiesand urban renewal for the city of Arish.
Among the attendees was Sheikh Khaled Arafat, a well known political activist and member of the Nasserite Karama party. “I supported the Muslim Brothers during the last elections simply to challenge the NDP; I even represented them at the ballot box,” he said. According to Arafat, even though the Muslim Brothers' candidate received the highest number of votes in 2005, it still had to contend with a new round of elections. “In the repeat election, we were prevented by security checkpoints from casting our ballots,” said the Karama party member, who plans to cast a nullified vote this year. “I now feel that the elections constitute a theatre act that functions to serve the ruling party."
Karama plans to boycott this year’s elections in Sinai.
Another candidate is Rushdy Mohamed Ghanem, an ex-police officer who runs as an independent. Pictures of Ghanem in full police uniform juxtaposed by anti-regime rhetoric are scattered throughout the city.
“We are fed-up with excessive use of power and 30 years of corruption and oppression by the ruling party,” said Ghanem. “All that we demand is a respectful life for Sinai's children and an end to harassment by the security apparatus." The ex-security officer resigned from his job seven years ago to embrace the opposition.
Despite poor chances, the candidate garners a niche among the Sallaimas, a prominent Sinai family.
“We are running in an election that the NDP is famous for rigging. They will not permit any strong voice among the opposition in the coming parliament because that counters the ruling party's legislative monopoly.” Amin Kassas, head of the Wafd party in Sinai, told Al-Masry Al-Youm. “Our main demands in Sinai are development and the right of Sinai's citizens to own their own land. When the Wafd Party proposed laws allowing Sinai citizens to own their land, NDP MPs objected.”
The existence of laws restricting Sinai's Bedouins to own and register land is widely considered to be a feature of overt discrimination against the peninsula's inhabitants.
The Wafd leader, who expressed skepticism about the results of upcoming elections, boasted that their contender for the women’s quota seat, Safeya al-Bek, has a promising chance.
North Sinai is populated with around 400,000 citizens. The region has a high rate of unemployment, and native Sinai inhabitants harp about the importation of labor from outside the region. Over the past five years, the area has also struggled with decreased security, including arbitrary arrests that followed a series of terrorist attacks in South Sinai targeting foreign tourists. According to human rights organizations, about 3,000 individuals have been arrested so far.