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Could Egyptian tribes tip electoral balance in upcoming election?

Several tribes in Egypt announced their support for presidential candidate Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who is facing off against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the upcoming presidential election.
Egyptian supporters of presidential candidate Moussa Mostafa Moussa carry election campaign banners during a march in Cairo, Egypt March 4, 2018.  REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany - RC17ED8A0400

CAIRO — On Feb. 24, a number of tribes in the National Council for Arab Tribes announced their support for El Ghad Party head Moussa Mustafa Moussa, who is running against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the upcoming election. The declaration was made during an El Ghad Party meeting at its headquarters in Cairo in which members of the National Council for Arab Tribes attended.

Meanwhile, Moussa’s campaign revealed on Feb. 24 some aspects of his electoral campaign under the slogan “Building a Better Egypt.”

In appreciation of the tribes’ national role in supporting Egypt and protecting its borders, Moussa suggested re-evaluating their lands and improving their situation by providing services and better prices. Many tribes assume monitoring and reconnaissance tasks on the field, especially in the border areas; others provide immediate information to the security authorities.

The exact number of tribes in Egypt is unknown. Some sources estimate that their number is greater than 100 and that around 17 million Egyptians belong to those tribes. They are mainly concentrated in border provinces such as the Sinai Peninsula, Aswan and Matrouh.

The National Council for Arab Tribes had issued a press release on Feb. 18 announcing several rallies to support Moussa in the upcoming presidential election. These events began on Feb. 24 and will end on March 23 — the time frame set by the National Electoral Commission (NEC).

The National Council for Arab Tribes is affiliated with the Ministry of Social Affairs. Its objective is to facilitate communication and cohesion between tribes and Egyptian provinces, place tribes on the nation’s map and allow them to participate in all sectors in a way that reflects their influence and number.

Wajih Abu Hajar, the secretary-general of provinces in the council, told Al-Monitor that the council was established in 2013. It consists of 68 Arab tribes representing the different provinces of the republic, and it communicates with other Arab tribes outside of Egypt that are connected to the Egyptian tribes.

When it comes to the reasons why the tribes support Moussa, Abu Hajar said, “Moussa and the El Ghad Party were the first to support the establishment of the council, either through providing headquarters in different provinces or trying to solve the tribes’ problems.”

Abu Hajar added, “Supporting Moussa is a move to repay his kindness. This man deserves to be in the best position to represent the tribes in Egypt, especially since his family is originally from Minya and is known for its tribal background.”

Asserting that the council will not support Sisi for yet another presidential term, Abu Hajar said, “Moussa’s candidacy has placed us in front of an ultimatum, especially since we respect and appreciate Sisi, who brought back security to Egypt and came to power in the most difficult of times. Yet when we had to choose, we supported Moussa since it is a duty for all tribes represented in the council.”

He continued, “It is enough that Moussa’s electoral program touched down on the needs of the tribes by stressing the need to solve their pending land ownership issues with the government. Many tribes reside in borderlands that are subject to conflicts on ownership with the state.”

As for the strategies that the tribes will implement in supporting Moussa, Abu Hajar explained, “We will hold rallies in several provinces, and the last one will be held in Cairo on March 23, and Moussa will be present for that one to directly address his supporters and discuss his entire vision.”

Moussa officially submitted his candidacy papers on Jan. 29 and later mentioned in a press conference that “El Ghad Party has made important studies that would solve many problems in Egypt, so the party found it necessary to run for elections.”

In addition to this popular tribal support for Moussa, some tribes, such as the tribes of the Red Sea region, declared their support for Sisi in a rally held on Feb. 2.

The NEC had announced Jan. 8 that the doors will be open for Egyptian expats residing abroad to vote March 16-18, while elections within Egypt’s borders will be held March 26-28.

Ammar Ali Hassan, a writer and specialist in politics and sociology, spoke to Al-Monitor about the importance of the support granted to Moussa by the National Council for Arab Tribes in the upcoming presidential election.

Hassan said, “The support given by this great number of tribes to Moussa does not necessarily mean that all tribes won’t vote for Sisi, especially in light of dwindling influence by the tribal sheikhs on the other members of the tribe. In other words, imposing one political inclination or one candidate on all tribal members is not possible.”

Hassan added, “This tribal support might not translate into an influential voting bloc that would tip the balance in favor of the tribes-supported candidate for the upcoming presidential election. This support is closer to flattery in paying back Moussa for the services he gave the tribes.”

He continued, “The council’s declaration of support for Moussa could be viewed from a completely different angle. It could turn out to benefit Sisi, since it portrays a different mental image. It shows the international community that there is a political movement in Egyptian society, and that there is actual competition for the presidency.”

Including the tribal component in the presidential election draws attention to the inclusion of tribes in the political process in Egypt. It also opens the door to speculations on the capacity of tribes to play an effective political role in the future.

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