Note: This is an archived project; no significant changes have been made since parliament was seated in January 2016.
The Difference between Voting and Democracy: Egypt’s Upcoming Parliamentary Race
Since the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the regime in Egypt has worked assiduously to depoliticize the population. Under Nasser, all political parties were banned and civil society groups, from trade unions to women’s rights organizations, were reconstituted as state-sponsored organizations. In the name of national unity, it was argued, the people should organize under the state’s umbrella and avoid divisive organizations which could undermine society’s march forward with a singular purpose and interest.
In practice, however, societies are complex bodies with an array of competing interests, and the interests of those in power regularly differ from those of the population. For this reason many advocate powerful legislative institutions elected by the population and through whom, in theory, the people can pursue their interests in the state’s decision-making apparatus. Once again, however, a military officer-turned-president has pursued an agenda that marginalizes the legitimacy and efficacy of political opposition under the guise of protecting national unity at this (perennially) critical juncture in Egypt’s history.
Egypt has been without a parliament since the nation’s highest court dissolved the lower house in June 2012 and the upper house (since abolished) in June 2013. One of the consequences of over three years of government without a parliament in place is that Egypt’s current and previous president were left to rule the country by decree with the acquiescence of their respective cabinets and virtually no meaningful oversight of their decisions.
The roadmap laid out following 2013’s popular coup initially scheduled parliamentary elections preceding a presidential election, but public figures called for the presidential election to come first. This was seen as a potentially stabilizing outcome and undoubtedly would strengthen the president—and through him, the military—in the governing of the country. Though interim President Adly Mansour warned that such an inversion would leave the parliament in the president’s control, the presidential election was held first and Egypt has been ruled by presidential decree. Since President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi was elected in May of last year, discussions concerning the parliament gathered pace. It would be helpful to view that process through the lens of a regime seeking to depoliticize the electorate.
Discussions over the parliamentary elections law took place in the context of a president purportedly elected with the unanimous consent of the electorate. (Sisi won nearly 97% of the vote; more voters invalidated their ballots than voted for the only other contender.) From the outset there was controversy over the voting mechanism in the elections. The proposed system decreed that roughly 80% of parliamentary seats would be decided in direct votes for a representative of an electoral district (single member districts – SMDs). The remaining 20% would be determined by votes for party lists in four large districts with the winning list in each district taking all the seats for that district. From an electoral systems perspective, this party list system is effectively the worst of both worlds.
The advantage of SMDs for voters is that they theoretically have representatives directly accountable to them and who will represent their specific interests. Alternatively, in a proportional representation (PR) system voters cast their ballots for parties; this system creates some distance between voters and their parliamentarians, but smaller political parties have a chance at getting into parliament. If a party has 10% support, it would likely lose in all SMD votes, but could take a sizeable number of seats in a PR system. In the current system, the party list system will actually exaggerate the power of the most prominent parties and further marginalize smaller lists who have little if any hope of getting seats in the current system. Many of Egypt’s political parties wanted a proportional representation system that would allow a number of parties to make their way into the House of Representatives and create an opportunity for a diverse parliament to be elected, representing Egypt’s various political voices. However, after over a year of talks, no substantial changes have been made to the voting mechanisms.
Another problem posed by the SMD focus in Egypt’s elections is the nature of how SMDs have played out over the past few decades in Egypt’s elections. They have largely been a mechanism for distributing patronage with leaders of prominent families filling parliamentary seats without representing any specific ideology or political program. As former parliamentarian and Free Egyptians Party member Emad Gad explained on ONTV, “Normally, the independents have an agenda of personal interests, in our country.” He goes on to explain, “You’ll find most independents are symbols of families…and have their eye on the ruler. He wants to make the ruler happy. You don’t expect opposition from him.”
Aside from using the electoral law to structure the parliament in the regime’s favor, Sisi has sought to more directly depoliticize the parliamentary election by calling for a unified national list which he could endorse. The suggestion that the political forces that represent nearly 90 million Egyptians could coherently come together into a single list is utterly untenable, speaking to Sisi’s lack of interest in seeing competitive elections take place in Egypt. Yet it appears Sisi may get his wish: One of the largest party list coalitions competing in the upcoming vote, “For the Love of Egypt,” is widely seen as being pro-Sisi. The coalition’s political coordinator is a retired officer from Egypt’s General Intelligence Directorate, Sameh Seif al-Yazal. The regime domination of the list extends to its candidates, many of whom were formerly members of former President Hosni Mubarak’s now-dissolved National Democratic Party.
In the past few months, many of the core pro-revolution parties such as Dostour and the Social Democrats have seen their leaders resign. Dozens of members from the Social Democrats have defected to the Free Egyptians Party, which has participating in the For the Love of Egypt list. In many respects the so-called revolutionary parties appear to be collapsing as apathy and despair gut them of active volunteers, and many party leaders have limited confidence in their parties’ ability to compete in the current climate.
The heavy-handed manner with which the state has confronted political activists has damaged the morale of politically active citizens and intimidated many. Since Morsi’s overthrow in the summer of 2013 an estimated 41,000 political prisoners have been detained. Even permitted protests have faced police intimidation and attempts to prevent protestors from reaching the protest site. Oppositional political activity takes place in an environment of widespread repression with all the chilling consequences.
Another challenge that damages the credibility of Egypt’s political landscape is the quality of the media and its willingness to air criticism of the state. With few exceptions, the overall tenor of Egypt’s media outlets is overwhelmingly pro-government. Just last year the heads of many of the country’s most prominent newspapers promised to refrain from criticizing a number of state institutions. As they put it, “We assert our commitment to freedom of speech … but we reiterate our rejection of attempts to doubt state institutions or insult the army or police or judiciary in a way that would reflect negatively on these institutions’ performance.” Without access to quality and critical reporting, voters are left without vital information essential to choosing who to best represent them and which issues Egypt’s next parliament should tackle.
Finally, in spite of is the unlikeliness of serious opposition from the new legislature, Sisi is already expressing concerns that the parliament has too many powers and that the constitution, whose writing he effectively orchestrated, is likely going to need to be amended to expand his already substantial powers as president of Egypt. Under Mubarak, parliaments in Egypt served as a rubber stamp for the presidency and, given the situation in Egypt today, it is unlikely the coming house will be much different. Sisi’s threat to amend the constitution before the parliament has even been elected, much less seated, sends a chilling message to Egypt’s future legislators. In effect, he is telling them to know their place and know their limits. There is little doubt that if the parliament achieves the seemingly impossible and manages to organize itself into an effective body of oversight vis-à-vis the president, Sisi will move to weaken it.
An electoral law written to produce a fractured parliament, the regime-oriented nature of the leading party list, rampant political repression, and a media unwilling or unable to function as a critical observer of the state combine to give little reason to hopethat the next parliament will contribute to Egypt’s political progress. The president’s preemptive belittling of the constitutional checks on his power only exacerbates observers’ concerns. Egypt need not stuff ballot boxes to rig an election. There are many more sophisticated methods for achieving such a goal, and the regime has spent decades developing them.