Note: This is an archived project; no significant changes have been made since parliament was seated in January 2016.
Will the Upcoming Parliament Restore Democracy to Egypt?
Authoritarian regimes generally believe that a number of cosmetic procedures can provide the necessary cover for their alleged democracy. Foremost among these procedures is elections which, although crucial to the democratic process, can be completely undermined by the context in which they are held.
The Egyptian regime is holding parliamentary elections after two years of deliberate delays since the removal of former President Muhammad Morsi and the minister of defense’s rise to the presidency. To understand what has happened to the Egyptian democratic transition, it is important to compare earlier parliamentary elections with the current one.
The differences between the present contest and the first election after the January 25 Revolution could not be more stark. After decades of repression, Egyptians felt fearless in 2011, reveling in their newfound freedom. With that came a feeling of the importance of both voting and running in the first post-revolution parliamentary elections. The elections saw hundreds of individual nominees in each electoral circuit, and electoral lists from the far left to the far right and everything in between, reflecting the vast diversity of Egyptians and their political thought.
There was also unprecedented, if tenuous, freedom of the press, invigorating the electorate and especially the youth. The elections saw no administrative or security interference, and the regime at the time—the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces—maintained its neutrality, if only out of concern for popular protest should the elections be manipulated. This also led the security apparatus to help carry out the elections rather than engage in the fraud it was responsible for under former President Hosni Mubarak. The momentum of the revolution encouraged the most transparent, fair elections in Egyptian history to date.
The lines of voters, extending for miles due to the high turnout, trampled the power of capital and tribalism. The 2011 elections saw turnout rates in the tens and hundreds of thousands per circuit, with voter turnout reaching 50% in some governorates, numbers that were not even imaginable during any of the cosmetic elections held during Mubarak’s 30 years in power. Even though the Islamists received the majority of votes, these votes were fair and true, reflecting the Egyptian electorate’s mood at the time, in light of the events surrounding the elections.
Four years later, the current elections look like they are being held in another country. The scene of revolutionary Egyptians who fought for their right to vote has disappeared. This has given the state the confidence to set up elections according to its interests, with no semblance of real democracy whatsoever. Looking at seven preliminary indicators of the 2015 parliamentary elections and the current electoral scene, it is obvious that the result awaiting Egypt is a distorted parliamentary body.
The Candidates: There are no real opposition candidates. All candidates have announced their support of the current regime, with most stating that they want to create a parliament that would support the president and provide him with full legislative support. Regime-aligned candidates have turned the parliament from an authority tasked with overseeing the regime and holding it accountable to one that merely supports it, thus completing the nationalization of the political scene.
Preparing the Electoral Lists: In this election, we are facing electoral lists prepared in the offices of the security apparatus. This was flaunted openly and carelessly using the myth of protecting national security and the strawman of the Muslim Brotherhood sneaking into the new parliament, a practical impossibility. Many electoral list candidates have complained of security interference on behalf of a particular list led by a former general, clearing the way for that list to dominate.
The Legal Atmosphere: The current election law has been criticized by most political parties, even those who are participating in the elections. It has also been rejected by a large number of legal experts, who have said that it is constitutionally unsound. Therefore, it will be easy for it to be ruled unconstitutional, dismantling the parliament any time the regime wishes. In spite of that, the elections continue, which will result in a parliament beholden to the regime, allowing even more control of the executive branch over the legislative.
The Political Atmosphere and Freedoms: Egypt’s prisons have not been this full of political prisoners since the days of Nasser, with estimates of over 40,000 political prisoners in Egypt today. This goes hand-in-hand with the death of politics in Egypt after July 3, 2013, as well as a widespread war on civil society, clearing the field for regime supporters while maintaining exceptional laws that make Mubarak’s emergency law seem merciful in comparison to the current environment.
Media and McCarthyism: The regime has effectively taken over both the state-run and independent media in Egypt, turning both into mere cheerleading troupes for the regime. The media is also used to deface the opposition, taking on a McCarthyist rhetoric that extends not only to Islamists but to all political currents and individuals who oppose the regime’s policies. The media has divided the Egyptian people into two populations: one that tries to monopolize nationalism, and one whose national identity is questioned due to its opposition to the regime.
The Youth: In the parliamentary elections held right after the 2011 revolution, voter participation rates were at unprecedented levels, thanks in part to youth participation and their sense of national pride and belonging after toppling Mubarak. Today, however, there is a wide disconnect between the regime and Egypt’s youth, who broadly believe that the revolution was stolen from them by a counter-revolution. These youth have seen the counter-revolutionary movement imprison, maim, and even kill many of their friends. In spite of the regime’s attempts to create an alternative, government-friendly body of youth, many of Egypt’s young people believe they are targeted by a regime that is trying to abort their dreams. Only a very small minority of these youth—who, according to official statistics, account for over 20 million potential voters—was expected to participate in the current election, and appear to have been absent from voting thus far. This means that this vast political force, capable of shaping Egyptian politics if organized, remains on the sidelines.
Plans to Change on the Constitution: The regime has already started to signal that it plans to change the current constitution, which was promulgated by many of the same officials just two years ago. Some candidates have picked up on these signals and made their campaign slogan “Let’s Change the Constitution.” These changes would be directed towards increasing the president’s powers and decreasing the powers of parliament.
The above conditions lead to several anticipated results from these elections. Large segments of society and the political spectrum will be excluded from this parliament, and their interests will therefore be ignored. It is possible, then, that politics will return to the street through protests, despite the protest law and the regime’s violence. The new parliament will be lacking in competent members due to many respected candidates refraining from running in this farce of an election. This will result in a failure to create a new cabinet with new policies capable of saving the country from the worsening economic downturn. The new parliament will not be able to rebuild the state’s administrative structure or its old, worn institutions, nor rein in the security apparatus that has shed far too much blood over the past two years. All of this will push true stability farther into the future.
These flawed elections—conducted in an atmosphere of ultra-nationalism and chauvinism that views all opposition to the current regime as dangerous—are choking the hope of reform from within current institutions. The government’s policies and attitude leave open several possibilities for Egypt, none of which leads to prosperity, stability, or a positive global role. In the best case scenario, the regime would have revised the policies that have constricted the public sphere and excluded the opposition. In that scenario, these elections would have been the best opportunity to include everyone in the political process and give the state a new legitimacy. It seems, however, that the government’s priority is excluding the opposition and creating a political sphere that includes only its supporters as it tries to run the country singlehandedly.
The low turnout, which was widely and easily predicted beforehand, tells the regime that it is no longer facing only middle- and upper-class youth. Instead—with worsening economic conditions—the crowds of the dissatisfied continue to swell as the regime’s supporters dwindle. The government will now be up against masses of people who have been failed by peaceful solutions and the political process, and instead lean toward violence directed from abroad and from within. With all this in mind, the situation in Egypt is not promising and, as the Arabic saying goes, the fire still smolders under the ashes.