Thursday, November 25, 2010

Egypt: Egypt’s Elections -Devil in the Details

Waiting for change in Cairo.
International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

Elections for Egypt’s lower house of parliament will be held on 28 November, with a run-off on 5 December. Although there is no great suspense about the outcome, the elections will show whether political space is shrinking, ahead of a historic presidential transition.

By Issandr El Amrani for ISN Insights

Egypt has held parliamentary elections since 1824, and even though it has never been a democracy and political parties were banned between 1952 and 1977, elections are hotly contested. Candidates most often vie for the prestige and wealth-making opportunities that a seat at the People's Assembly represents rather than running on a particular platform.

Most eligible voters have stayed away in recent years, with turnout in the last election in 2005 only around 25 percent. One reason is that the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) always wins - even if technically it has not won a majority in the last two elections. Most of its deputies ran as independents against the party's official candidate, only to "rejoin" the party after the poll. Nonetheless, these elections are not just a façade for a political system that, despite talk of reform, remains deeply set in its authoritarian ways. They can point to change further down the road.

A quota for women

The 2010 People's Assembly elections will be a mixture of the old and new. The basic principles of the electoral system remain unchanged, with a uninominal, constituency-based system in which candidates must win at least 50 percent of the vote to be elected. This type of election has taken place in Egypt since the 1990s, after a brief experiment with proportional representation in the 1980s. But a proportional component has been introduced by the presidentially decreed creation of 64 women-only seats, elected by a list system. This brings the total number of seats of the next parliament to the highest level in Egyptian history: 518, including 444 directly elected (two seats in 222 constituencies), 64 women and 10 presidential appointees.

The new quota system seeks to remedy the entrenched social bias against women (and minorities) that was previously addressed by the direct presidential appointment of 10 seats to women and Christians. The quota is meant to be temporary, but has already earned the ire of some as unconstitutional , since - in the words of officials - it introduces "positive discrimination" for women. It has, however, been cautiously welcomed by Egypt's western allies as a means of ensuring greater representation for women, even if in practice it may also reinforce the NDP's control over political life, since most of the elected women are expected to come from the NDP's list.

New system, old methods

The system is also new in that it introduces a controversial new method of supervision. In 2007, the NDP passed - against an outcry by the entire opposition and many activists - 34 constitutional amendments overhauling many aspects of the constitution. The most important one for parliamentary elections involved scrapping a system of judicial supervision of elections that, while quite rare globally, had served as a minimal guarantor against fraud in Egypt since the 1920s. Instead of judges actually supervising votes at polling stations, a system which meant that previous elections had to be held over three stages to allow the limited number of judges to monitor the entire country, an electoral authority tasked with supervising polls has been created.

These elections will present the first real test for the Supreme Electoral Council (SEC), a body that did not distinguish itself in the heavily fraudulent 2008 election of the Shura Council, the much less important upper house of parliament. The SEC will also for the first time regulate the length of the electoral campaign, and has already made some controversial decisions . For instance, it has restricted the use of religious slogans - a move clearly aimed at the Muslim Brothers' "Islam is the solution" slogan - and decreed that only one judicial figure will monitor the elections in each governorate.

The opposition: divided, weak and calculating

The elections will take place in a climate of skepticism, with the opposition seeing the constitutional amendments of 2007 as a sign that elections, already the scene of frequent fraud and security interference, would become more stage managed. A major difference to 2005, however, is that Egypt now has a more diverse opposition scene, broadly divided between the Muslim Brotherhood (the largest opposition force, although it is not a legally recognized party), secular opposition parties running across the political spectrum, and non-party opposition movements such as Kifaya or the National Association for Change headed by Mohamed El-Baradei, the former director of the IAEA and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Although the opposition agrees on the need for democratic reform and an end to security interference in politics, notably elections, a common strategy is missing. El-Baradei's call for a boycott of the elections has gone unheeded by the Muslim Brothers and the largest political parties (the liberal Wafd, leftist Taggamu and the Nasserists), who have an interest in being present in parliament, no matter how flawed the process of getting there. Although a minority has voiced sympathy for El-Baradei's boycott, they reason that a presence in parliament boosts the opposition parties' visibility. Moreover, the Muslim Brothers believe that the legal opposition parties may have cut a deal with the regime to increase their representation in parliament at their expense. The next parliament may therefore have a different, if artificial, composition.

The outgoing People's Assembly of 2005, with around 88 seats, or 20 percent, belonging to the Muslim Brothers, is likely to remain an anomaly. Government officials have hinted that a repeat of the Brotherhood's 2005 victory in the polls will not betolerated, and in the run-up to the election over 361 supporters of the group have been arrested - hindering campaigning efforts.

Most analysts estimate that the Brothers will only win 20-30 seats in the elections, but their leadership believes that a presence in the People's Assembly - with the opportunity it affords to publicly embarrass the regime - is an asset worth keeping. The strength of the Brothers' push will likely determine the level of violence and fraud at the polling stations, as seen in 2005 in the second and third round of voting after a surge for the Brothers was predicted.

The elephant in the room

One incentive for the opposition to participate is to secure a seat at the table of formal politics ahead of a historic presidential transition. The regime may desire as tame a parliament as possible during this transition, and seats at the People's Assembly will afford parties and individuals some room for negotiation during this delicate time. Few Egyptians expect a sudden shift to democracy once President Hosni Mubarak leaves the scene, but the presence of strong opposition voices inside and outside formal structures like parliament, even if limited, could influence the direction of the new regime and force it to take into account the growing number of voices seeking real change.

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based independent journalist and consultant. He blogs at