Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Interest and Intrigue in Egypt’s Parliamentary Elections

by Guest Blogger for Steven A. Cook
October 21, 2015

A man casts his vote during the first phase of the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Giza governorate (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters). A man casts his vote during the first phase of the parliamentary elections at a polling station in Giza governorate (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters).


H. A. Hellyer contributed this guest post on the recent Egyptian parliamentary elections. I hope you find it interesting.

Egyptians voted this week for the eighth time in four years—ten if you count runoffs. The most blatant characteristic this time appears to be rather unedifying: An abundant lack of interest in the formal exercise of the democratic process. Unlike the enthusiasm of the last parliamentary elections in 2011, generalized apathy marked this round of voting. Yet there are some issues of intrigue to be drawn out and looked at further.

Nathan Brown, in a characteristically well-argued piece in the Washington Post, argues that “Egypt’s parliament may be born broken,” a result of “a combination of ad hoc decision-making, historical inertia and absent-mindedness”. There is little to dispute in that regard. I would emphasize that the policies of the current political dispensation in Cairo over the past two years have contributed tremendously to a background environment that makes it difficult to expect anything but a lackluster and fragmented parliament. Beyond indirect methods, very specific measures exist as well, which Brown goes into in considerable detail, particularly when it comes to the Egyptian “war on terror” that has allowed for a great amount of repression in an astonishing amount of time, which different human rights organizations like the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies have examined in a great detail. Beyond that, there are a few items that might be queried further.

The first relates to the turnout, which unofficial reports suggest to be 20 to 25 percent, but could actually be much lower. It is clearly not expected to be particularly high. In 2011 the overall turnout was 54 percent—at that time the envy of many a parliamentary vote in many different countries. The vote was not entirely built on democratic rules in that a lot of bribery and unethical campaigning practices were widely reported, but it was a competitive and open process.

In 2015 few expected the turnout to reach even half of that amount; rather, it is heading toward closer to a third of that of the 2011 turnout, or less. In the 2014 presidential elections authorities panicked when voter turnout was low, first denying what was happening before undertaking a massive effort to increase participation, including the addition of a third day to vote. Yet in the current elections, authorities were seemingly content to allow that kind of low turnout. Why? Surely low turnout tarnishes the Egyptian leadership’s effort to portray the country as firmly on the path of democracy after the suspension of the democratic process in 2013. The presidency encouraged people to vote in a televised message the day before voting was to start, but he could hardly be expected to do otherwise. State media and pro-state media outlets encouraged people to vote, but the way in which the pleas went, it seems the outlets were more interested in backing the road map imposed by the military in 2013 rather than voting for a more developed democratic dispensation per se.

Those outlets weren’t alone in that regard. The electoral law implemented by the executive, which privileges independent candidates as opposed to benefiting party lists, does not encourage the strengthening of political parties as institutions in the country. Rather, it emboldens the preponderance of the following forces, which will often overlap: Proponents of big business interests; representatives of the same rural and urban networks that underpinned Mubarak’s National Democratic Party; and hard-core (as opposed to less staunch) supporters of the current presidency of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Those are hardly likely to push forward reform agendas, but their victories would simply mean a parliament is in place and the road map has generally been completed. Given that backdrop, it is perhaps unsurprising that Cairo thus far has not exhibited the same signs of panic over a low turnout as it did over previous polls in 2014, such as extending voting by a day.

Does the low turnout not bring the parliamentary vote into disrepute and then challenge the legitimacy of the political dispensation in Cairo today? That would appear to be dubious. Internationally, Cairo’s legitimacy is not simply a de facto fait accompli. Cairo has succeeded in becoming accepted thoroughly on the international stage. Sisi has spoken at the United Nations twice; Egypt now has a nonpermanent seat at the United Nations Security Council; and European leaders have visited Egypt, just as Sisi has gone to several European capitals (and is due to visit London in November). Cairo’s political legitimacy is not an issue with which it seems concerned, whether internationally or domestically. Cairo’s rather abysmal human rights record notwithstanding, Egypt is not a pariah state, but has seen the international community accept it. It does not need a big turnout in parliamentary elections to push forward on that score.

On the contrary, there is the argument that a low turnout actually works to Cairo’s interest. Obviously, in any healthy democracy, turnout ought to be high in order to establish a level of popular legitimacy for any representative body that should be able to challenge and hold to account the executive. Egypt is not a healthy democracy, however, and the presidency has indicated on a number of occasions that it views parliament as potentially possessing powers that it ought not to be exercised, especially in a time of “crisis,” such as the current “war on terror.” A low turnout may actually allow Egyptian officials to argue that the public is far more supportive of their president than parliament, lending greater legitimacy to the executive’s exercise of often-arbitrary powers. The level of fragmentation that is likely to ensue in parliament will certainly lend credence to that argument.

There is another aspect to be considered about this parliamentary election and that is the not-so-wild-card of the Salafist Nour Party. In 2011, it managed to acquire 30 percent of the parliamentary seats, successfully converting the social capital it had built up in Egypt over decades into political capital for the elections. Few expect that sort of dazzling outcome to be repeated. First, apathy will affect Nour Party supporters as much as it will anyone else. Second, many of those who previously supported the Nour Party will undoubtedly have drifted away after general disappointment with its record in the short-lived 2012 parliament and in politics over the last few years. Third, the Salafi base that the Nour Party appeals to is split between those who back the presidency and the executive more generally and those who are sympathetic to or support the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi and his reinstatement to the presidency. All this said, it is difficult to assess the overall support base for the Nour Party. The electoral legal dynamics do not quite allow for that. Back in early 2011 the base for Salafi political support was around 5 percent, according to Gallup polls and was converted to a voting base of 30 percent by the end of the year. It was difficult to ascertain who was voting for Nour in 2011; it is now even more difficult to drill deep down to determine precisely who their supporters are.

Beyond the Nour Party, what is to become of the smaller, more leftist, relatively more liberal (though not quite, and Amr Hamzawy’s project at Stanford promises to look at the illiberalism of most Egyptian non-Islamist forces) parties, such as the Egyptian Social Democrat Party (ESDP) and the Constitution Party? The latter has essentially imploded, and many of their members have departed for the former. The ESDP ran their candidates as independents, but their financial backing, compared to parties like the Free Egyptians Party, for example, is paltry. Privately, the ESDP expects single digit success in terms of seats. If they manage to get at least four or five seats they will be insignificant in terms of the parliament itself, but they will be able to build upon that in terms of developing the institution of the ESDP for the medium to the long term. If they do not, it could be an even rockier ride going forward.

Finally, what, if anything, is this parliament going to object to when it comes to the executive? There is little reason to believe that the legislature can be a genuine check or balance. When it comes to security sector reform, human rights issues, political improvements, judicial restructuring, and social justice none of these are likely to become an issue for the political forces in this parliament, and the presidency has few, if any, worries. The exception relates to the economic and financial files. On those issues there is a limited potential for the parliament to make its collective voice heard, if only as a nuisance, owing to the preponderance of big business interests in parliament. Even then, however, such objections will be unlikely to relate to social justice issues that pertain to economic reforms.

It is not that Egypt’s parliamentary elections are utterly bereft of intrigue. It’s that there is not much to be interested in, particularly when compared to the electoral races of 2011 and 2012.

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