Understanding Egypt’s Elections

Egypt’s first free elections in over thirty years did not err on the side of simplicity. Even so, this did not deter massive national participation and excitement, as 54% of the nation lined up for hours on the street to cast their ballot. Many, however, admitted to having little knowledge about the political process, enabling accusations of fraud and voter manipulation. In this they mirrored many casual Western observers who valued the accomplishment of the elections, but were confused by the mind-boggling complications.

The results were simple: Islamists won a major victory, securing around 70% of the seats. The tale of this victory, and what it means for Egypt, is the subject of this recap.

The Set-Up

Egyptian elections for the People’s Assembly were conducted in three stages over a period of nearly two months. Each of Egypt’s 27 governorates was then subdivided into electoral districts, according to population. Two-thirds of the seats were awarded by proportional representation according to votes cast for their party. The remaining third was chosen by individual ballot for the candidate alone. Of the total representatives chosen, fully one-half were required to be workers or farmers. Together, the People’s Assembly consists of 508 seats, 10 of which were appointed by the military council.

Confused? Naturally. The process did not result from consensus planning or a democratic heritage. Instead it was cut and pasted from a mishmash of Egyptian history through pressure and compromise between political parties and the military council.

The 50-50 division between workers/farmers and professional seats is a holdover from President Nasser. He stipulated a place for the common man in the People’s Assembly in accordance with his Arab nationalist and socialist policies, but in reality the designation was little more than an administrative token. The military council represents a continuation of his legacy, and insisted on keeping the division. Political parties did not raise significant objection.

There was loud protest, however, over the electoral system. The party list format groups candidates together under broad alliances. Citizens then cast one vote for their party of preference, which is awarded seats per district according to the total percentage won. If a district, for example, represents ten seats, every party must field ten candidates. Should the party capture 60% of the vote, its top six candidates would claim seats.

This was the system Egypt utilized for elections in the 1980s, before switching to an individual candidacy format more akin to politics in the United States. The winner was the first to capture 50%+1 of the ballots cast, requiring a run-off for the top two candidates, if necessary. Intentional or not, this allowed for simpler vote-rigging and intimidation of voters, allowing the National Democratic Party to win a sweeping (fraudulent) victory in 2010.

Fearful the remnants of the NDP would claim victory after the revolution through similar methods, political parties argued to return to a party list system. Through subsequent pressure on the military council the percentage of such party list candidates moved from one-third, to one-half, and finally to two-thirds. The military council refused to abandon individual candidacy altogether, leading to fears it would promote old regime fortunes in the election process.

These fears were also buttressed by their refusal to allow international observation of the elections. Instead the military council decreed the nation’s judges would supervise legitimacy, but this created a problem of logistics. In order to guarantee a judge at every ballot box, the elections were divided into three stages. Stage one took place in the governorates of Cairo, Alexandria, and others, while stages two and three mixed between the governorates of the Delta and Upper Egypt.

In the end, the military council did allow limited international observation. Former US President Jimmy Carter was prominently involved through his Carter Center, with its longstanding work in democracy promotion. While noting irregularities, he ultimately judged the elections ‘acceptable’.

The Parties

The military council further placated popular demand and issued a law to bar former members of the NDP from participating in elections. Though this law was struck down by the court, it proved to be unnecessary. A number of old regime parties acquired legal registration and ran in elections, but altogether secured only 3.5% of the seats.

The true competition centered on five parties/alliances, though initial efforts sought to maintain one national effort to unite all political forces. This hope quickly degenerated into a liberal-Islamist divide, as fears rose some wished to craft Egypt into a religious state.

Soon greater divisions emerged on both sides. The broad Democratic Alliance was led by the Freedom and Justice Party of the Muslim Brotherhood. It tried to position itself a religious but centrist force, keeping an alliance with the historically liberal Wafd Party. It faltered, however, as conservative Salafi Muslims split to form their own alliance, under the banner of the newly created Nour Party. Eventually, the Wafd also decided it could not align with the Muslim Brotherhood in good faith, and decided to go it alone.

On the liberal side, political parties from both the right and left of the economic spectrum formed the Egyptian Bloc, dedicated to the civil state. Yet the young revolutionaries felt marginalized, and split to form a left-leaning activist alliance named The Revolution Continues. A major factor in the dissolution of all alliances was the placement of candidates on the party list and assignment to favorable individual districts. The interests of party outweighed formation of a common front.

The Results

In the end this hurt the liberal far more than the Islamists, if indeed it was a factor at all. The Democratic Alliance headed by the FJP did slightly better than anticipated, winning 45% of the seats. The surprise of elections was the showing of the Islamist Bloc headed by the Salafi Nour Party. Assumed to be marginal and full of political novices, they captured a solid 25% of the People’s Assembly.

The liberal Egyptian Bloc fared decently in the first stage of elections due to concentrations of upper class and intellectual pockets in the big cities. Their appeal failed to materialize in the rest of the country, however, in the end receiving only 7% of the seats. The Wafd Party captured a slightly higher number, as their name recognition echoed through the rest of the nation winning the allegiance of most non-Islamist-inclined voters. Despite the popular appeal of the revolution, however, the Revolution Continues Alliance faltered miserably, winning only 2% of parliamentary representation.

The Stakes

Though the powers of the People’s Assembly remain undetermined, the military council has bequeathed it full legislative authority. This raises significant questions for the coming period. Will the Islamist forces align to move Egypt in the direction of a religious state? Will liberal forces find common ground with the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP to marginalize the Salafis? Will the FJP evolve into a new NDP with the blessing of the military council, to revive the former regime? Or, will they gradually continue the revolution in effort to send the military council back to their barracks?

Not much is clear except the existence of a popularly elected legislative body. This in itself is an achievement of the revolution.

note: This article is a bit dated but has been held until publication in the Maadi Messenger, a monthly magazine for the expatriate community in Cairo.

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