While all eyes were on Egypt’s nearly preordained presidential elections, Adly Mansour, in his final days as interim president, quietly passed seminal legislation regarding the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
The outcome for parliament is still uncertain, so it behooves observers and political organizers to pay close attention to recent changes.
Organizers should strategize ways to harness any resistance that might defy Egypt’s burgeoning authoritarianism.
Since parliament’s election date has not yet been publicized, opposition parties still have time to mobilize if they want to keep parliament from becoming a single-party system of old regime players.
What Does the New Law Do?
With Mansour’s blessing, the Higher Elections Committee set the total number of seats in the new parliament to 567, up from the 508 of the 2012 parliament.
According to the law, about 75 percent of the seats (420) will be reserved for individual candidates. Meanwhile, only 20 percent (120) will be reserved for “absolute party lists”–meaning that a party must win 50 percent or more of the vote in a district to gain a seat, a difficult task to actualize for smaller parties with less visibility and organizational muscle. Additionally, 5 percent of the seats (27) will be appointed by the president.
This approach differs from the mixed-system of the brief 2011-2012 parliament, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had two-thirds of seats reserved for proportionally representative party lists, one-third reserved for individual candidates, and 10 seats appointed by the military council.
These changes present a challenge—and perhaps an opportunity for opposition coalition-building—to activists and pro-democracy forces who seek to work toward a more-inclusive, less-authoritarian parliament.
The Need for Mixed Voting
Some opposition groups have criticized the resurrected winner-takes-all format—even threatening to boycott the election—and for good reason.
A system dominated by independents would benefit individuals who have the wealth and social capital needed to run on their own.
This approach would also replicate Mubarak-era politics by opening the way for members of the old-guard National Democratic Party (NDP) to unabashedly contest elections and dominate parliament by tapping into their pre-existing networks.
While the law makes attempts to be pseudo-inclusive of minorities through shamefully low tokenizing quotas, an individual-candidate driven system suffocates an already marginalized, fledgling opposition. Further, it provides them little space to organize, contest, and win seats through their collective bases while developing their politics and becoming more accountable to their constituents.
Instead of incentivizing parties to build their political platforms and engage in vibrant debate with one another, the law gives an upper hand to candidates who can rely on patronage networks and local recognition, rather than appealing to voters through concrete policies that can be compared across parties and monitored over time.
Moving toward such a system is part of a larger effort to co-opt and quash an extremely fragmented opposition by encouraging parties to orient themselves around identity politics (of sectarian and geographic tendencies) and local issues (that ought to be reserved for provincial body elections).
In such a system, entrenched candidates are able to spend their resources consolidating power, rather than tending to pressing, national political and economic matters.
If Egypt’s political parties want a more inclusive and competitive parliament they should pressure the Higher Election Committee to amend the elections law to allow for a mixed electoral system instead—one with more room for party lists and proportional representation.
Time to Heal Some Wounds
Elections on their own cannot be viewed as a cure-all for a country’s autocratic woes.
But a look at historical cases of parliamentary elections following military disruptions shows that (re)introducing electoral politics gradually is a helpful strategy in allowing time for widespread reflection on the flawed process that led up to the intervention.
Time may help diminish the often pervasive polarization leading up to and during the post-coup period.
In fact, while researching a number of case studies of post-coup elections, I discovered that countries that delayed their parliamentary elections by three to five years after a military intervention—as opposed to holding them right away—generally had better democratic outcomes in the long-term.
Rather, there needs to be a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective that allows for factional tensions to de-escalate, political parties to regroup, refine, and organize themselves, and for overhauling reforms to take root in order to move the country out of deadlock.
Competitive Elections Through Inclusion
Egypt is polarized. Badly.
For elections to bring about any modest stride toward national reconciliation requires buy-in across the political spectrum. This can only happen if there is a broad range of opposition forces participating in elections, so as to drive up voter turnout and better legitimize the electoral process.
How competitive and inclusive these elections are of various opposition forces carries great implications for the country’s transition.
History can teach us here. The countries that typically fare better when holding parliamentary elections after military coups are ones that are consistent in their inclusion (or exclusion) of various political parties.
Those that exclude parties selectively, especially by excluding only the main opposition and previous incumbent, fare the worst.
In contrast, those that exclude groups consistently—by excluding all of them or excluding the multiple opposing parties who were heavily involved in pre-coup politics—don’t do as badly.
Take Algeria as an example. What proved to be particularly injurious to its 1995 post-coup election was that it singled-out the FIS (the main opposition and previously elected incumbent) by outlawing it indefinitely.
Election organizers did not set a timeline, or suggest that this ban was temporary due to emergency circumstances (as with the case of Pakistan, which held a partyless election after its coup), or that it had more to do with specific leaders across parties being held accountable (as with Turkey, which arrested *all *major political players from its previous pre-coup government).
Rather, Algerian election officials made the misstep of pushing selectively for collective punishment and indefinite exclusion.
For Egypt to gain confidence in its questionable electoral process, the same standards and scrutiny must apply to all parties in the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections.
Those championing more democratic outcomes would do well to advocate that Islamist, leftists, and any other opposition parties under systematic repression be allowed to run, even if they disagree with their politics and, in the case of the Brotherhood, even if they vehemently opposed their short-lived mismanaged tenure.
Here’s to mobilizing for more competitive elections—or at least ones where no one gets 97 percent of the vote.