On Sunday 10 January 2016, Egypt’s new Parliament was sworn in, completing the final phase of the political “Road Map” envisioned by representatives of various Egyptian political currents. This is an important milestone for Egypt, after a period of political turmoil, and one that has been welcomed by the vast majority of Egypt’s international partners.
Before discussing various reactions to the elections and their results, let us lay out a number of facts about the Egyptian electoral process in order to set the record straight.
1- Egypt’s electoral map: Facts and figures
Egypt’s new electoral system combines two different components of majoritarian electoral systems: political parties competing for seats under winner-takes-all party lists (120 seats) and individual candidates competing for seats (448 seats). An additional 28 seats (5% of the total seats in Parliament) are appointed by the President. This sums up to a total of 596 seats.
This new electoral system was put in place under Egypt’s new Constitution, adopted by popular referendum in 2014, and labelled by most commentators as the most liberal in Egypt’s history. This was the first step in Egypt’s political “Road Map”, after mass protests removed the Brotherhood from power on 30 June 2013.
The benefits of combining these two electoral systems are multiple. The individual system ensures that 75% of Members of Parliament (MPs) have the support of at least 50% of the electorate. The party list system, on the other hand, encourages strong party organisation in a country where political parties have been weak and underdeveloped. Simultaneously, under article 244 of Egypt’s Constitution, under the party list component there are seats reserved for women, Christians, farmers and workers, youth (aged 25 to 35 years), persons with disabilities, and expatriates. This provides more opportunities for women and other groups that did not traditionally gain sufficient representation in Egypt’s parliament.
The results of the elections are positive on a number of levels. Almost half the MPs entering parliament under party lists are women. Although women were underrepresented as individual candidates, in total they comprise almost 15 % of Parliament, which is unprecedented in Egypt’s history. At 36 MPs, the number of Christians in Parliament is also unparalleled.
In total, more than 5,400 individual candidates contested the elections. In addition, 44 political parties, mostly joining forces under the banner of 7 electoral lists, competed for the 120 party-list seats. This amounts to an additional 600 party-based candidates, bringing the total number of candidates to over 6,000.
The 7 electoral lists included the “For the Love of Egypt” coalition (comprising ten separate political parties), the “Republican Alliance of Social Forces”, the “Egypt List” (an alliance between the Egyptian Front and Independence Current), the Islamist “Salafist Al-Nour Party” (which did not join any alliance) and the “Democratic Current” led by former Presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi.
2- Political pluralism in Egypt’s new parliament
In spite of the diverse electoral picture clarified above, an article with the title “Egypt Convenes First Parliament in Almost 4 Years” published on 10 January 2016 by the Wall Street Journal inaccurately claimed that political parties formed after the 25 January Revolution either boycotted the elections, or were “trounced” by “coalitions made up of former military and police officials, business leaders and their families”. This statement does not accurately depict the political scene in Egypt and underplays the significance of the recent elections.
Although the “For the Love of Egypt” coalition won with a landslide under the component allocated to party lists (only 25% of the seats), the allegation that opposition parties were unable to contest the elections is blatantly untrue.
As mentioned above, 44 parties participated in the elections, 19 of which succeeded in securing seats in Parliament. All in all, the political parties currently in parliament represent all shades of the political spectrum. For instance, the Islamist Al-Nour won 11 seats, while four leftist parties, namely the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party, El-Tagammu’ (the National Progressive Unionist Party), the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and the Popular Socialist Alliance won 8 seats, forming a leftist bloc with other left-leaning independent MPs. Predictably, the three centre-right parties – all members of the “For the Love of Egypt” alliance – won the largest number of seats, namely the Free Egyptians (65 members), Nation’s Future Party (53 members) and the historic Wafd (33 seats). The new Parliament is therefore more pluralistic than some commentators would have it seem.
With this in mind, the relative success of the “For the Love of Egypt” coalition can be seen in perspective. For any seasoned and objective observer, the coalition’s success can be explained by a number of factors. First and foremost, the coalition is diverse, with no single unified ideology, which has broadened its appeal among a wide sector of the Egyptian public with its varying sub-groups. Second, is the factor known as “organizational success”, or the ability to create support bases in different parts of the country, including in rural areas and in Upper Egypt. Undoubtedly, the inclusion of candidates from popular families and well-known public figures has contributed to this success, but this, in itself, is no reasonable ground for criticism. Just like any other Egyptian citizen, such persons have every right to run for office. Well-established political families play a role in almost every political system, whether in developed countries (such as the US) or developing countries (such as India), if not completely dominating elections and their financing. This critique is a lot less pertinent in Egypt than in the political systems just mentioned, and other well-developed democracies.
Having said that, there is no doubt that all political parties in Egypt must work towards developing their support bases and reaching out to a larger number of Egyptians. This is a gradual process that requires raising awareness and developing the political culture to promote voting based on political programs, platforms and campaigns rather than traditional family or regional considerations.
3- The Ban on the Brotherhood
The article by the Wall Street Journal is misleading on a number of other levels. It criticizes the banning of the “Muslim Brotherhood” and its designation as a terrorist organization, lamenting the fact that it “couldn’t field any candidates”. The German Deutsche Welle, in an article appearing on 10 January with the title “Cairo toes hard line as Egypt’s foreign minister visits Berlin” has claimed that “the government is going after peaceful opposition groups”, criticizing the relevant laws on combating terrorism, and further alleging that “a large swath of the political spectrum is shut out of the discourse”. Both of these comments are clearly misguided.
First, the claim that the Brotherhood is Egypt’s largest opposition force or represents a “large swath” of the political spectrum is patently misleading. It overlooks the reality that the Brotherhood was removed, when millions of Egyptians took the streets to protest their rule, in the 30 June 2013 revolution. In fact, a report released recently by the British Government deemed that the Brotherhood “failed to convince Egyptians of their competence or good intentions”. This is hardly compatible with the illusion some media sources would like to portray of a highly popular Brotherhood with a sizeable following!
Second, let us not forget that the Brotherhood ban in Egypt is not arbitrary; it has been enforced through a judicial process and clear, objective criteria. This should not come as a surprise; due to its terrorist activities, the Brotherhood has been similarly banned in Iraq, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates. In fact, the same above-mentioned British Government report concluded that the Brotherhood promotes and incites violence, that membership in the Brotherhood is an indicator of extremism and that “both as an ideology and as a network [the Brotherhood] has been a rite of passage for some individuals and groups who have gone on to engage in violence and terrorism”. It is inconceivable, given these established facts, for any government to allow such a criminal organization to participate in its political system. This would be akin to requiring European democracies such as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Germany to reinstate banned right wing, fascist political parties connected to hatred and violence. It begs a broader question regarding whether democracy is compatible with anti-democratic political parties.
Third, just as the ban on the Brotherhood in Egypt is not arbitrary, similarly, it is not indiscriminate. It does not extend to those who are not implicated in terrorist or criminal activities. Islamists have been free to contest the elections just like any other force, and it has been estimated that there were, in fact, about 350 candidates with Islamist affiliations participating in the individual candidates component. This is in addition to the above-mentioned Al-Nour party, which ran under the party-lists. Egyptian citizens were free to choose any of these candidates, if they so wished.
4- Low voter turnout
Voting in Egypt does not require registration; all eligible citizens may cast their vote, which means the size of the electorate is 55 million eligible voters. About 28 % participated in the recent parliamentary elections, with the highest turnout in South Sinai at 41.6% and the lowest in Suez at 18.1%.
Both articles by Wall Street Journal and Deutsche Welle criticised what they claimed was a “lacklustre” and “low” voter turnout, respectively. Admittedly, voter turnout in the recent parliamentary elections has indeed between lower than other polls conducted in Egypt over the past four years. However, this cannot be considered “low” voter turnout, without examining the particular context.
First, voter turnout statistics are often misleading. While some countries calculate voter turnout as the percentage of actual voters compared to the registered voters, others like Egypt, compare actual voters to the entire voting age population. For example, only about 65% of the voting age population in the US is registered to vote. When adjusted to reflect turnout as a percentage of voting age population, voter turnout at the 2014 US Congressional elections was around 33%, which is not much higher than in Egypt’s 2015 Parliamentary elections.
Second, the 55 million eligible voters in Egypt include 11 million voters who work or live impermanently outside their governorate or region of official residence. In order for them to vote, they must travel long distances at a high cost to reach their designated electoral districts. This negatively impacts their ability to vote. Also, members of the armed forces and police forces cannot vote.
Third, lower voter turnout in Egypt’s case can be explained by “voter fatigue”. Egyptian citizens were called on to participate in eight polls over a period of four years, some involving more than one round of elections. In addition, the electoral structure is new, unfamiliar and relatively complex, while political parties are still underdeveloped and the candidates’ platforms and programs not sufficiently clear. Many voters did not know the candidates running in their districts.
Finally, the most recent election should not be compared to the ones before it, as the polarization that characterized previous elections in Egypt was clearly absent.
5- Parliament’s powers under the 2014 Constitution
The 2014 Constitution gives Egypt’s parliament unprecedented, extensive and far-reaching powers. For example, for the first time in Egypt’s history, Parliament has a vote of confidence over the government. It has the power to reshuffle the cabinet, dismiss the Prime Minister, and withdraw its confidence. If it disapproves of the President’s choice of government, it may form a new one. According to article 161 of the Constitution, it can also withdraw confidence from the President and call for early presidential elections. This is to guarantee that there will never be a repeat of the events of 2012/2013, in which an illegitimate and unpopular president can impose himself over the people’s will. Finally, Parliament has the power to impose a state of emergency and to declare war, and the conditions and procedures for doing so are stricter than under previous constitutions.
These are important gains made by the Egyptian people after the two revolutions of 25 January and 30 June. Under article 226, the Constitution can only be amended under stringent conditions and after amendments are put to a public referendum. In other words, the Constitution is sufficiently entrenched to guarantee that it will always reflect the will of the majority of Egypt’s citizens.
To conclude, Egypt has finally elected and convened its legislature after several years of turmoil, through a transparent, free and fair electoral process, thereby completing the final phase of its political transition. This demonstrates to the world that Egypt is on the right track, building and consolidating its democratic institutions and moving towards increased political stability.
Undoubtedly, the process is long and filled with challenges. Both voters and political parties still need to learn the intricacies of the new electoral structure. This is a gradual process and will improve with time, as the political culture develops and as voters and candidates begin to learn from their own experiences in previous elections.
The above-mentioned articles by Wall Street Journal and Deutsche Welle indicate that some Western media sources insist on continuing the trend of undermining any positive developments in Egypt. If anything, the past four years have shown that the Egyptian people are more than capable of choosing their own political leadership and the political path they want to pursue. Egyptians do not need to be told that their choices are wrong or that they should have voted for one particular political current rather than another. Assuming they are immature, uninformed and incapable of choosing their own representatives is patronizing and bigoted.
Much of the criticism targeting the elections is therefore baseless and unfounded, lacking in objectivity and any depth in understanding Egypt’s political climate. Transitions are always complex; understanding them requires more than prejudiced analyses and simplistic assumptions. Egypt’s Parliamentary elections are a significant and real achievement that we hope to continue to build upon in the future. While Egypt is fighting a significant terrorist threat on behalf of the region and the world, we hope that our steady steps to strengthen our democratic infrastructure will be assessed in the positive light that they undoubtedly deserve.